Prelude Summary TS Eliot
ANNOTATIONS ON THE TEXT
Gist: The winter evening in the city of London emits the smell of pieces of fried meat. The stormy wind pushes about bits of leaves coated with dirt and newspapers from vacant unoccupied places of the open. The houses have broken and dingy blinds. The cabhorse perspires and stamps its foot. Soon the street lights will gleam murkily in the winter air. (Stanza I)
Note: Leaving the elegant drawing-room atmosphere of “Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady”, Eliot descends into the lower depths of society. He has relinquished his Henry James settings in favour of the more sordid environment of the London slum; and instead of the drawing rooms of the rich and cultured, the reader discovers the dreary and depressing world of the working poor. Accompanying this shift in setting and decor is a shift in the locale of the imagery. Coffeestands and beer have displaced the marmalade and tea, while evening newspapers take the place of great poetry. The predominantly soft effects of “Prufrock” and the “Portrait”- the heavy liquid tonalities, the delicate aristocratic decor, the polite language-these have all but vanished, and we are left with only the harsh imagery of the streets, supported by the hard tonalities of T, K, P and D.
Comment: One of the more important incidental images of the “Preludes” is that of smoke, appearing in the fourth lines of the poem: “The smoky ends of burnt-out days”. A variant of this image occurs in the twelfth line, in which a cab-horse “steams and stamps”. Besides creating a soft texture to contrast with the harder textures of streets and lamp-posts, the smoke image suffuses the poem with an atmosphere of indefinite gloom and motionless monotony, out of which the more. concrete impressions detach themselves with clarity. In its context here the smoke image might suggest the death agonies accompanying the end of a day in a modern industrial city in which a million smoking chimneys are snuffing out the life of the day: it might also suggest the burning fag-end of a cigarette with its connotations of spent force and jaded pleasure.
More significantly, the smoke forms part of a scheme of motto images which recur in several of Eliot’s poems. In “Prufrock” we motto occurs in the opening line (“Among the smoke and fog of a encounter the yellow fog and the smoking pipes; in ‘Portrait’ the 1 grey as December afternoon”) and in the final paragraph (“Afternoon and smoky ………. With the smoke coming down above the housetops”) The smoke-fog motto also appears in “Burbank with a Baedeker” “The smoky candle end of time”, and later still we find it in The Waste Land as “the brown fog of a winter noon.” Here and elsewhere this motto takes on a profound metaphysical significance: it symbolizes our dying industrial society-a secular society that is spiritually dead and whose vitality is burning out. In these “smoky ends of burnt-out days”, therefore, one discerns the death throes of Western civilization.
Lines 4-13: The burnt-out ends of smoky days-the foggy and smoky day burns out like a cigarette-end. And now a gusty……….lotsthe gusty wind accompanied with rain drives away the bits of leaves coated with fifth and newspapers sheets from empty, open places and these clutter round the pedestrians’ legs. Wraps-pushes, drives away. Vacant lots-unoccupied plots of land. Blinds-window screen. A cabhorse steams and stamps-the horse that draws the carriage stands, exuding steam and stamping its feet with force. And then the lighting of the lamps-soon the lamps will gleam dim and murky.
Comment: The picture of a desolate urban scene with all its ugliness and squalor is drawn vividly.
Gist: At dawn, the city street resumes its day’s activity. The air smells of beer. The day advances and people have put on false shows. The dirty window-shades are being raised to let in the morning light.
Lines 14-22: The morning comes to consciousness with the coming of morning the day’s task has been started. Sawdust-trampled street-sawdust-covered street bearing the foot-marks of tramples. Early coffee-stands-the men walk along the mud to the coffee-stands
that generally open very early. With the other………resumes-the day resumes its activity with men who have pretensions, sham shows. Masquerades-pretensions, false shows. Of all the hands…….roomswith the coming of dawn, the dirty window shades are being pulled up to let the morning light in to the rooms.
