Study Guide

Preludes Stanza 1

By T.S. Eliot

Stanza 1

Lines 1-4

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days

  • Well, it's wintertime, and the city is… um, disgusting. 
  • Although, it doesn't start out sounding so bad: the evening "settles down," which sounds pleasant enough, right?
  • After a busy day, doesn't everyone like to relax a little?
  • But… an evening can't relax; it isn't a person. 
  • That's true, but in a poem, anything can happen. Giving human characteristics to non-human things is called personification, and poets do it all the time. (That includes Eliot; in one of the most famous opening lines of all time, Eliot says the sky is like a drugged-up patient.)
  • Back to the setting: we are assuming we are in a city, since he mentions passageways and the smell of steak (mmm, steak), presumably from restaurants. It sounds pleasant enough… 
  • Line 4 is where we start to get the sense that maybe this isn't a totally idyllic scene. The poem's speaker calls the evening the "burnt-out" end of a "smoky" day. With that imagery, we picture a cigarette butt—not exactly the most pleasant metaphor, huh?
  • Cities are one of Eliot's favorite settings (pretty much all of his poems take place in one). Check out "Setting" for more.
  • We just bet that this won't be the only parallel to Eliot's later work. Don't worry, Shmoopers. We'll let you know when Eliot is using a word or image that he'll later rely on in some of his more famous poems.
  • As well, Eliot uses a pretty wild rhyme scheme. Check it out: lines 2 and 4 rhyme ("passageways" and "smoky days"), but lines 1 and 3 don't. 
  • Let's read on to see if Eliot continues this trend throughout the poem (and then you should check out "Form and Meter" for the full breakdown).

Lines 5-8

And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;

  • Well, that didn't take long. Our speaker's already switching up the rhyme scheme. Now, lines 5 and 6 rhyme. It sure looks like Eliot's playing with form in this poem, and that doesn't just involve rhyme.
  • He also uses enjambment, a fancy word for "hitting the enter key in the middle of a phrase." It's one way to keep the form of the poem consistent while encouraging the reader to keep reading without taking a pause. 
  • For example, try reading lines 5-6 aloud. Naturally you'll keep moving, without much of a pause, between "wraps" and "The grimy scraps." Keep your eyes peeled for more instances of enjambment in this poem.
  • Also, be on the lookout for more imagery. A "gusty shower" has cleared some of the grime from the street, wrapping all the trash and leaves around our feet. Hold up—our feet? Yep, we're there with Eliot, hanging out in the city. We hope someone brought an umbrella...
  • Litter is one of Eliot's frequently-used images. "The Waste Land" is just filled with trash. He definitely loves to use garbage imagery to indicate that a city isn't in great shape.
  • Here's another clue that this city isn't in great shape: those "vacant lots." Unused or abandoned lots aren't usually found in thriving areas of cities. 
  • With this image of abandonment, Eliot finally gives us a chance to take a breath by inserting an end stop (in this case, it's a semi-colon). If enjambment keeps the lines moving, end stops force us to take a moment and consider what we've just seen.
  • Have you caught your breath yet on this urban stroll? Good, let's keep moving.

Lines 9-12

The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

  • Man, it's really starting to pour out there.
  • The imagery of "broken blinds" offers another clue that things are a bit run-down hereabouts. The phrase is also an example of alliteration, which Eliot uses to create some fun sounds.
  • If you read it aloud, "broken blinds" and "chimney-pots" actually sound like raindrops hitting a surface. Tricky guy, huh? 
  • "Steams and stamps" is another example of alliteration. Those S sounds give us a backdrop sound of a steady rain, while the hard P in "stamps" kind of sounds like the horse stamping his foot. Can you hear it? Even if you can't, check out "Sound Check" for more, and keep your eyes peeled for more sonically-solid examples throughout the poem. 
  • You might also notice the end stops in these lines. We're slowing down a little, in order to take it all in. After the cab-horse stomps, we pause our walk through the city and look around.

Line 13

And then the lighting of the lamps.

  • This line is set apart from the rest of the stanza, so… it must be important.
  • Evening is turning into night here, causing everyone to light their lamps (they didn't have light switches in those days).
  • This simple, daily action seems to change everything about the way we experience setting; now we are focusing not on the rainy, dirty streets but the lights from indoors. 
  • Eliot would use lamps as a way to reveal truth in a later poem, but here, they are more of an invitation to come inside. 
  • And with this invitation, the stanza ends. Shall we accept? Let's read on…