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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735

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"Preludes" is a poem divided into four parts, and like musical preludes, they are short. A musical prelude often serves as an introduction for a larger piece, and Eliot's preludes seem to suggest that there is more that comes after and that each tidbit is unfinished—as a life is always unfinished—and therefore unsatisfying.

The poem describes urban scenes through one night and into the next day, depicting them in somber, listless, stagnant, and sickly tones. Eliot uses images of dark and broken things to further emphasize the tone and mood of the poem, as in the first stanza, when he mentions the "burnt-out ends of smoky days" and "grimy scraps / Of withered leaves . . . / And newspapers from vacant lots." Words like "burnt-out," "grimy," and "withered" suggest disrepair and disease, and "scraps" and "vacant lots" suggest abandonment and brokenness, as do the "broken blinds" struck by the rain.

Weariness is everywhere in this poem as well. The morning, for example, is personified as it "comes to consciousness." It doesn't wake, it doesn't dawn, it doesn't rise . . . it simply "comes to consciousness." It fades in, as if involuntarily. It drags. It, too, is subject to the dejected aspect of the city. Evening, in contrast, "settles down." It gets comfortable and is ready to lay down to sleep. Sleep, however, is denied the woman in the second stanza, who lies awake, alone in thought, all night long.

There is also a feeling of loneliness throughout the poem, from the "lonely cab horse" in the first section to the image of the unnamed "you." "You" could also be a specific person who, when morning comes, sits on the edge of her bed and "clasp[s] the yellow soles of feet / In the palms of both soiled hands"—but "you" can also be the reader. Here we see more instances of diseased things with "yellow" feet and "soiled" hands, neither quality being a sign of health. Perhaps this means that loneliness is a disease, or perhaps these diseased things simply deepen the imagery of urban decay.

Loneliness is further emphasized by images of monotony, of the weight of mundane little ritualistic actions that make up a daily routine. Take the lines "all the hands / That are raising dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms," for example. This is just one instance of metonymy, or the use of a part of something to symbolize the whole—in this case, hands that represent the lonely, bored people raising the shades every morning all across the city.

Other examples of metonymy include "short square fingers stuffing pipes," and "eyes / Assured of certain certainties." There are also several instances of feet moving about instead of the people they are attached to. This device further emphasizes the depersonalization of the city-dwellers, as well as continues the "brokenness" motif—not only are leaves and blinds broken, but also the people themselves.

These people's lives are "masquerades," simply putting on a daily act, pretending there is a purpose beyond routine survival. The man mentioned in section three finds

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock

His soul is stretched out—"stretched to its limit," perhaps—its burden of life is hard to carry. It is further "trampled by insistent feet" not just once, but over and over again—another image indicating that the movement of life, its unceasing character, is too much to bear. Yet at the very end of the poem, Eliot tells us to

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

This can be interpreted as a fatalistic conclusion: despite the harshness of the urban landscape he has just described, despite the loneliness and dreariness and monotony of life (again represented by the "ancient women" who "revolve" as they go about their thankless work simply to keep warm), each person is, in a sense, a "world," a planet all their own—individual, and stuck in this life. So clean up your mouth and laugh, he says.

In a certain sense, the city in "Preludes" is a character itself, a superorganism made up of all the lonely people with their "muddy feet that press / To early coffee-stands." The city, through those who dwell within it, is the "infinitely suffering thing" Eliot alludes to in the last section.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

“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 formal observation, “One thinks.” A woman in such a room is addressed as “you” in III, which describes her actions and thoughts as she wakes up. Prelude IV contains three separate parts, beginning with a third-person description of a man’s soul in relation to the street scene, followed by a more lyrical, subjective thought expressed in the first person. The closing lines use imperatives and second-person pronouns to direct the listener’s or reader’s responses, as the poem ends with an uncouth gesture, laughter, and a bleak image of “ancient women” in the “vacant lots” that were introduced in prelude I.

With this shifting and uncertain point of view, it is impossible to define a persona speaking in the poem. One catches glimpses of an inner life—of someone’s familiarity with a woman and her thoughts—and discovers some tender feelings in prelude IV. Most of the poem, however, reflects Eliot’s efforts to avoid the subjectivity of nineteenth century Romanticism in favor of a more objective technique using concrete images to create a mood and represent emotions.

The images in “Preludes” are more unified than those in most of Eliot’s other poems because they all come from the city streets and all suggest the tedium and emptiness of modern urban life. Although this urban scene has been associated with St. Louis, Boston, and Paris—all cities Eliot knew as a young man—he selected images that would represent any modern city. One of Eliot’s earliest poems showing his fascination with the squalid life of the slums, “Preludes” also reveals the influence of the French writer Charles-Louis Philippe. Two of his novels of Parisian life supplied images that Eliot adapted in “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” including the details of the woman with sordid thoughts and “soiled hands” rising from bed in prelude III.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

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 always explained logically. Prelude III is one long sentence that contains sequences of parallel clauses beginning with “you” and “and.” These repetitions of ordinary structures create a monotonous effect that emphasizes the tedious routines of daily life as the woman’s morning actions are narrated.

Prelude IV contains the most irregular and confusing syntax. Its first section can be read as a series of noun phrases, but the relationships among them are uncertain. Is the soul, besides being “stretched tight across the skies,” somehow “trampled by insistent feet” as well as by the fingers, newspapers, and eyes in the following phrases? Does “the conscience” refer to the eyes of the previous phrase, or is it also part of the image of “his soul”?

The relationship between these irregular forms and the images they contain shows Eliot’s connections with the English and American Imagist poets in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Imagists used concentrated, concrete images, conveyed in simple and precise language, with no restrictions on the choice of subjects for their poems. As the fragments and the ambiguous syntax of prelude IV demonstrate, they were most concerned with conveying each image directly to the reader as it occurs to the mind. Gertrude Patterson observes that in doing so, the poet “will not take time to ‘translate’ it into the expository prose sentence with the normal grammatical rules of syntax” (T. S. Eliot: Poems in the Making, 1971).

Also influenced by the French Symbolist poets, especially Jules Laforgue, Eliot went beyond Imagism by constructing more elaborate sequences of vivid images that represent intense emotions and moods, demonstrating that physical sensations and thought are inseparable. Throughout “Preludes,” the concrete images from the streets and glimpses of human actions, presented in plain language, become increasingly suggestive of some deeper significance; their associations with abstractions such as consciousness and conscience become more prominent in each prelude. The complex and ironic meanings of the poem are embodied in the connotations and symbolism of these images.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 134

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