Preludes: The Keynote of Eliot's Poetry
Preludes: Introducing Eliot
“Preludes” means an introduction. Eliot’s Preludes is not just an introduction to his own poetry, but of an entire generation of poets and philosophers. To study Eliot’s “Preludes,” is to allow oneself the initiation that Eliot found necessary, to understand the more complex network of images which abound his longer poems.
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
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.
The first stanza is, clearly, a series of images which represent a certain perspective of reality. The “smell of steaks”, “vacant lots”, “smoky days”, “grimy scraps”, “chimney pots” and “lonely cab-horse” become individual objective images to correlate to the emotion of stasis and despairing loneliness that Eliot wished to communicate. Ironically, the only living creature mentioned is the lonesome horse, whose apparently active “steams and stamps” further accentuate the futility of action and agency in the modern world of inertia.
Evening has always been a favourite setting to begin a poem for Eliot. This is also seen in his celebrated “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, where Eliot uses a similar series of shabby and inert images to communicate passivity and dehumanization. Evening itself is a metaphor of decay, albeit with the promise of an eventual renewal. This may be related to how autumn is represented in his poems as well. However, what appeared so natural to Shelley (“If Winter comes can Spring be far behind?”) or even Keats (“thou hast thy music too”) loses ground with the modern poet Eliot.
It is interesting to note that Eliot does mention human beings in the first stanza itself. However, the image is only a fragment of a whole. He talks about the feet amidst the withered leaves. Similar images of scattered dehumanized fragments abound his poem. This communicates how human body becomes only an arbitrary assemblage of random organs when it is abandoned by the unifying consciousness or human soul.
Eliot’s sketch of the city life, through sordid and shabby images, shows how the urban cityscape suffocates human soul. The lighting of the lamps becomes a dystopic image of disillusionment, bringing to mind the “darkness visible” which illuminated only infernal sufferings in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”.
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.
In the second part, Eliot shifts the time-frame to the morning. However, there is absolutely no conventional redeeming image of freshness and vitality that one usually expects in this case. Eliot uses the expression, “comes to consciousness”, only to reinforce the idea of the lack of consciousness. Images of sordidness continue (muddy feet, dingy shades and stale smells of beer). These images effectively communicate the continuity of repugnant stasis that the evening represented in the first stanza. The fragmentation of the human existence is communicated through the mention of “feet” and “hands” quite like the first stanza. The word “masquerade” adds to the idea of dehumanization. Later, in Prufrock, Eliot uses the image of masques as integrated into the psyche of the modern man: There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;”
Human beings are no more vitalized by individuality. Their masquerade is only a futile attempt to disguise their dehumanized inertia. In “The Hollow Men”, the trope of masquerade continues: “Let me also wear/Such deliberate disguises”. Humans become their own shadows, bereft of colours, bereft of shades. In “The Wasteland”, Eliot reveals how this masquerade of shadows is a façade to hide the raw instinct of fear and despair:
"I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust."
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,
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.
The third part of “Preludes” is, perhaps, the most ingenuous one. While in the other stanzas, Eliot mentions human beings only as incomplete fragments, here one can see a whole human being, a thinking, feeling individual. Apparently the person described is a prostitute, waking up and faintly remembering the night of unpleasant experiences. It is interesting to see how Eliot mentions not just her whole body but also her soul and her consciousness : “You had such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands.” The image of “yellow soles”, “soiled hands” and “sparrows in the gutter” correlate perfectly to the antiromantic idea of sexual intercourse as a futile and even sterile attempt to assert selfhood. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about physicality when the bodies are without souls. However, it seems that, with her understanding of life and its meaninglessness, the woman in the stanza is placed on an elevated level of awareness.
The image of the fallen woman becomes a recurrent trope in Eliot. In “The Wasteland” he shows the futility of sexual pleasure to generate vitality. Sex becomes a mechanical process which adds on to the idea of passivity and joyless indifference:
"Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
…Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
In Eliot, there are no fancy skylarks or mysterious nightingales. His sparrows gather in gutters with antiromantic brutality. Even the nightingales fail to offer songs of redemption:
“yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears.”(The Waste Land)
However, despite the sordid and antiromantic images, the third stanza becomes the most redemptive one in establishing faith in the possibility of human awareness. The woman is shown to have a greater awareness of reality and emerges as a whole individual devoid of masques and disguises.
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.
In the last section, Eliot continues the idea of fragmentation through images of “insistent feet” “eyes” and “square fingers”. The dehumanized human actions are set against the consciousness of the apparently lifeless street, stretching out, “the consciousness of a blackened street”. The impatience of the street is set against the assumed certainties of the humans trampling on it. Such a contrast prepares the readers for his more elaborate imagery in “The Four Quartets”:
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
Eliot is an out and out anti-romantic in establishing the futility of human enterprise. However, he still has some hope of a communion. One may even call it neo-romanticism on some level. The Preludes is an embodiment of Eliot’s idea of poetry. In the four parts Eliot establishes the potency of images to dispassionately communicate a certain idea because poetry does not mean open revelation of the poet’s emotions. The idea is that if the poet uses appropriate imagery and symbolism, correlative of a certain emotional response, he is both honest and exact in the art of poetry. Eliot was much against the Wordsworthian emphasis on “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. For him, feelings and sentiments are subjective factors which hardly stand the test of time. To attain universality, Eliot prioritized the objectivity that individual images offer to communicate the truth beyond the scope of private musings: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”(“The Waste Land”). “Preludes” is a preview of what Eliot was about to achieve in his later and more elaborate works.
© 2017 Monami