Study Guide

Preludes Form and Meter

By T.S. Eliot

Form and Meter

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.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

Lines 2 and 4 rhyme ("passageways" with "days"). If we give each line a letter corresponding with each line's end rhyme, it'd look like this:

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.

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