With a musical title like "Preludes," we just know there's gotta be some music here somewhere. Well, it's definitely got a particular sound, though (in true Eliot style) a consistent beat is nowhere to be found. To get a handle on Eliot's sonic stylings, let's break down his method:
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Notice the repetition of the S sound? It almost becomes a tongue-twister. He uses consonance (and the similar trick of alliteration) frequently throughout the poem to make the words practically jump off the page. For instance, check out the B alliteration in "broken blinds" (10), the L sounds in "lighting of the lamps" (12), the hard C sounds in "comes to consciousness" (13), and the whole mess of S sounds in "short square fingers stuffing pipes" (42).
We bet you can find a few more. These strong consonant sounds, combined with the ever-changing meter (see "Form and Meter" for more) make for a poem that jumps and dances around, never settling into one style and letting us as readers get comfortable. Comfort is just not what this poem is about. (But, if you want to accentuate the positive in these sound choices, you can look to the influence of a new popular music in Eliot's era: jazz. Who knew Eliot was such a hip guy?)
A "prelude" is similar to a prologue; preludes are short pieces that introduce something larger.
Here, Eliot is introducing us to the themes of his later, larger works, like "The Waste Land" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", both of which explore the despair, monotony, and sorrow of human life in the modern world.
The title may also reflect the brief nature of these poems; they can be seen a prelude to something larger, something Eliot only wants to give us a brief glimpse of. We can think of them as the opening act to Eliot's big, headlining show. And considering that he often used musical terms to title his poems (like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Four Quartets"), this could even have been Eliot's intention all along.
Ah, the city. Don't you love the smell of greasy food, the garbage everywhere, the dingy apartment windows? Yeah, maybe not so much…
We begin the poem by wandering through the streets in the rain. Discarded newspapers collect around our feet, and we're surrounded by broken chimney pots and lonely horses. It's definitely time to go indoors. The exterior of the city comes inside with us, though, into interiors no less grimy. The shades are dingy and the rooms are probably small. When we finally return to the outside world, we notice that the people seem preoccupied and heartless, too busy reading the paper to notice their own souls. Finally, the poem transports us back in time to an earlier version of the city, where women gather fuel in a vacant lot. Can you say grim?
With no other details to distinguish it, the city serves as a general idea of city life, with all its garbage, grime, and, well, hopelessness. The city of "Preludes" is never identified for this reason. It could be any big city, its inhabitants could be any of us, and its hopelessness universal. It's not a vacation spot, to say the least.
Who guides us through these dirty streets and dingy apartments? The speaker in the poem stays detached from the images for most of the poem, serving as a narrator to the reader, whom he (or she) addresses directly at points.
While the speaker might not seem to be physically present, he (we'll just use "he" here for simplicity) sure seems to know about us. In stanza 1, the speaker places us inside the city on a rainy night, and later follows us home as we get ready for bed. They even know the way we curl our hair.
But we aren't the only ones that the speaker has special knowledge about; the speaker knows that the cab horse is "lonely." Yep, this person is a mind-reader. In stanza 2, our speaker knows what we are thinking, and then what the street is thinking in stanza 3. All this knowledge would suggest that the speaker is omniscient, which makes him able to time-travel in the last stanza and see those ancient women gathering fuel.
The identity of this time-travelling speaker may not be apparent, but his opinion of the city and the people within it is pretty clear. They frequently call the city "grimy," "stale" and without conscience. It's clear the speaker doesn't have the best opinion of the way the city's inhabitants live. He seems to know everything, and isn't very pleased by that knowledge.
Though it's a cacophony of images, style, and gloom, Preludes is free of the tricky allusions that pepper most of Eliot's other works. Proceed with confidence; once you get used to the rhythms of the poem, the end of the journey is in sight.
Eliot, a despite being a modernist (part of the literary movement to make things "new") had some pretty strong opinions about modern life and its effects on our humanity. You could even say it's his favorite subject.
In "Preludes," our conscience has been dulled by distractions, and our minds are filled with sordid images and ideas. The culprit is our preoccupation with modern life, with its news cycle and business, all of which leave us little time to nurture our souls. Eliot's most well-known poems, like "The Waste Land" and "The Love Song for J. Alfred Prufrock", expand on the ills of modern society with similarly gloomy tones.
"Preludes," however, suggests at the end that humanity has always been gloomy and full of struggle—it just didn't used to be so preoccupied. Don't get too distracted to remember the lessons of the past, he warns in his poems; those lessons might just save our souls from decay.
Preludes are musical interludes, so someone reading the title might expect the poem to sound like a song. Here Eliot doesn't disappoint, though the poem isn't exactly "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." It's a varied, rhythm-filled symphony of sounds.
