T. S. Eliot's "Preludes"

Updated on May 13, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

T. S. Eliot

Source

Introduction and Text of "Preludes"

In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot has averred the difference between the poet and the speaker of his poems: the best artists are capable of the divergence from the passion necessary to create good art.

It is thus that the speaker of a poem should never be referred to as the poet, even if the reader is quite certain based on biography that the incidents, thoughts, or feelings do, indeed belong to the poet.

One would never conclude that because Othello murdered Desdemona in his play, that Shakespeare had also committed murder. Poets speak in characters, just as playwrights do. Therefore, one is always on safer ground to refer to the speaker in a poem as "the speaker" instead of addressing the name of the poet. T. S. Eliot's poems are not necessarily a psychoanalytic exercise focusing on the mind of T. S. Eliot. His poems features characters just as his plays do.

Eliot's poem,"Preludes," plays out in four roughly constructed parts. Part I features 13 lines and a tortured rime scheme. Part II displays 10 lines, whose rime scheme is equally uneven. Both parts III and IV employ 16 lines, again featuring uneven rime schemes but with fewer rimes than those that grace Parts I and II.

The poem strings out in the widely employed technique called "stream-of-consciousness"—particularly loved by the modernists of the mid-to-late 20th century. This technique likely accounts for the haphazard nature of the rimes.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Preludes

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.

Reading of T. S. Eliot's "Preludes"

Commentary

The world of literature is filled with horrid descriptions, and T. S. Eliot has contributed some of the most horrid. The mind of the Eliot observer, however, is most often the locus of the horror along with its beauty.

Part I: Observing an Evening in Winter

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.

The speaker begins by reporting on what he is seeing as an evening in winter is coming on. He allows readers to see what he sees as well as smell what he smells. It is roughly dinner time so he smells cooking odors wafting in the air. The end of the day he finds resembles the butts of cigarettes. The end of the day is "smoky" and stinking of those "burnt-out" butts. His colorful description drags the reader into the materialism of a world gone ugly.

The melancholy of the opening setting of "Preludes" may give the reader remembrance of the "patient etherised upon a table" from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Such a vivid yet horrid description drips of loneliness and dissatisfaction. Suddenly, the grimness of the scene is rendered even more disgusting as a rainstorm comes plunging into the ugly grimness of the surrounding area. The scraps of debris and crumpled up leaves he has trampled become storm soaked, adding to the unpleasantness of speaker's environment.

The speaker then takes note of a "cab-horse" and claims that the poor animal is "lonely." Obvisouly, the speaker is projecting this own emotion on the animal. But that he does so demonstrates his own feelings at the time.

Part II: The Next Morning

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.

Part II finds the speaker awakening in the next morning hours. He smells stale beer while listening to feet trudging through the streets. Again, the choice of details sheds light on the speaker's mood and passions.

The speaker says that those "muddy feet" are slogging to the coffee stands, while many sets of hands are raising the blinds in "a thousand furnished rooms." Like him so many people in these dingy rented rooms who are waking up, raising their blinds, and going for coffee, the speaker notes yet remains somewhat aloof in his observations.

The pallid description yields the monotony and seemingly painful awareness of desperation that these poor folks must endure every morning as they pursue their dingy and unfulfilled lives.

Part III: Remember the Night Before

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.

In the third part, the speaker is remembering the night before, as he was turning down his bed covers. He slid into bed but had trouble getting to sleep. Then as he was slipping into sleep, his mind kept suffering a constant bombardment of many "sordid images."

Once morning arrived, he sat at the edge of the bed, stretching and bending over to touch his feet. His hands were dirty. He seems to find a bit of a parallel between his hands being "soiled" as his soul seems to also to have been soiled by the multitude of nasty images that had kept him awake the night before.

Part IV: First Person, Third Person, Second Person

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.

The speaker now performs a veritable tightrope act as the refers to himself first in the third person, next in the first person, before landing again on the second person, as he has done earlier in his narrative. But then again he sprinkles his report with unpleasant images, such as "short square fingers" that are "stuffing pipes." He also refers to the "conscience of the blackened street," which belies the nature of conscience itself.

The speaker has been implying subtly that his own soul is suffering greatly from this debased environment, and now he describes the nature of that suffering soul, which is an "infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing." The speaker's only option is to acknowledge the horrid nature of the images which will ultimately lead to understanding them. And he believes already that he understands them better than most of his contemporaries.

After all, the speaker has experienced a "vision of the street." And he knows that the street itself "hardly understands" the meaning or even the nature of that vision. The ugliness, the squalor, the suffering may likely be no more than the suffering of "ancient women / gathering fuel in vacant lots." The images that have wrapped around his soul will not deter that soul from its ultimate realization of its worth. The ugly world will remain ugly while the soul will look to shining through to a bright world of substance where spirituality will replace crass materialism.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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