Preludes by T. S. Eliot
Table of Contents
Preludes are a series of pictures of modern city life: the first two present evening and morning, stressing the smells and general sordidness of the street scene, the last two a woman and a man, both suffering inwardly from their perception of their miserable lives of squalor and routine, their respective visions of the street in the morning and evening, Finally, the poet speaks in his own person to sympathize then everything is dismissed by a laugh since the universe is indifferent.
The title suggests a musical analogy, mood pictures on the same theme, developing by repetition and variation. The images create a general impression of squalidness (almost every noun and adjective has an unpleasant connotation), weariness and repetitiveness (mirrored by all the repeated words.) As in ‘Prufrock’ personality becomes limited to attributes and to parts of the body such as feet and hands.
Unity of mood and imagery
“There is a unity of mood and imagery in the sequence, although the poems were written over a period of about a year. The unity is suggested also by the title: preludes are short musical compositions on one theme. Eliot’s poems, however, are an antithesis to the Preludes of Chopin (see note to “Portrait of a Lady”, line 9). They are vignettes of modern urban experience in all its unromantic squalor, monotony and horror. I, II and III were originally entitled ‘Preludes in Roxbury’, although III was written in Paris Roxbury was a squalid suburb of Boston. By deleting the reference to specific place Eliot gives the poem a wider range of reference.” (Manju Jain)
The imagery is drawn from Eliot’s direct experience of the grim reality of City life. His reading helped him to transmute that experience into poetry. The gloomy cityscape of “Preludes I and II recalls some of the urban poetry that has existed in England since the middle of the nineteenth century. It is reminiscent, for instance, of Tennyson’s stanza from ‘In Memoriam’:
“He is nor here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the day.”
The influence of Baudelaire can be strongly felt. E.D.H. Greene and Bernard Bergonzi see ‘Preludes’ I and II as small-scale equivalents of his “Crepuscule du Soir’ (Evening Twilight) and ‘Crepuscule du Matin (Morning Twilight). In these poems Baudelaire vividly and poignantly evokes the seamy aspects of Paris visualized as an old man doomed to toil with its glimmering gas-jets wincing in the wind, prostitution lighting up in the streets, the morning wind blowing on the street lamps, houses pulling for the smoke. Baudelaire’s compassion for the poor and the vagrant for those who have never known the solace of a home’ and the ‘back-bent workman – is absent from Eliot’s Preludes, however.
Eliot also drew upon the novels of Charles-Louis Philippe- Bubu de Montparnasse (1901) and Marie Donadieu (1904) for the setting and atmosphere of ‘Preludes’ III and IV. He read the novels when he was in Paris in 1910. Philippe depicts Paris as a sinister, gloomy, degraded city, where life is devoid of meaning. Eliot derived his subject and images from passages that describe street-walkers, a woman awakening in the morning in the slums: hotel rooms, where the bodies are dirty and the souls as well. In his Preface to the English translation of Bubu in 1932, Eliot wrote that for him Bubu stood for Paris as some of Dickens’ novels stand for London. He also praised the sincerity of Philippe’s method which made him a faithful recorder of things as they are, and of events as they happened, without irrelevant and disturbing comment. H.W. Williams writes, “The four Preludes though written around the same time as “Prufrock are totally unLaforgucon, tragic rather than comic and more concerned to set up a mood and feeling towards life than explore an individual consciousness.”
The first two were written at Harvard, the third at Paris, and the fourth on the poet’s return from America. The Parisian atmosphere of the streets explored owes a lot not only to Eliot’s visit and his observation of Paris streets, but to his reading of Charles-Louis Philippe’s two books Babu de Montparnasse and Marie Donadien, both dealing with streetwalkers (prostitutes), pimps and the life of abjectly poor bohemians in Paris. Philippe’s treatment of the sordid details of physical poverty and sex impressed Eliot greatly. Another source surely was Baudelaire’s poems about Paris’ prostitutes, and the half-criminal underworld he knew so intimately
The style is throughout objective, impersonal and detached. Eliot’s technique is to present a series of vivid images sharply cut like a short story, a technique not unlike that of Imagist poetry of which Eliot however knew little at this time.
