How does "Preludes" by T. S. Eliot exemplify modernist poetry?

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Eliot's "Preludes" is modernist in its presentation of a grim and alienating modern landscape, in which humanity and human suffering are stripped of any significance or nobility.

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Even the title of "Preludes" suggests a modernist poem. The idea of a prelude naturally includes the idea that something comes after it. In Eliot's poem, however, four preludes to nothing emphasize the fragmented nature of modernity. The relationship between modernism and modernity has been much discussed, particularly with reference to Eliot's work. A common conclusion of this discussion is that Eliot's poetry expresses modernity but does not approve of it. The precise, hard-edge language shows the squalor of modern life with pitiless clarity, while the allusiveness contrasts it unflatteringly with former ages.

In "Preludes," the scene described is typically seedy and disreputable. Even the natural world is tainted by the contagion of modernity. There is nothing romantic and autumnal about the fallen leaves. They are "grimy scraps," like the newspapers. The morning itself seems to be waking up with a hangover, with "faint stale smells of beer" adding an olfactory element to the dismal atmosphere.

With the final prelude, the fourth section of the poem, Eliot places in the center of all this modern squalor

The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
However, the poem ends with the image of "vacant lots," perhaps the same ones from which the waste paper blew in during the first stanza. Eliot is modernist in his presentation of suffering as an unromantic and peripheral fact. Just as humanity itself has been alienated and pushed to the margins by the modern world, suffering has lost its centrality and nobility and is presented alongside other facts of life.
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T.S. Eliot's "Preludes" is an early example of modernism, having been written before World War I.

Modernism is concerned with the alienation and blight brought on by modern industrial society. It is also an experimental art form that challenges "objective" notions of truth and tries to capture the fragmented nature of consciousness. Modernist poetry and literature also often tells a story from the point of view of the subjective thoughts going through a person's mind. Eliot's poem is modernist in its themes of alienation in modern urban life and in its fragmented, subjective form.

The poem critiques the urban landscape of modernity by using unpleasant images to describe it, such as "burnt-out ends of smoky days," "grimy scraps," and "blackened street." There is also a factory-like quality of sameness in the image of "hands" (hands, rather than people) all

raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms
Alienation is expressed through such images as a "lonely cab-horse" and women "gathering fuel in vacant lots." A soul is "trampled" by "insistent feet" in this cold, dehumanized urban environment.
This is contrasted to a poignant moment in which the speaker tries to get beneath his sordid perception of drab urban reality. He states,
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
In this, he tries to get to a core humanity buried under an alienating modern world.
Eliot also uses modernist writing techniques. The poem is written in free verse and in four fragmented parts that only tangentially connect. This reflects the fragmented world in which the speaker resides and reflects very strongly his subjective view of his environment.
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T.S. Eliot's poem "Preludes" like his "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Waste Land," and works by other modernist authors, does not shrink from the nineteenth0century view that certain subjects were 'unsuitable' for literature. Their literary credo went beyond the orbit of the romantic or pastoral canon and embraced new themes. One of these was the cityscape, toward which Eliot and others had a decidedly pessimistic attitude, composed in part of revulsion and fascination. Thus, Eliot's early poetry is transfixed by the cityscape. Indeed, the arrival of modernism signals the decisive return of western literature to the cityscape, but wearing an almost apocalyptic vesture. There are a number of strands in this. One is alienation. No longer is the individual woven into a web of benefical mutuality. Instead, he or she is lost in the teeming masses of the city. The cityscape of Eliot's early poems continually reinforces this social decay, an image repeated in the character of the woman in Preludes, whose inner self has been corrupted by her sordid life in the city slums:

The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
(Preludes ll.26-28)

Atomized humanity caught up in the monotony of city life Eliot further reinforces by the technique of 'disembodied body parts':

One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
(Preludes, ll.21-23)

Eliot conceives of the mass of city-dwellers as uncaring, an indifferent multitude, a kind of human herd:

Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
(Preludes, ll.41-47)

Another strand is disgust with the dirt, decay, and desolation of the city. To reveal this Eliot developed a technique of realism, one that appealed in a rapidfire way to the senses, where the elements of the city themselves constitute the poetry:

The burnt out ends of smoky days [smell/taste]
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet [touch]
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat [sound]
On broken blinds and chimney-pots [sight]
(Preludes, ll.4-10)

Still another strand can be described as apocalyptic or visionary. Here a character catches a glimpse of another reality beyond the miasmic environment of the city:

And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
('Preludes' ll.31-34)

Eliot and other post-war newcomers to the literary world fashioned a revolutionary diction, where mingled a distaste for the city with a celebration of it as the true centre of civilization. This literary accomplishment, founded on an urban imagery, is rightly called modernism.

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What are some "modernist" aspects of T. S. Eliot's work titled "Preludes"?

Literary “modernism” can be (and has been) variously defined, and the task of saying what, precisely, makes any particular poem a “modernist” work is very difficult. One way to think of modernism is to consider it as a rejection of much that was associated with the “Romantic” movement in poetry, which modernists often considered sentimental and naïve. T. S. Eliot’s work titled “Preludes” might be called “modernist” in some of following ways and for some of the following reasons:

  • It deals with mundane, everyday existence; there is little emphasis, as there might be in a Romantic poem, on anything lofty, sublime, or inspiring.
  • The form of the poem often seems surprising and unpredictable, as in the transition from the first two lines to the third line.
  • The tone is somewhat dark and depressing, as in line 4.
  • The setting seems grimly urban rather than focusing on a beautiful, appealing countryside (as in lines 5-8 and 11-13).
  • The style is largely reportorial, describing merely what is rather than drawing any grand conclusions; meaning is created as much through mood as through overt statement (as in the opening stanza).
  • Loneliness is a major theme, as in line 12. Love is not a major theme.
  • Sometimes the phrasing is literally fragmented, as in line 13.
  • The setting is ordinary, unappealing, and un-transcendent, as in lines 15-18; there is little hint of anything better than this world – a world that often seems variously unattractive. There is little emphasis on God or on a heavenly world as beautiful alternatives to the somewhat grimy hear-and-now.
  • Life seems full of people, but those people seem largely alienated from one another (19-23). Their living conditions are not especially beautiful or satisfying or even permanent.
  • Boredom seems a major mood (24-25).
  • Literal and figurative darkness is emphasized; existence in many ways seems “sordid” and unsatisfying (26-29).
  • Even nature is not particularly inspiring or uplifting; even nature seems somewhat boring and mundane (30-32).
  • Human beings are imagined in terms of their unattractive, ordinary bodies rather than in terms of anything lofty or inspiring about their spirits (36-38):

You curled the papers from your hair, 
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet 
In the palms of both soiled hands.

  • The over-all tone of the poem is somewhat depressing.
  • Human life does not seem to involve much real, genuine, or emotionally fulfilling human interaction. Happiness is rarely mentioned. Instead, the huge populations of large cities seem made up of isolated, lonely people (39-47).
  • Romantic desires are mentioned briefly, then immediately dismissed or qualified by a far more sardonic, skeptical, disillusioned, and even bitter tone (48-54).


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