To get a grasp on Eliot's form, it might help to consider this four-part poem as four separate musical interludes, using stanza 1 as an example of how he plays with both form and meter. Let's take a look at the first four lines:
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
The winter evening settles down A
With smell of steaks in passageways. B
Six o'clock. C
The burnt-out ends of smoky days. B
Does Eliot stay consistent? Let's look at the next four lines:
And now a gusty shower wraps D
The grimy scraps D
Of withered leaves about your feet E
And newspapers from vacant lots; F
The showers beat E
Hmm… we guess not. One way he does stay consistent, though, is with the lines' meter. For example:
The winter evening settles down
We can count eight syllables, broken into four feet, or units of syllables. Here, Eliot uses the most common foot in poetry, the iamb, which consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable (daDUM). And because there are four iambs in the line, it is written in iambic tetrameter (tetra- means four).
Meter-wise, Eliot stays pretty consistent in stanza 1, but he breaks from iambic tetrameter in lines 3, 6, and 9. The rest of the stanzas follow his choppy, wild style. He returns to rhyming and iambic tetrameter frequently throughout the rest of the poem, but before we can get used to it again, he breaks into something different, always keeping us on our toes.
So, what's up with this on-again, off-again form and meter? Well, maybe Eliot was inspired by jazz, a free-form style of music that was just becoming popular in his time. Hop over to "Sound Check" for more on this poem's sound techniques. Even if that's not what he's going for here, we can say that the poem paints a disturbed portrait of modern life (modern to Eliot, anyway). To really drive that sense of disturbance home, the poem both sets up a nice predictable pattern, then messes it up every which way, only flirting with a sense of symmetry now and again. The overall effect is a feeling of uneasiness. Something's definitely off key in this musical number.
We first see newspapers in stanza 1, where they litter an empty lot. Later in stanza 3, a woman uses strips of them to curl her hair, which gets her fingers dirty with the ink. Stanza 4 has the newspapers being circulated and read throughout the city, distracting the people from their conscience.
Whether they are adding to the garbage in the streets, staining the people, or distracting them, newspapers are used as a symbol of decay, both of the souls and of the city itself. The newspapers have become dirty in part because of how disposable they are. We can't even escape their influence by going into our homes at night; the ink stains our fingers, just like the stories within the newspapers influence the way we think about an ever-changing, often-depressing, society. For a poem that equates distraction with decay, it's a pretty apt symbol.
At the end of the poem, the soul floats between the buildings and underneath our feet, but no one seems to notice it. The soul symbolizes something easily ignored: our conscience, something the inhabitants of this poem seem to have forgotten.
It isn't the only time the soul plays a role in the poem, though; in stanza 3, the soul is "constituted" of sordid images, which are only revealed at night. In both instances, Eliot uses imagery to illuminate the invisible and show what our souls really contain: both our conscience and our darkest impulses.
The poem returns, again and again, to imagery of litter and filth. Eliot begins the poem by describing the city as "burnt out," "smoky" and full of "grimy scraps, " but he doesn't leave the dirt on the streets. In stanza 2, we can smell the stale beer from the inside of our apartment, where we contemplate our neighbors raising their "dingy shades." The grime follows us even further inside in stanza 3, where our hands, feet, and even our souls are described as "soiled" or "sordid." Eliot connects the literal dirt of the city to the figurative dirt within us, and seems to indicate that this grime is hard to escape.
Changes in light indicate changes in the poem. In stanza 1, we end with "and then the lighting of the lamps" (13) which is set apart from the rest of the stanza and moves us from the dark of the street to inner rooms. Eliot again uses light to signal change in stanza 2, when hands raise "dingy shades" and it turns from night back to day at the end of the stanza. It's in stanza 3, though, where light plays a bigger role than just changing the scene. When light "creeps" up the shutters at the end of a long, restless night, it doesn't actually bring relief—only visions of the dirty street outside.
Time keeps on slippin'… Whether he's mentioning a specific time ("six o'clock" in line 3 or "four and five and six o'clock" in line 42) or commenting on the transitions between morning, evening, and night, the speaker is preoccupied with the time. The stanzas are very specific about the way we measure time's passage throughout the day, but Eliot doesn't just use the concept of time to indicate what is going on in the poem. In stanza 2 he tells us that time is just a "masquerade" (19); because we are always doing the same things, nothing actually changes. And in the time-travelling moment at the end of the poem in stanza 4, we see ancient women gathering fuel, facing the same struggles that we face today. In the end, time is just an illusion.
It's definitely a dirty poem… in a streets-full-of-garbage-way. There's no need to avert your eyes (but you might want to plug your nose).