Themes

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Last Updated on August 13, 2019, 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...

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“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 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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

Several critics have called preludes I and II Imagist poems. Their concentrated images of wet and dirty streets create a dreary atmosphere that permeates the explorations of mind and soul later in the poem. Prelude I consists entirely of physical sensations and actions, including the vivid image of wasted energy in its only metaphor, “the burnt-out ends of smoky days” (similar to the “butt-ends of my days” found in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). Symbols and themes introduced in I continue throughout this poem and many of Eliot’s later works: the passage of time; smoke, wind and rain; the broken, decayed, and discarded objects and grime in the street; domestic smells that become stale by morning; and glimpses of the routine actions of city dwellers.

Isolation and depersonalization are themes represented by the scarce, fragmentary, and anonymous human images in this urban setting. The “lonely cab-horse” waits for someone while rain and wind sweep across vacant lots. “The lighting of the lamps” suggests a human action in nearly deserted streets, but it is expressed only as a fragment floating at the end of prelude I. Feet are the only specific human detail in I, “street” and “feet” being prominently repeated words in all four preludes. “Insistent feet” trampling muddy streets represent the crowds beginning and ending the “masquerades” of their work day, while the hands “raising dingy shades/ In a thousand furnished rooms” are reminders of the cramped and anonymous masses in the city.

The passive woman in prelude III is shown physically only through gestures involving her artificially curled hair and her soiled hands and feet. In IV, fingers stuffing pipes, eyes “assured of certain certainties,” and a mouth engaged in derisive gestures mock human ignorance and futility. The brief moment of compassion inspired by these fragmentary images takes the vague form of “some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing” rather than a definite vision of human romance or tragedy.

The images of “yellow soles” at the end of III and “his soul” in the first line of IV provide an ironic juxtaposition of the sordid and the spiritual, an apparent movement from the shabby and sensual to the profound. Yet since in Eliot’s view no experience could be separated from the physical, the thoughts and soul of a woman or a man in this setting are “constituted” in relation to images from the street. Their “vision” of the world is limited to understanding the life around them, where morning light brings only the resumption of meaningless routines until night “blackens” the street again. The “I” who yearns for deeper significance also fears, like Prufrock, that his gentler feelings will be ridiculed by his listeners, so he ends by reducing the revolving of worlds to the image of “ancient women/ Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”

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