A summary of a short Eliot poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Morning at the Window’ was written by T. S. Eliot in autumn 1914 and published in Eliot’s first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations, three years later. You can read ‘Morning at the Window’ here; below is our analysis of the poem.
In summary, ‘Morning at the Window’ presents a series of miniature observations about modern urban life: the sound of dirty plates being rattled in basement kitchens, the housemaids hanging around outside the properties where they are employed, the brown fog (reminiscent of the dark fog in much nineteenth-century French poetry, and in fiction such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). The poem is strongly influenced by the French poets Eliot had been reading, notably Charles Baudelaire and Jules Laforgue. Baudelaire, in particular, had showed Eliot how the modern city could be a fitting subject for the poet, as Eliot later recorded in his essay ‘Baudelaire’. The key, Eliot said, was to elevate ordinary everyday details to a higher pitch – to bring out the quasi-transcendent qualities of modern life. We glimpse this in that fleeting smile which is ‘torn’ from that passer-by, which lingers for a moment before vanishing ‘along the level of the roofs.’ Although its significance is downplayed, this brief human exchange is made more noteworthy given that it follows an otherwise rather squalid depiction of the city (the housemaids may have souls, but they are ‘damp’ – hardly burning with an intense passion for living).
‘Morning at the Window’, although unrhymed, adopts the basic shape of the Spenserian stanza – namely, nine lines ending with an alexandrine. (Traditionally, an alexandrine is a longer 12-syllable line, often containing a word like ‘along’, as Eliot’s does, to point up that it is a longer line than the standard pentameter one.) This was the stanza form used by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99) throughout his Elizabethan epic poem The Faerie Queene. However, Eliot uses this stanza form not to recount heroic deeds against an idyllic pastoral backdrop of fairyland, as Spenser does, but to convey his impressions of people in a dingy London backstreet. And unlike Spenser’s stanza form, Eliot’s is unrhymed.
Or is it? T. S. Eliot was sceptical of the notion of ‘free verse’, sometimes called vers libre after the French term for the same thing. For Eliot, ‘free’ verse is not entirely free, since that word implies unrestraint and a lack of control on the part of the poet, and in good poetry the poet must always be in control of his metre and language. In a 1917 essay, ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’, Eliot outlined his view on free verse, arguing that in English poetry so-called ‘free’ verse is always based, to some extent, on the iambic pentameter verse line – that is, the ten-syllable line used in much English verse, perhaps most famously by Shakespeare in his plays. And even if a poem is unrhymed, analysis of its line endings may reveal other structural patterns and echoes that are used in place of conventional rhyme – here, for instance, Eliot chooses to end two lines with ‘street’, and many of the lines end with a noun (kitchens, street, housemaids, gates, roofs, and so on). Think about what alternatives a poet might seek if he or she does not choose to utilise conventional rhyme in a poem. What makes such a poem as this modern? Why is there a blank line between the fourth and fifth lines?
‘Morning at the Window’ is one of T. S. Eliot’s most accessible poems, but it is not without its ambiguities. This analysis probably hasn’t resolved all of the poem’s complexities, nor would we take it upon ourselves to try. ‘Morning at the Window’ presents a distinctly modern view of London, focusing on everyday details and, following Baudelaire’s lead, elevating them ‘to the first intensity’. The result is a wonderful short poem.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: T. S. Eliot (picture credit: Ellie Koczela), Wikimedia Commons.