It presents a winter evening scene. The smell of steaks cooking in passageways tells us that it is dinner time. A brilliant image expresses the evening as the stub-end of the “smoky days”. A wind gets up bringing a hint of rain and blows withered leaves about our feet. Newspapers are blown about from vacant lots (gaps between the apartment houses). The details could well be taken from an American city. A cabhorse sweats (“steams”) and stamps its feet at the corner of the street. The gas-lights are lit.
Eliot paints the scene vividly with a few concrete physical details, a sketch which is more effective than a complete painting. The mood is one of disenchantment, deadness and “dehumanisation.” Words like “burnt out”, “grimy”, “withered”, “broken”, “lonely” -all convey these feelings of deadness, sordidness, defeat and death.
Now the scene changes to morning, and Eliot changes the form of the verse to something nearer regular stanza pattern to convey a slightly more hopeful note. But the sordidness is continued into the morning scene. “State smells of beer” surround the workers as they stamp down the “sawdust-trampled street” with their muddy feet. The atmosphere is one of “hangover” after a night of debauchery. Bubu de Montparnasse has several such scenes. Life goes on but it is a meaningless ritual (a “masquerade”, a word to be, funnily enough, used a lot by the writers of popular songs in America in the twenties and thirties), and morning for most people in Paris simply means
“Raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms”.
It startles the reader by an abrupt change of tone, a direct address to the character of this Prelude:
“You tossed a blanket from the bed…”
The contents are taken directly from a passage in Bubu de Montparnasse in which the prostitute Berthe is waking after a night of sordid lovemaking:
“Berthe in her chemise had just got up. With her narrow shoulders, her grey skirt, and her unclean feel, she too seemed, in her pale yellowish slimness to have no light. With her puffy eyes and scraggy hair……. she too was in disorder and her thoughts lay heaped confusedly in her head. ”
Eliot’s prostitute like Berthe thinks confusedly of last night and all the nights. (“The thousand sordid images”). The light creeps up with the dawn in between the shutters and the sparrows begin to chirp.
As she sits up in bed nursing her “yellow” feet with dirty hands and then takes out the curling papers out of her hair, she remembers the street of the night before where she tramped soliciting customers. Her “vision of the street is one that the street by daylight (the apparently respectable life of the bourgeoisie) cannot understand or rather will not understand because it does not choose to understand.
It moves to the street itself which like the fog in “Prufrock” is personified. The street lies like a collapsed body tramped over by “insistent feet”, the feet of the office workers returning at 4 and 5 and 6 o’clock. It is evening again. The opening line reminds us of the Prufrock image of the patient etherised on the table. The scene is again suggested by a few deftly drawn lines: “short square fingers stuffing pipes,” and “evening newspapers”.
In the last seven lines we have a direct commentary by the poet on the scene, and the commentary is self-contradictory and deliberately baffling, First, Eliot tells us that he is moved by fancies built up around these images of the city streets, images that make him feel deep pity for human suffering, for the suffering of the gentle innocent, as one might pity the prostitute or the wretchedly poor of the great city. Then he deliberately invites us to sneer at this show of sentiment:
“Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh.”
The universe is indifferent to all our suffering. The stars shine still, as one of the Webster’s characters tells us, though they are cursed by men
“The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”
The words “vacant lots” takes us back to the image of Prelude I (“the newspapers”). Now the desolate scene is humanized, if only by the decrepit old women looking for wood for the fire. It is significant that the human characters who stand out in the poem are these “ancient women” of the penultimate line, and the scruffy prostitute of Prelude III.
Preludes is one of the most effective of Eliot’s poems and makes an important contribution to his development from “Prufrock” to The Waste Land, Eliot is learning economy, vividness, and the value of impersonality and changes of vision. The mood and tone are vital: these constitute what the poem communicates, and every part of the poem is intended to concentrate the overall impressions of sordid hopelessness, squalour, and disenchantment. The gentle comedy of “Prufrock”, the leg-pulling poker-face humour, is gone. In their place we have a minor-key poem, a threnody of haunting tragic intensity, made all the more poignant by Eliot’s final rejection of his own pity.