Comment: Here, (Stanzas I & II), as in many of the early poems, images of taste and smell are especially strong, and as Helen Gardner has pointed out, these two are the most immediate of our senses, and their operation the most inescapable; we can avert our eyes, refrain from touching and even stop our ears, but cannot, except momentarily, hold our nose or stop breathing.
Gist: ‘A person who, having slept in one of those rooms, through the night, a restless sleep full of ugly dreams, now wakes up at the streaming in of the light and the chatter of the sparrows, and sees the street thus transformed. Sitting on the edge of the bed, removing the curling pins from the hair and chafing one’s bare feet, one looks out to see it in a changed aspect, an altered tone, of which the street itself perhaps is unconscious.” (Stanza III)
Lines 24-38: You-a reference to a woman’s in her bedroom. You dozed……….constituted-the woman soul is also sordid and shabby like anything else. The soul is a marsh in which float sordid creatures’. They flickered……..came back-the sordid things appeared again when the night came to an end and the people resumed their activity. Shutters-covers for windows. Gutters-channels to carry away rain water. You had such………..understands-‘the woman apparently begins to love a moment of self-knowledge when she perceives something about the street she lives in, but the moment is transient and her dreamy life resumes its course’. Soiled hands-dirty hands. You curle…………. hands-the vision of the woman sitting on the edge of the bed is that of a realistic painting. ‘Sitting on the edge of the bed, removing the curling pins from the hair and chafing one’s bare feet, one looks out to see it in a changed aspect, an altered tone, of which the street itself perhaps is unconscious.”
Gist: The street stretches and disappears behind a city block. The man thinks of the street and imagines the scene to be observed from the skyey height. The ceaseless flow of humanity always moves along the street. The men have some conventional beliefs. The poet calls them the conscience of the street. The scene of widespread desolation and hopelessness reminds us of something which is infinitely gentle and which has been suffering infinitely. But he is finally appalled by life’s emptiness. (Stanza IV)
Lines 39-52: His soul-refers to man again. That fade behind a city block-the street stretches beyond the city block. Or trampled by insistent feet-the street is trodden by a ceaseless stream of men. Short square…………..certainties-the people tread the street or are seen, stuffing their pipes or reading newspapers. The conscience……. world-the poet calls the men the conscience of the street trampled by them. They represent modern humanity.
Comment: The changing time-settings-from evening to morning, to night, and from night back to evening again-produce a sense of movement in time and thereby impose a chronological organization on the progression of parts. The dominant setting, whether it is early morning or late evening, creates a unity of impression by saturating the scene in a prevailing twilight atmosphere-an atmosphere suggestive of the dying spirit of man in an environment of spiritual sterility. The repeated images, here and elsewhere in Eliot’s early work, assume definite patterns of dominance and subordination. “Feet” and “hands” (or “fingers”) are each repeated four times, while other bodily members (back, palms, hair, mouth) recur as variants.
Why does Eliot focus his art on bodily parts rather than on full portraits of people?
His methods of depicting people, either individually or in groups, would seem to be highly restrictive and even limited in that he makes no effort to portray full figures. The lady in “Prufrock”, for instance, is exceedingly elusive. We know her only by her eyes, her braceleted arms, her perfumed dress. Similarly, the lady in “Portrait” is nothing but a voice and fingers playing nervously with lilacs stalks. Both are faceless and bodiless, like some of the abbreviated figures of Picasso. The most detailed portrait in the “Preludes” is that of the woman in Prelude IV. But, even here, we can visualize only her back, her hands, her tired feet, and her artificially curled hair; she lies on her back and falls into a reverie, she hears sparrows and has a vision, and she sits on the edge of her bed, elapsing her feet in her hands. Beyond this partial glimpse we know nothing more about her. In the lines
From the sawdust-trampled street With all its muddy feet that press To carry coffee-stands the image of the people is particularized in the pressing “muddy feet”. The regularity of the rhythm in these lines suggests the mechanical regularity of the workers’ weary lives as they push toward the coffeestands and march to work. They seem like inanimate but mobile properties of the street that oppresses and enslaves them. The feeling that these impoverished souls are passive automatons, or puppets whose strings are pulled by the forces of a blind destiny, is reinforced by the last five lines of this paragraph:
With the other masquerades That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
Such truncated representations of people run through nearly all of Eliot’s poetry, and The Waste Land is full of them. Sometimes only a single phrase or a short paragraph is sufficient for sketching a person of a group. By selecting one part-say a hand or the hair and by defining its motions as it applies to different people. Eliot projects a complex image of humanity in a particular social or cultural milieu. The people in the “Preludes” seem like so much human debris whose wasted souls drift in a sea of sordidness and spiritual inertia; and the motions of their hands and feet and fingers have been schematized by the worldly and mechanistic patterns of their environment. Thomas I am moved………….
