T.S. Eliot

‘Preludes’ is a chilling exploration of life amidst urban decay, alienation, and absence of meaning in the dark modern world.


T.S. Eliot

Nationality: American

T.S. Eliot, originally American turned British citizen, is remembered today as a literary critic, poet, and editor.

His poems have had a lasting influence on a generation of writers.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Urban decay, cultural degradation, and alienation are realities of the modern world

Themes: Spirituality

Speaker: Unknown, likely a city person

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Empathy, Fear, Hopelessness, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'Preludes', with its stark imagery and fragmented form, is a poignant representation of the pathetic human existence amidst the devastated modern world.

Preludes’ by T.S. Eliot is a six-stanza poem that is divided up into four distinct sections. There is not one specific rhyme scheme that lasts throughout the entire text. Instead, the stanzas and preludes have different patterns. The meter is also scattered. Throughout the majority of the poem, Eliot utilizes iambic tetrameter though. This means that a number of the lines contain four sets of two beats or syllables. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed.

It is likely that Eliot considered the subject matter of ‘Preludes’ when crafting the not-quite-consistent pattern of rhyme and rhythm. Considering that the text focuses on modern life, it makes sense that no one pattern could contain all parts.

T.S. Eliot

IThe winter evening settles downWith smell of steaks in passageways.Six o’clock.The burnt-out ends of smoky days.And now a gusty shower wrapsThe grimy scrapsOf withered leaves about your feetAnd newspapers from vacant lots;The showers beatOn broken blinds and chimney-pots,And at the corner of the streetA lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.And then the lighting of the lamps.

IIThe morning comes to consciousnessOf faint stale smells of beerFrom the sawdust-trampled streetWith all its muddy feet that pressTo early coffee-stands.

With the other masqueradesThat time resumes,One thinks of all the handsThat are raising dingy shadesIn a thousand furnished rooms.

IIIYou tossed a blanket from the bed,You lay upon your back, and waited;You dozed, and watched the night revealingThe thousand sordid imagesOf which your soul was constituted;They flickered against the ceiling.And when all the world came backAnd the light crept up between the shuttersAnd you heard the sparrows in the gutters,You had such a vision of the streetAs the street hardly understands;Sitting along the bed’s edge, whereYou curled the papers from your hair,Or clasped the yellow soles of feetIn the palms of both soiled hands.

IVHis soul stretched tight across the skiesThat fade behind a city block,Or trampled by insistent feetAt four and five and six o’clock;And short square fingers stuffing pipes,And evening newspapers, and eyesAssured of certain certainties,The conscience of a blackened streetImpatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curledAround these images, and cling:The notion of some infinitely gentleInfinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;The worlds revolve like ancient womenGathering fuel in vacant lots.
Preludes by T.S. Eliot


T.S. Eliot contains a complex imagistic narrative on the dark and depressing nature of city life and the state of the human soul.

The poem begins with the speaker describing a city just entering into the night. He pays close attention to the smell of steak in the air and the fact that there is a lot of grime on the ground. There are newspapers and many other miscellaneous pieces of trash. All of these blow around “your” feet. The first section ends with all the indoor lamps turning on.

When the poem resumes in the second section, it is morning again, and the city is regaining consciousness. There is a smell of beer in the air, and everyone is pulling up their dirty blinds, unhappy to face another day that is exactly like the last.

The third section depicts “your” particular experience. This person had a night filled with sordid dreams straight from the soul. When “you” finally get up, it takes some time but “you” eventually make it back into “your” life. The last lines give the reader a little bit of hope that maybe the timeless, miserable way of living will not go on forever.

You can read more poems by T.S. Eliot here.

Symbols and Images

There are a number of images that turn up multiple times within ‘Preludes.’ One of the most striking is the newspaper. It appears in the first, third, and fourth stanzas and is used for a variety of different tasks. The pieces, which are circulated throughout the city and move from hand to hand, symbolize the slow degradation of the city as well as its resilience. The newspaper is connected to the soul of the city itself. They are everywhere, touching every life. 

