Preludes by T. S. Eliot

I

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.

II

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

III

You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
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;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

IV

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;
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.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

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

Summary and Analysis

On reading the poem you will discover that the poem follows a metrical pattern which is uneven and the line endings varying so there is no set rhyme scheme. This style is ‘vers libre’ or free verse in which a poet uses different metrical patterns without the restriction of a set rhyme. The concern is more with images and symbolic meaning than with verbal effect. The poem conveys a sense of futility and monotony in the daily grind of a loveless city. The poem is divided into four uneven parts; the lines are long or short co-ordinating with the flow of different thoughts in the observer’s / narrator’s mind. Though the poem seems fragmented, containing stray thoughts, yet the parts are unified.

The title of the poem ‘Preludes’ is a term used for short pieces of music to introduce a larger piece of music. Since the word is used in the plural form, it anticipates a variety of introductory openings to different compositions. According to another interpretation, preludes are short romantic pieces of music composed around one theme. The way Eliot has used the title recalls Frederic Chopin’s (1819-49) ‘Preludes’, a collection of piano pieces. But in essence Eliot’s preludes are the opposite of Chopin’s musical compositions, because they lack the most important element i.e. music, although they are short, have a common theme, and a sequence of patterns of their own. There is no music in the poor, dispirited people living in the drab, unromantic surroundings of decadent city streets.

The first part of the poem, lines 1-13 re-create the smell and sight of a wintry evening at the hour of ‘six o’clock’. The next line contains an effective metaphor for another meaningless, day consumed and lost in a haze. The succeeding lines which create an image of movement, “a gustry shower” which re-invokes a sense of waste and decay, a typical street image of scattered rubbish. The rain lashes against familiar objects which are however, unkept and shabby, “broken blinds”. The narrator conveys an experience which regrettably is typical and commonplace. The sense of futility grows into an image of isolation, “A lonely cabhorse steams and stamps”. The evening seems to reach a climatic movement of unproductivity, relieved dramatically, by the lighting of the lamps in the last line. The morose scenes of a wintry twilight are redeemed by the lit up lamps. The first part of the poem is like one prelude.

The second part of the poem re-introduces the typical smells and sounds of a morning following a night of drinking and the need get to rid of the lingering effects of the night. Lines 19-23 depict a collective, habitual action, carried out thoughtlessly. The imagery of “dingy shades” recalls grimy scraps” of the first part. The human loneliness of the first prelude changes into “masquerades”. People have been reduced to mere illusions, which time, i.e. the morning time, keeps re-creating”, resumes without any direction or meaningful purpose. From “burnt out” smoky days” to “faint stale smells of beer”, the “masquerades” of the modern city are caught in a life miming one another. The second prelude introduces morning time of a moribund city.

The third part (lines 23-38) introduces a protagonist who is denied sleep in the sordid surroundings which reflect “sordid images” which make up the soul within a body. The sleepless night consumed those mages to throw them back again unleashing a flickering, vicious state. The restless protagonist is assumed to be a woman struggling to make sense of the “vision of the street”. The physical realities of the surroundings have been made what they have become, “As the street hardly understands”. The routine acts of day to day life have set into motion a habitual pattern which is both individual and typical. The disturbed sleep is connected to the sordid inner state. The protagonist is devoid of spirituality and also a comfortable conscience. The imagery of filth in the first part is re-invoked into the last lines. The implication is that the inner and outer worlds reflect and grow out of each other.

The fourth part of the poem introduces another protagonist – A man whose “soul” is alienated from his body. The inconsistent thoughts in his mind sum up the inevitability of existence caught between the “skies” and a “City block” and the protagonist succumbs to the sinning “blackened” environment. The succeeding lines 45-50 introduce the narrator’s voice which responds to the series of images scattered in the first four parts. If the first four parts are preludes to the main piece of music, then the last two short pieces may be read as the main theme. The world is paradoxical and both men and women are suffering beings – suffering because of their inherent goodness and lack of spiritual direction provided by Christ like figures who could transcend the “blackened world. In these lines the poem plays out he theme of the paradox of life drifting between futility and possibility between the physical and the spiritual.

The last three lines may be read as the finale or the final movement of the musical composition. This is what sums up the central thought, the timeless continuity and mimesis or repetitiveness of the cycle of existence. The comparison of the ‘world’ with ‘ancient’ women’ generates a wide range of meanings. But the most obvious sense is one of essential dependencies which traditionally women have been providing. The “vacant lots” of the first part, acquires a different meaning in this part. The woman riddled with a sordid question in one part becomes the archetype figure traditionally and concurrently associated with “keeping the home fires burning”. The image is of a recurrent pattern of life, apparently meaningless and yet meaningful in its essential design. The final or main body of music that follows the preludes re- affirms the cyclic rhythm of life in a city which is tarnished with “grimy”, “dingy” soiled and “blackened” images surrounding both man and woman unified in an eternal search of the means to transcend the present. The stray thoughts and images of a wintry evening underscore a solitary drift which connects the present with the past, the local with the world.

Like other poems by Eliot, “Preludes’ grew from fragments, and was not easily concluded. The first two parts belong to 1910; the remainder was written in 1911, the third section in July, after the conclusion of his courses at the Sorbonne, and the final towards the end of the year, when he was back at Harvard. The winter evening scene with the smell of steaks at six o’clock connotes a kind of living, a lonely steaming cab-horse stamps as it waits for it knows not what; a showery gust wraps grimy decaying leaves and newspapers from vacant lots around one’s feet showers beat on broken blinds; and the lighting of the lamps at the ‘burnt-out’ end of another smoky day gives a sense of dim earth-bound illumination which accentuates the surrounding darkness. The deliberate disconnection of imagery helps to emphasize the meaningless round of life, evening to evening.

The morning is marked by the stale smell of beer from sawdust-trampled streets over which muddy feet hurry to coffee-stands. This resumption of life, with other masquerades of earthly time, reminds one of all the hands raising shades (or blinds) that have lost whatever brightness they had. The synecdochic use of ‘feet’ and ‘hands’ suggests a degree of depersonalization. The image of the female lying awake, conscious of the sordid working of her mind in darkness and, when sparrows are heard at daybreak in the gutter, of thoughts about humanity which the people of the street would hardly understand, accentuates the sordidness which is finally imaged in the soiled hands clasping the yellow soles of her feet as she sits on the edge of her bed. The fourth prelude is syntactically defective. The soul that is stretched across the skies is not the conscience of the street which is impatient to renew its worldy activities, as if they were its dominion. It sees the skies fade behind the city block, feels stamped by the insistent feet, and is aware of a civilization which has the assurance of limited range of certainties. Yet man, with this limited knowledge, and a history of evil (the conscience of a blackened street) thinks the future of the world is in his hands.

It would be a mistake to think that Eliot finds beauty in ugliness. He selects images to create a succession of scenes which underline spiritual darkness. The images have the effect of symbols; he cannot dissociate them from the fancy that there exists something beyond our understanding, something ‘infinitely gentle upon which infinite suffering is inflicted by the ways of the world. It is no more than a suggestion which the worldly will scorn, as the poem indicates with a cynical rejoinder in bold vulgar idiom.

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