thing-the poet dwells upon the dirty scenes and his mind clings to them. And consequently he approaches a vision
of something gentle and suffering, beyond the dull perception of the people in the street. The poet of this scene of desolation can bear no more and dreams of something gentle and something sufferingwhich could only be a redeeming figure like that of Christ or the Holy Virgin. Wipe your hand………vacant lots-the poet takes a resolution but instantly rejects the possibility of anything genuinely good in this shabby urban setting. He laughs at this setting, which is as shoddy and drab as the vain attempts of an old woman gathering fuel in some vacant lots.
Comment: The pronounced cynicism of the concluding paragraph, which is detached from the rest of the poem like a coda in a musical composition, is intensified by the strong regularity of accents that reflect the speaker’s strong feelings:
Wipe your hard across mouth, and laugh; The worlds resolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
The laughter here is brittle and cynical, almost exasperated, in tone. Although Eliot has elevated the imagery from the street level and placed it in the region of planetary spheres, his special vision, as it were, seems like a nightmare: he sees in the revolving worlds the same blind and mechanistic motions that he had seen among the inhabitants of the dirty streets. Having conceived the planet as old women grubbing for bits of fuel, the poet (as a finite centre) reveals that his vision is earthbound and that he unheroically perceives, not the glory, but only the boredom and the horror of a world without music.
Joseph Chiari in his book, T. S. Eliot, Poet and Dramatist comments on the lines thus: ‘After a sudden revolt against this passing weakness, a resolution is taken: Wipe….lots.’ The world without faith is as empty as the world of the women of Canterbury, who suffer and bemoan the absence of their beloved archbishop.’
Comment: The worlds…………vacant lots: The plight of the woman and of the street collectively-the people whose souls are mere congeries of fugitive appearances-points up the meaninglessness of the universe, no living entity proceeding by instinct toward an appointed goal but a worn-out mechanism with parts stiffly toiling
as, without destination, it moves in endless epicyclic paths. And, yet, of course, this closing image intensifies that pity against which the spectator has been warned. For the ‘ancient women’ are not to be derided; if perhaps in one moment they seem ludicrous, they seem in the next distressed with the bleakness of destitute old age, ignorantly condemned to privation. With the pathos of ‘brightness falls from the air,’ there lingers in the poet’s mind the memory of an ancient golden age. Seeing the world as tragic in its very meanness, he manages to suggest, in retrospect, some pity even for the woman and the street.’
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 slower wards
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet And newspapers from vacant lots; 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.
In these lines the poet gives a picture of a winter evening in the city of London.
It is now six o’clock in London. The drab and ugly winter day is coming to an end. The dull winter evening which smells of fried meat gradually settles down. The day whose end is immediate is filled with smoke coming out of the chimneys of factories. Such a day is cheerless and unattractive. Its dull end is compared to the butt of a cigarette slowly burning out. While the cigarette burns, it emits a film of smoke and slowly burns out, leaving only a charred and burnt-out stub. Into the smoky twilight, gusts of wind whip up leaves and soiled
papers, and rain spatters, the broken windows and chimney pots. At one corner of this street a lonely cab-horse stands champing and sends out its breath in clouds of steam.
