The Poem

“Preludes” is a lyric poem in free verse, divided into four numbered parts of thirteen, ten, fifteen, and sixteen lines. These sections were written at different times during T. S. Eliot’s years of undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard University and in Europe.

The title is appropriate if it suggests a type of short musical composition in an improvisational or free style. Since some of the images in this very early poem anticipate the barren, rubble-filled atmosphere of The Waste Land (1922) and other poems, it could be considered a “prelude” to Eliot’s later works. The title may also be viewed as an ironic one, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” because it creates expectations about the poem’s contents that are not fulfilled. Although the first three sections or preludes move from evening to morning, the fourth returns to the evening hours without suggesting that anything in the poem is a preliminary to a more important or enlightening action or event.

The point of view shifts from an objective description of a city street on a “gusty” winter evening in prelude I to a more emotional first-person response to this scene in the middle of IV. The “you” in preludes I and IV could refer to the reader or to anyone who has walked the city streets. The scene moves from the dirty streets to dingy rooms at the end of II, with the transition introduced by the...

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Forms and Devices

Although the line lengths and meters of “Preludes” are more uniform than those of many of Eliot’s other poems, its forms show him experimenting with irregular and fragmented structures. The first two lines begin in iambic tetrameter, like the “Sweeney” poems and several other early poems, but the third line, with only three syllables, creates an abrupt interruption in the rhythm; there is frequent variation from the eight-syllable iambic line through the rest of the poem.

Rhymes are interspersed irregularly in each prelude. They often link parts of related images, such as “wraps” and “scraps,” or “stamps” and “lamps” in prelude I, or “shutters” and “gutters” in III. Prelude II has the most regular rhyme scheme (abcadefdef), with the three rhymes in the last six lines connecting the two sentences that make up this section and marking the transition from the street to shabby “furnished rooms.”

The syntax of the poem also mixes the regular and the irregular; its structures reinforce the perception that modern life is both fragmented and monotonous. The regular syntax and meter of the first two lines are followed by two fragments emphasizing the time—the end of the day. Next begins the first of many sentences and phrases starting with “and,” several of them fragments, which contribute to the impression that this poem is an accumulation of images with connections and implications that are not...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999.

Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.