A reader should also consider the role of the soul in ‘Preludes.’ Although it is not until section three that the “soul” explicitly makes its way into the narrative, it is present throughout. It comes to symbolize the parts of life that generally go unnoticed. Due to the fact that it is not on the surface, it is ignored by the majority of people. 

It is important to note before beginning this piece that the word “Prelude” refers to a musical interval. Its song-like qualities are played out through the range of rhymes and rhythms used. 

Analysis of Preludes

Section One 

Lines 1-8

The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;

In the first lines of ‘Preludes,‘ the speaker begins by setting the scene. It is a winter evening, and the day is coming to a close. The speaker describes it as though it is a person; he personifies it, allowing a reader to better understand the place. 

The next feature he wants the reader to know about the city is that it smells like steak. This smell is in the “passageways” wafting from restaurants and homes. The scene is less calm than it originally seemed in the first lines, as the speaker depicts the day as “burnt-out.” It is exhausting, and finally settling down. 

There is a rainstorm happening as well. It moves the “grimy scraps” left behind by the long day “about your feet.” At this point, it becomes clear that Eliot is going to utilize the second person. This makes perfect sense for this piece as it forces the reader into the narrative alongside the speaker. In the next line, there is the first reference to newspapers. They are moving from their previous resting place in “vacant lots.” 

Lines 9-13

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

Now it is really raining. It is beating down onto the apartments and rattling the “broken blinds and chimney pots.” The speaker makes clear that the city is not in good shape. It seems to be falling apart. 

In the last lines, the speaker calls the reader’s attention to the, 

[…] corner of the street 

A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps. 

And then the lightning of the lamps. 

The city scene is becoming increasingly dramatic. There is a horse in the distance, stamping its feet on the ground and blowing hot air out of its nose. The last line is separate from the rest of the stanza. He describes the “lightning of the lamps.” This is a reference to the onset of night and how everyone lights the lamps inside their homes. The line emphasizes the fact that the people in the city have long since escaped from its streets. They are now safely inside. 

Section Two 

Lines 1-10

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

The next section of ‘Preludes’ is also a single stanza. Here, the speaker skips the rest of the night, and morning has dawned once more. This is another example of Eliot’s use of personification. The city comes back to “consciousness,” just like a human being waking up. The first smell the speaker takes note of this time is that of “stale…beer.” This is a leftover from whatever happened at night between the two stanzas. 

There are also footprints in the mud. These lead up to “early coffee-stands.” The importance of this line connects to the next, in which the speaker emphasizes the unchanging pattern of life. The inhabitants of the city need coffee to resume their “masquerades” with time. 

The speaker wants to make sure the reader thinks, 

[…] of all the hands 

That are raising dingy shades 

In a thousand furnished rooms. 

The morning is not necessarily a fresh start to life. These people are grudgingly entering back into the same pattern of tasks. The relevance of the reference to “masquerade” balls comes from the fact that time never seems to progress. There are no changes to the landscape of movement. 

Section Three 

Lines 1-11

You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;

Here, the speaker returns to the listener, the person or people he referred to as “You” in the first stanza. He uses this person to depict a general course of action taken by an average resident of the city. It begins with a return to – night. This person throws off their blanket but does not get out of bed. They lay there and stare at the ceiling, waiting and dozing and meditating on all the “sordid” or distasteful images of the night. 

Finally, the world and the morning light creep back in again. It gets rid of the terrible images that came straight from “your” “soul.” It is at night that these undefined, morally corrupting thoughts take place. The speaker describes how “your” soul is “constituted,” or made up of, the terrible images. 

“You” hear the sparrows moving, not in trees, but in the “gutters” of the buildings. The speaker states that “you” imagine the street in a way that the street itself could not understand. It is not entirely clear what Eliot meant in these lines, but perhaps he was thinking about how one’s own image of the world makes the world what it is. One’s emotions influence how the world seems at any given time. 

