A summary of a classic early Eliot poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Preludes’ is a series of four short poems written by T. S. Eliot early in his career and published in his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917. In the following post we intend to sketch out a brief summary and analysis of ‘Preludes’, exploring the meaning of these short masterpieces and their significance for Eliot’s later poetry. You can read ‘Preludes’ here.
The first place to start with a summary of ‘Preludes’ is with the title. Eliot, who would effectively end his poetry career with a long work named Four Quartets, was fond of musical titles for his poems. A ‘prelude’ – literally ‘before the play’ – is a brief musical composition that is played before the main piece. This suggests that these poems are small-scale: as well as being short, they are seeking to capture something small, in this case the details of everyday urban living.
However, the times of day at which the four short poems that make up ‘Preludes’ take place suggest another meaning: the events and scenes described in ‘Preludes’ are, in a sense, building up to something, and are merely warm-ups to something bigger – such as getting ready to go to work in the morning.
What follows is a brief summary and analysis of ‘Preludes’. The first poem is set on a winter evening at six o’clock. We are treated to the sights, sounds, and smells of this evening: the smell of the dinners being cooked in nearby restaurants, the rain showering down on the chimney-pots of the houses, the wind blowing the fallen leaves and discarded newspapers across the street. This opening poem concludes with the coming of night and the lighting of the streetlamps.
The second poem takes place in the morning, when people are rising from bed and trudging to work, stopping at ‘coffee-stands’ for a pick-me-up on the way. There is still a faint smell of stale beer, a reminder of the previous night’s barroom goings-on. Countless people all over the town or city are getting ready to resume the ‘masquerades’ of daily life: work, school, and the like.
The poem’s speaker imagines all of the people raising the ‘dingy shades’ in their ‘furnished rooms’ (i.e. rented rooms, implying that they’re possibly also squalid and cheap) to let in the morning light.
The third poem changes tack a little, and rather than using the first or third person the speaker addresses us directly using the second-person ‘you’. This time, the focus is on lying awake at night, unable to sleep (tossing the blanket off you is a nice touch: who hasn’t done this in frustration when plagued by insomnia?), watching the night revealing all the ‘sordid images’ lying deep inside the mind.
This is a wonderful evocation of the way the mind becomes awash with horrible images when we can’t sleep. Sleep continues to elude us, and then it’s morning, the light reappearing and the sparrows chirping outside.
We are then treated to the most remarkable pair of lines in the whole of ‘Preludes’: how can the street understand our vision of it? One possible way to interpret this is to say that, when we’ve been kept up all night by unpleasant thoughts, we feel different about the world outside: while everyone else now stepping out into the street has been blissfully ignorant and asleep, we’ve been on a dark night of the soul, and feel we have come to see the world for what it really is.
And then, one must get up and get ready for work anyway, despite the sleepless night, taking the paper from one’s hair (it’s been in curlers all night) or massaging one’s feet ready to begin the walk to work again.
The fourth and final poem returns to the evening for its setting: we get the bizarre, Laforgue-inspired image of ‘His’ soul ‘stretched tight across the skies’: God’s, perhaps, whom the modern material world has forgotten in its impatience to get on with the tasks and chores of day-to-day living? This would make sense if we interpret the ‘soul’ stretched across the evening skies as a reference to the sunset. But this soul is also trampled beneath the ‘insistent feet’ of people heading home from work.
The world is full of impatient activity and people striding confidently about their business: men stuffing their pipes, reading the evening papers, eyes looking sure of themselves. The street is corrupted, ‘blackened’ by pollution and industrialisation but also black in a more abstract, metaphorical way.
But amongst all this, the speaker of the poem is ‘moved by fancies’ that can be found curled around these sordid urban images: some being who is gentle and suffering ‘infinitely’.
But before he can get too romantically sentimental about this, the speaker seems to straighten himself up and clear his throat and recollect himself: you have to laugh.
The poem then ends with the bizarre image of these different worlds inhabited by people revolving ‘like ancient women’ who are gathering fuel ‘in vacant lots’.
Many of T. S. Eliot’s greatest poems, and especially his earlier poems, are cityscapes: they explore life in the busy metropolis, whether it’s London, Boston, or even Paris (particularly in a number of poems Eliot wrote while living in the French capital in 1910-11 – poems which would not be published until 1996, more than thirty years after his death).
And Eliot had learned how to write about the city from reading a number of French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century. The most influential of these was Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), who taught Eliot how to write about the city as it really is, while also raising the sights and sounds of the city ‘to the first intensity’, as Eliot put it in a later essay on Baudelaire.
We can see this method clearly at work in ‘Preludes’, particularly in that closing description of the ‘infinitely suffering thing’ and the idea of the ‘soul stretched tight across the sky’ at the beginning of that final section. Eliot is describing the sunset, stretched out against the sky (elsewhere, in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, he would memorably describe the evening spread out against the sky as ‘a patient etherised upon a table’), but he employs the romantic and spiritual term ‘soul’ to elevate this image. We are invited to observe the contrast between the grubbiness of the city with its newspaper vendors, cigarette butts, steak dinners, and coffee cups and the beauty of the sunset.
Day in, day out, the sun keeps rising and setting. Things don’t change, the world keeps turning, things largely remain constant. There seems to be little escape from the everyday urban life of drudgery: you get up, you go to work, you come home, you sleep (or try to), you do it all again the next day. Even the horses driving the cabs are steaming and stamping as if frustrated with their lot in life. Of course, they are also stamping because that is what horses do – the image, in true Baudelairian fashion, works on two levels. This picture of urban life makes ‘Preludes’ an important precursor – indeed, prelude – to T. S. Eliot’s later poem The Waste Land.
The images of the modern metropolitan world which we find in ‘Preludes’ as well as many of the other poems in Eliot’s first volume of poems – the cigarette ends, the cups of coffee, the ‘vacant lots’ – are partly a result of the influence of the French poet Charles Baudelaire on Eliot. It is partly what helps to make him a modern poet, focusing on urban social alienation and the landscape of the city rather than on nature and the pastoral. He treats his characters and his scenes without sentiment, but nevertheless his poems contain an emotional intensity which Baudelaire had shown the way for: modern poetry did not have to be cold and emotionless.
About T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is regarded as one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century, with poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) assuring him a place in the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry.
Modernist poets often embraced free verse, but Eliot had a more guarded view, believing that all good poetry had the ‘ghost’ of a metre behind the lines. Even in his most famous poems we can often detect the rhythms of iambic pentameter – that quintessentially English verse line – and in other respects, such as his respect for the literary tradition, Eliot is a more ‘conservative’ poet than a radical.
Nevertheless, his poetry changed the landscape of Anglophone poetry for good. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot studied at Harvard and Oxford before abandoning his postgraduate studies at Oxford because he preferred the exciting literary society of London. He met a fellow American expatriate, Ezra Pound, who had already published several volumes of poetry, and Pound helped to get Eliot’s work into print. Although his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), sold modestly (its print run of 500 copies would take five years to sell out), the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, with its picture of a post-war Europe in spiritual crisis, established him as one of the most important literary figures of his day.
He never returned to America (except to visit as a lecturer), but became an official British citizen in 1927, the same year he was confirmed into the Church of England. His last major achievement as a poet was Four Quartets (1935-42), which reflect his turn to Anglicanism. In his later years he attempted to reform English verse drama with plays like Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He died in London in 1965.
Continue to explore great poetry about particular times of the day with these classic evening poems and these wonderful morning poems. For more modernist urban-themed poetry, read our discussion of Ezra Pound’s Imagist masterpiece, ‘In a Station of the Metro’.
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.