Eliot pursues a technique he was very fond of, technique of conveying the dehumanisation by fragmenting the human elements of his poem into parts of the body: “muddy feet” and “hands” (Prelude II), hair, the soles of the feet, and “palms of both soiled hands” (Prelude III); “insistent fact”, fingers and eyes (Prelude IV). In this way no complete human soul or human body emerges. All is as mechanical and as dislocated as the action of a robot. It is Eliot’s comment in certain moods on human behaviour. The technique is greatly developed and expanded in The Waste Land.
“The meaninglessness of regulated life without any higher purpose has been poeticised in “Preludes” through the wastelandish atmosphere of an urban setting. Life is tied to the cyclic movement of time, evening, morning, night, morning and evening roll successively in our life.
The setting of the poem sets its tone. It is a winter evening one of the “burnt-out ends of smoky days”, spreading “smell of steaks in passageways”; the passageways are littered with “grimy scraps of withered leaves”, scraps of newspapers are lying scattered in the gaps between the apartment houses. All of a sudden it starts raining in gusty showers, wrapping all the leaves and pieces of newspapers and beating on broken blinds and chimney pots.” The only living being observable at this hour is a cab-horse that is steaming and stamping. The first section of the poem closes with the lighting of lamps.
There is no suggestion of human action until section II announces the arrival of morning with
“…..faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feel that press
To early coffee-stands.”
and we imagine that some human figures are moving in the street. The inhabitants of this small universe are scattered in a thousand furnished rooms where they mask their real selves and live as time servers, they are non-entities, mere shadows, engaged in petty affairs of life:
“One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.”
The rooms they live in their only universe, are well furnished, but their poor souls are unfurnished. What an irony!
In Section III we meet one of these souls steeped in the vulgarities of life. He is watching in his bed the night that reveals to him
“The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted:
They slickered against the ceiling”
He is lucky enough to apprehend the real condition of his soul; after all, at dawn he realizes that his soul does not visualize any higher dream because it is in the strong grip of filthy pursuits of life. With the approach of morning, he will have to resume the diverse masquerades of life which are so familiar that the poet does not mention them in detail Life does not throb anywhere, the only signs of life may be observed in the following lines:
“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 contrast, there is movement in nature: light creeps up between the shutters and sparrows chirp in gutters.
In the last Section the humanized street is passively waiting to be “trampled by the feet of workers returning home in the evening. Like the evening… spread out against the sky in Prufrock, the soul of the street is “stretched tight across the skies”, reflecting the condition of the soul of man who will busy himself in stuffing his pipes with his short square fingers and reading evening newspapers. The only hope that sustains his life is his belief in the recurrence of the routine of life.
He, however, has a vision, while he is lost in the “sordid images” of material life of
“The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering things”
of something deeper and far better buried, beneath the monotony and dirt.” It is a development of the vision of the overwhelming question with which Prufrock was confronted but as Prufrock could not dare to respond to its urge, the speaker of the present poem obliterates the imprint to this spiritual vision from his mind:
“Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh:
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”
Ironically he mocks at the very idea of searching for the grounds of belief in some infinitely gentle” principles of life in a world where no bums being proceeds “by instinct toward an appointed goal but where everybody is a part of a worn out mechanism with parts stilly toiling as with destination. The comparison of the revolving worlds with old women gathering fuel explains the dullness and monotony of life spent to conformity to the accepted patterns of life which allows no individual to challenge or change it. Moreover, he is distracted by the burden of this belief because he fears that it entails infinite “suffering”. How can the lovers of comfort and luxury embrace any such belief that may imply the end of an easy-going life?” (V.K. Roy) .
Preludes Line by Line Analysis
- It describes a winter evening, wet, dirty, with unpleasant smells in the air.
- Steaks-slices of meat or fish.
- In its darkness and squalor the evening is compared to the burnt-out end of a cigarette.