Lines 12-15

Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

Finally, the “you” in this narrative sits up in bed. In this position, “you” take newspapers (another reference, as mentioned in the introduction) and use them to “curl…your hair.” It appears that the “you” in this piece is a woman. The speaker continues on to mention how you, 

[…] clasped the yellow soles of feet 

In the palms of both soiled hands.

There is a great deal of dirt and grime left over from the day before. This emphasizes the fact the new day does not wipe away the old. There is grime on the main subject’s hands and feet even though the day is just beginning. 

Section Four 

Lines 1-9

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

The fourth section of ‘Preludes’ is the longest of the four and begins with a nine-line stanza. The stanza includes another mention of the “soul.” This is one of the most important images of the piece; for more, see the introductory section “Symbols and Images.” The soul belongs to a man. It is in the sky, and it is in the city itself. One can find it, 

[…] trampled by insistent feet 

At four and five and six o’clock; 

Although it is unclear whose soul this is or what kind of soul it is, it is being ignored. It is stretched tight, trying to remain solvent while also being subjected to the pounding of thousands of feet as men and women race to get to work, home, and to work again. This is a larger metaphor for the way that what is right and moral is ignored and damaged by the demands of everyday life. This makes it seem as though the soul does not belong to just one person but is perhaps representative of the world as a whole. 

In the next lines, the speaker depicts the soul as the “conscience of a blackened street.” Eliot’s depiction of a soul is impatient; it wants to “assume the world” and hold greater influence over those who normally trample it. 

Lines 10-13

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

The fifth stanza only contains four lines and transitions from the second person to the first person. Now, the speaker describes how he is, 

[…] moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images, and cling:

His involvement in this narrative allows one to take a more hopeful approach to what is being described. When he looks out on the grimy, smelly city streets, he is able to hold onto the “notion of some infinitely gentle…thing” that moves around. This could be a general feeling of grace, goodness, or the physical impact of what listening to one’s soul could do. 

Lines 14-16

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

In the final three lines of ‘Preludes,’ the speaker returns to the second person and asks the reader to “Wipe” their hand across their mouth “and laugh.” This is a return to the previous image of time going nowhere. He describes the world as revolving endlessly and as history repeating itself. The “ancient women” come again and again to “Gather…fuel in vacant lots.” 

The speaker wants the reader to look at the world and see it for what it is, but not despair. One needs to embrace their own soul, see hope in the future, and laugh when they can. It is not clear whether or not the speaker sees the world as changing and becoming any less grimy anytime soon. 

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T.S. Eliot

'Preludes' is one of the earliest poems of T.S Eliot, written during 1910-11 and published in Eliot's first collection 'Prufrock and Other Observations' (1917), which established his reputation in the literary world. 'Preludes' explores urban decay, spiritual and moral desolation, and the degraded modern world anticipating major poems like 'The Waste Land' and 'Gerontion'. The poem carries Eliot's allusive method, starking grim urban imagery, and modernist techniques.
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20th Century

