Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822
“Preludes” presents several themes reflecting the modernist movement in literature. A hallmark of modernism is a realistic and skeptical stance and a willingness to experiment with form and language, in contrast to the sentimentality and rigidity of form in the Victorian era.
The Prevalence of Isolation in City Life
The opening stanza of part 1 presents workers coming home to their shabby apartment buildings on a cold, rainy day, establishing an unpleasant feeling. Through images of “grimy scraps / Of withered leaves,” vacant lots with discarded newspapers, and rain beating down on the “broken blinds and chimney-pots” of buildings, the speaker depicts a neglected neighborhood. By immediately connecting the readers with the leaves wrapping around “your feet,” the poem’s speaker brings them into the poem’s gloomy world. “A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps” by itself in the street, symbolizing those people who are the workhorses of the system all day and abandoned at its end.
Part 2 shows the rush of people in their daily routine, but none of them interact with each other. They are only “muddy feet that press” on an increasingly dirty street. In the morning, their hands raise “dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms,” suggesting these are renters or transient workers without a permanent residence or community. The person tossing and turning in bed with bad dreams in part 3 is also alone; nobody shares their bed or comforts them. After waking up, people perform their morning routines, such as taking out curling papers, again alone.
Part 4 presents an image of a lone entity, a “soul stretched tight across the skies” which could be a reflection of the nightmares, people’s spirit for life detached from them, or even a sense of divinity also isolated. The speaker shifts back to the first-person point of view to express sympathy for “the notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing,” but the speaker appears to be alone with these thoughts. The poem ends with the phrase “vacant lots” and elderly women picking up the discarded newspapers to use as fuel, suggesting that despite the activity in the neighborhood, the city—and the larger world around it—is essentially an empty place where people struggle to survive and are not a connected community.
The Clash Between Experiences of Natural and Artificial Time
Although the sun sets and rises in the course of the poem, this natural rhythm is overruled by clock time and mundane routines. Part 1 introduces the clock by citing the time the workers come home. Instead of a being in a state of nature, the worker and his horse are instead a mechanism controlled by the clock. In part 2, “time resumes,” bringing with it the “masquerades” of daily routine, a theater of the mundane set by the clock.
Part 3 describes someone (addressed as “you”) experiencing nightmares, but the sunrise brings little comfort. The clock returns in part 4, citing the times when people come home—this is also announced by the appearance of newspapers in the evening (part of the ongoing cycle throughout the poem is one of reading and discarding these papers). In the second stanza of part 4, the speaker shifts back to the first person and attempts to stand outside time and the daily routine with a reflection on a suffering that seems infinite. The rhyme pairs shutters with gutters and block with clock in parts 3 and 4, which has the effect of further locking the reader into the poem’s dark world and limited time.
The Relationship Between Mental and Physical States
The poor living conditions of the neighborhood reflect...
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the poor psychological state of its residents. Nightmarish images first appear in part 1, are experienced again in the sleep state in part 3, and then close the poem in part 4, suggesting that this life is a waking nightmare. Of special note is the presentation or characterization of the neighborhood’s street and its relation to the concepts of consciousness and conscience.
In the restless sleep and awakening sequence in part 3, the speaker notes that there is a deep level of understanding of this relation between the physical and psychological: “You had such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands.” As the people of the neighborhood lose touch with their humanity (symbolized by the projected entity in the sky), the street also loses its role as their conscience, becoming increasingly “blackened” by their “insistent feet.” Both the street and its people struggle to understand and articulate this realization, but they soon retreat behind the petty activity of “short square fingers stuffing pipes” and basing their identities on “certain certainties.”
At the poem’s end, the speaker can only command the reader to “wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh,” as this modern life is merely about survival. The critical examination of consciousness and self-awareness in “Preludes” could be tied in with the work of Sigmund Freud, whose The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1899 and influenced subsequent thinkers and writers.