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T.S. Eliot—you may have heard of him. You may even have read a poem or two of his. "The Waste Land" and "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" are among the most famous poems of all time, after all. Or maybe you've seen the famous Broadway musical Cats, which was based on his work. Yeah, the guy is basically a legend.
But here's a question for you, Shmoopers: how do legends begin? Are you scratching your chin in thought? Well, think about it: usually there's a person, just like you or me, who seems pretty normal. They live an average life and go about their business. Until… something big happens to them, or they themselves do something big—something that changes the world as we know it.
For Eliot—who worked as a banker, schoolteacher, and editor—that "something big" is often considered to be that poem we mentioned earlier, "The Waste Land." It looks at a modern and a rapidly-changing, post-war world and gives us all a language with which to consider these changes. It expresses the fears and malaise and sorrow of an entire time period.
But maybe, just maybe, Eliot's legend began even earlier. "Preludes" came out in 1920, years before Eliot's big, famous poem. It's a small work, by comparison, and doesn't have any of the allusions or quotes in foreign languages that Eliot is known for. It's a brief collection of images, split into four small sections and filled with images of grime, garbage, and city life.
Now, "Preludes" isn't a poem that would make anyone famous. And yet, within this little poem are so many of the themes that Eliot later expands on: hopelessness, decay, and change. It's got the building blocks of his later work in one small, condensed version. The poem's language and themes hint at something larger to come. Plus, it contains one of the most haunting final images of any of his poems—like, ever. It may not be legendary in its own right, but it gives us a glimpse of the genius that was to come. And that, friends, is something that's well worth looking at.
When's the last time you checked your cell phone? Chances are, it was within the last hour (hopefully it wasn't while you were walking). Even when you are trying to do something else, it's easy to be distracted. Our phones can communicate with our friends, play music, and contain the entire internet. But sometimes, we can get so distracted that we forget to look up, and then—ouch. We walk straight into a tree.
T.S. Eliot understands our preoccupation. In "Preludes," the news floats through all levels of society, winding up in the streets, our hands, and even in our bedrooms. He knows we humans like our information quick and available at all times.
He also knows that too much distraction can have dire consequences. The people and the city in the poem have both begun to decay, but nobody even notices. They don't even notice how miserable they are, or how some of them are suffering. They don't even notice each other. They're just too distracted by information and day-to-day tasks.
Yikes. But before you consider "Preludes" just another lecture about the dangers of modern technology, know that our man Eliot thinks we humans have a shot at avoiding this dire scene. How, you ask? Well, we can avoid it by taking a break and looking around. Eliot says we can't let the news, or jobs, or our day-to-day duties distract us from what is really important: our souls, which contain our conscience and our morality. These souls are just floating around, waiting for us to notice them.
Look up, he says, and you might just see them (or something else—like, you know… that tree).
The Man Himself.
Read all about our main man Eliot.
Looking for more? There's plenty to sift through here.
The Nobel Speech
Check out T.S. Eliot's Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
Eliot and Hopper
This video does more than pair Eliot's poem with the super-appropriate paintings of Edward Hopper. It features a reading by Eliot himself.
BBC on T.S.
Start here on part 1 of the BBC's documentary on Eliot.
Rich, Somber Reading
Listen to the poem, read by Tom O'Bedlam.
Here's a second reading.
A Fine Gentleman
Here's Eliot, in a dapper suit, lookin' good.
Check out the poet and playwright on the cover of TIME.
The Art of Poetry
Here's an-depth interview with the poet.
Enjoy the one-stop shopping of all Eliot's poems, in one book.