Written during 1910-11 and published in 1917, 'Preludes' resonates with its time and contemporary intellectual and cultural concerns. Humans were disillusioned in an uncertain modern world with rapid scientific and political developments (like World War 1) eroding old values and creating a devastated modern world. Eliot paints a picture of a grim and desolate modern world with sordid humans living meaningless lives.
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Eliot was born in America and was an American citizen when 'Preludes' was written and published. He moved to Paris to study philosophy in 1910 after working as a philosophy assistant at Harvard. 'Preludes' is one of the earliest poems of Eliot which he wrote during 1910-11 while in Paris. Although the poem reflects the concerns of the modern world, Eliot has confessed the influence of his American roots on his poetry.
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'Preludes,' while portraying a grim picture of urban decay, reflects on the meaningless modern world existence lacking spirituality and human connections; the alienated individuals carry their souls constituted of "sordid images" while living their desolate lives in a degraded modern world. The poem's subtle mention of "suffering" exudes a longing for spiritual meaning amidst such modern existence.
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'Preludes' presents a grim, hopeless, and desolate modern world evoking modern readers' anxiety. Direct use of the second person pronoun "you" in the third stanza while presenting the meaningless and monotonous modern existence can startle the readers and evoke anxiety over the state of their world and lives.
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'Preludes' contemplates the dreadful state of modern life and its monotony accompanied by souls constituted of "sordid imagery" while subtly reflecting a longing for meaning and spirituality, thus, evoking the readers' empathy who might be suffering from a similar state and longing for meaning in the decayed modern world.
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'Preludes' paints a dismal picture of the wretched modern world and the degraded existence of humans with forbidding imagery, precisely showing the readers the reality of their hopeless world while evoking their fear as they are trapped in such a state.
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'Preludes' portrays the degraded modern world lacking meaning, values, and culture as the alienated and disillusioned individuals lacking human connections and values inhabit it. The poem's stark words-"infinite suffering" towards the end accentuate the hopelessness of meaningless and monotonous modern existence, moving the readers to reflect on the hopeless state of their world.
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'Preludes' subtly reflects on the suffering of humans while inhabiting the dismal and hopeless modern world; such entrapment in monotonous desolate lives exudes melancholy, evoking the readers' sadness for the degraded humanity and decayed culture. The poem's ending on a grim note accentuates the emotion of sadness.
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Eliot's poems are known for their comprehensive allusions to various cultural, historical, and literary references. 'Preludes' refers to a range of sources, including biblical myths, Charles Baudelaire's poetry collection 'The Flowers of Evil', poems of French symbolist poets Jules Laforgue and Paul Verlaine, Dante's 'Divine Comedy', and urban cityscape of London, etc.
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Daily Life

'Preludes' captures daily life and its monotonous and meaningless pursuits carried out by alienated individuals in a decayed modern world. The monotonous rituals of daily life are dismal and accentuate the hopelessness of a spiritually desolate and culturally degraded modern world.
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'Preludes' presents the decayed urban life which lacks spirituality, meaning, and genuine human connections as the isolated individuals carry on their monotonous daily routines. The poem exudes an immense sense of loneliness through the imagery of broken blinds, empty streets, and individuals enclosed in furnished rooms. Alienated individuals lacking human connections go through "infinite suffering" with their "sordid souls" in a wretched modern world.
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Although exploration of the mind or psyche is not explicit in the poem, 'Preludes' captures the inner workings of thought by employing fragmentation and a modernist technique called stream of consciousness. The portrayal of a bleak world in a dream-like situation through strange and otherworldy imagery in stanza three emphasizes the working of the human psyche and inner consciousness in a decayed world.
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'Preludes' deals with existential philosophical concerns while presenting the meaningless modern existence. The poem raises questions pertaining to the meaningful human existence and state of human consciousness in a decayed world that longs for spiritual connection. With its startling imagery and fragmented form, the poem delves into philosophical questions concerning the complexities of human existence in a rapidly changing and uncertain modern world.
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World War One (WWI)

Though written during 1910-11, 'Preludes' was first published in 1917, towards the end of World War 1; the poem resonated with the social and cultural milieu caused by the devastation of the war, which eroded the pre-war civilizational ideals, values, and pillars like religion and democracy - accentuating the modern existential issues pertaining to loss of spirituality, disillusionment and alienation of people, and fragmentation of psyche.
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Free Verse

'Preludes' is written in free verse as the poem doesn't follow any set rhyme or meter pattern. The poem is divided into four parts which seem like four individual poems of uneven length portraying distinct urban scenes. The free verse mostly employs iambic pentameter; however, the disjointedness of the four parts and the use of stream of consciousness accentuates the embedded fragmentation.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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