Study Guide

Preludes Themes

  • Suffering

    Though no one seems to be complaining in "Preludes," the inhabitants of the poem are all suffering. They live in a run-down city and their living situations are impoverished. But it's their souls that are really suffering, argues the speaker. Their souls are filled with sordid images and material preoccupations, and so they don't notice each other's humanity anymore. To the speaker, that's the true definition of suffering.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Does anyone in the poem actually seem dissatisfied to you? If so, who? If not, does that mean they aren't suffering?
    2. Why does the poem end with the image of women gathering fuel?
    3. In the speaker's opinion, how are poverty and suffering related? Does the speaker seem more concerned with material poverty or spiritual poverty?

    Chew on This

    The speaker is trying to tell us that our souls suffering because of the quality of our lives.

    Actually, our speaker seems to be suffering more than anyone else in the poem.

  • Time

    "Preludes" jumps from night to morning to midday and then it makes an even bigger jump: back in time. No matter when the poem settles, the conclusion is the same: life has always been rough. You could set this poem forward or backwards 100 years, implies the speaker, and it wouldn't change much. Humanity will always face bleak times. It's just that some of them have more distractions than others.

    Questions About Time

    1. How does Eliot use imagery to signal when the poem is moving ahead or backward in time?
    2. Are there any clues about the era in which the poem takes place? Is the time period important to this poem? How can you tell?
    3. Why does Eliot mention specific times of day, like "four and five and six o'clock?" What happens at those times of day in a city and why would that be significant for the poem?
    4. In the poem, what is revealed during the daytime, and what is revealed during the nighttime? Why do you think Eliot made those choices?

    Chew on This

    Poetry can achieve time travel (no DeLorean required), but the human condition will always be essentially the same.

    Eliot uses the different times of day to reveal what's going on in our souls.

  • Society and Class

    "Preludes" takes place mostly in a city, one with a diverse economic classes. You have the people who are too poor to afford curling irons and the business people who don't have time to notice the rest of humanity. Neither class is portrayed as better than the other; the poor have souls filled with sordid images and the rich are too busy to pay attention to their own consciences. It's a lose-lose. In the end, we all face ethical struggles, and this poem suggests we are too busy (and filled with unsavory thoughts) to notice.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How does the speaker indicate their opinions about society?
    2. What clues tell us that we are witnessing an impoverished area of the city? What clues tell us we are in the business district?
    3. What members of society have the hardest time being noticed? Why?
    4. Does the speaker indicate being part of a higher class brings people more happiness? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The different classes portrayed in the poem may have different struggles, but neither seems to come out on top. Everybody hurts.

    In the end, the business of daily life leaves everyone too busy to notice their conscience. (Wake up out there, people.)