5-8. Outside the house, gusty shower is driving dirty leaves and newspapers from open places to wrap the feet of the street-walkers.
- grim -ghastly, sullen, repellent.
- Vacant lotsa vacant plot of land in the city, often used as a dump for rubbish.
- beatstrike against.
- Steams and stamps the cab horse shows restlessness and puts the fact down with force on the ground because of the gust and showers of the rain.
- Then the street lamps are lighted.
The atmosphere is one of “hang-over after a night of debauchery, as also described in Bubu de Montparnasse by C.L. Philippe in which prostitute Berthe is working after a night of sordid love-making
“Berthe in her chemise, had just got up with her narrow shoulders her grey skirt, and her unclean feel, she too seemed, in her pale yellowish slimness to have no light with her puffy eyes and scraggy hair she too in disorder and her thoughts lay heaped confusedly in her head.”
- The second Prelude’ presents morning scene which is still dine nasty, dull and monotonous.
15-17. The advent of the day is welcomed with the smells of beer from the streets covered with saw dust and trampled by the muddy feet of the crowd going towards a coffee-stall.
- Coffee-stands-probably a coffee-stall with canvas top and open counter serving late revellers from all-night parties and early workers. before cafes or restaurants are open
- masquerades literally, a false show or pretence; here the empty and futile activities of the town-dweller.
20-23. One can easily imagine persons raising up the squalid window blinds in a thousand furnished rooms.
- You here a woman.
25-28. She wakes and lies still on her back, dozes and recalls her sordid experience of the previous night which makes up her inner life.
29-32. They flashed for a moment like lantern-slides on the ceiling and vanished at the coming of the sun-rays between the shutters. She was delighted to hear the sound of the sparrows, and brawling in the gutters.
33-34. She begins to think of the trampled street outside and visualizes an un-street like vision of it, which is described in the last “Prelude”
- The woman sits up on the edge of her bed.
- She twists the papers for making the hair curl her hair. ‘Curl paper’ is a paper in which the hair is tightly twisted for several hours to make it curl.
37-38. She grasps the yellow soles of her feet with the palms of both her dirty hands. She could not have helped the soles of her feet being yellow, even if she might have washed her hands. This idea is strengthened by the sequence of images which depict the scene as nasty, grimy and squalid.
39-40. Finally evening again, but it is still dull and monotonous. It is the watcher of these scenes whose soul is ‘stretched tight across the skies. There is a sensation of acute pain and suffering in its being racked across the skies and on the street. Compare the first “Prufrock image, 11. 2-3.
“When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.”
- block-a connected group of houses.
41-42. In the evening the street has been trampled upon by thousands of feet rushing earnestly.
43-45. They are holding tobacco pipes and evening newspapers. Their eves are full of certainties in certain matters.
46-47. The street faces the day with a blackened conscience and eagerly awaits the day’s traffic to begin.
- assume—take charge of perhaps usurp.
- ‘His’ changes into ‘T’ as if “He’ were speaking to himself. Eliot makes use of this technique in La Figlia Che Piange and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
48-51. When the speaker conjures up the picture of the squalid area, his mind is filled with images of an extremely gentle thing subject to endless suffering. T.S. Pearce writes, “Thus despite the sequence of images which depicts the scenes as nasty. grimy, and squalid, there remains this perception of something deeper and far better, buried beneath the monotony and dirt. It is this sort of redemption of the things he is describing that leads one to a conviction of Eliot’s deep humanity, even then he tosses this perception away immediately with the next lines Dash it away, this absurd degrading suggestion that there is anything good to be discovered in these worlds of the town; laugh at it, it is as futile as the plight of the destitute old woman who must glean for fuel in derelict building-sites. There remains, though, in the very choice of this image the same ambiguity as the whole poem conveys. An old woman searching for fuel is more likely to arouse our pity for helplessness and loneliness than our scorn or derision.”
52-54. The daily round of life, empty, monotonous and penurious is like the circular motion of poor old women gathering fuel in vacant corners to eke out their living. The sight is too deep for tears, but one has to laugh it away in order to live in this world.