Comment: The most notable feature of Eliot’s poetry is that the images he employs in his poetry are not far-fetched or recondite. They are always drawn from the scene of everyday life around. The comparison of the end of the smoky day with a burning cigarette end testifies to the fact. The charred, burnt-out stub of the cigarette suggests not only the passing away of the day but also suggests the luridness of the entire surroundings. Life in such surroundings can hardly evoke any zest.
An emotion of despondency is seen working up in the lines. ‘Such adjectives as ‘burnt-out’, ‘smoky’, ‘grimy’, ‘withered’, ‘vacant’, ‘broken’, and ‘lonely’, and ‘lonely’ carry the tone.
Expl. 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. (
The time is winter morning. The faint smell of stale beer is in the air. The sawdust has been spread on the wet street to reduce its slipperiness. Men walk down the street and hurry to coffee-houses for a drink, leaving their footmarks on the sawdust.
Expl. With the other masquerades That time resumes, One thinks of all the hands That are raising dingy shades In a thousand furnished rooms. (Ul.19-23)
In these lines, the poet gives us a picture of the life-weary middle class society.
With the peep of dawn, the day resumes its activity with men who have enough pretensions and sham shows of a high standard of life
beyond their means indulging in soulless activities inside their rooms. The rooms are furnished with shabby old furniture. With the coming of dawn, these people pull up the dirty-looking window-blinds to let the morning light into their rooms.
Comment: The poet’s dig at the middle class city-dwellers putting on airs of high-brow life is rather caustic and a bit cynical.
Expl. 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;
In this section of Preludes Eliot speaks of a woman who has just woke up in the morning. She throws up a blanket from bed. She lines supine there and falls into a reverie. Her soul is also sordid and shabby like anything. The sordid, shabby and jejune picture of drab, mechanical life flash across her mind. She hardly finds any zest and meaning in the life she has to live and lead before long. The light comes in between the shutters. She hears sparrows his again evokes a sense of chagrin and aversion in her. Thus out of her own misery she has a vision of the street, i.e., she becomes aware of the general loneliness and defeat. The street, appearing to be a potent symbol of sordidness and decay to the woman, hardly understands this vision of hers. This third Prelude exposes one of the ‘thousand furnished rooms’ where a not over clean woman, sluggishly struggling to awake and preparing to get out of bed, starts her own return to consciousness for resumption of life’s masquerade. Since this masquerade (‘a thousand sordid images’) constitutes the woman’s soul, just as in the Fourth Prelude the transitory show of fingers, newspapers, and eyes constitutes
the soul of the personified street, the hidden human reality it masks is itself neither soul nor ‘conscience’ but a kind or register upon which are imprinted the images they share. The woman can accordingly have ‘such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands’-an intuition contrasted with the street’s assurance of ‘certain certainties’, equated somewhat ungrammatically in the Fourth Prelude with a cocky masculine readiness to assume the world’. Woman and street alike are earthbound: she supine in bed, ‘he’ trampled underfoot; and in their hypothetical aspirations upward, when her soul’s images flicker overhead and his is ‘stretched tight across the skies’, they but mirror the degraded nature of their conscious selves.’ *
Expl. 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.
The ‘thousand sordid images’ which the woman sees flickering overhead do not form any revitalizing vison to her. Sitting along the bed’s edge, she removes ‘the papers used for preserving the curls on the hair during the night and holds her bare foot in the palms of her dirty hands. She is quite aware of the sordid life which is to drag on during the day. The street on which she will soon walk is unconscious of the horror that creeps across her mind.
Expl. 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. (ll.43-51)
In this section another character is referred to, a man who is sensitive enough to be constantly affected by the life he sees around
him-a life which appears to be dominated by a meaningless routine of satisfying animal requirements, the “certain certainties”. Ironically, the poet calls the assurance of these certainties the only “conscience” that the street has; and the street seems to impose its own standards, on the entire world (Brooks and Warren).
Comment: ‘So far we have fragments. In Prelude IV they act together and add up to form something like artistic ’empathy’. The soul of the street and the souls of the passers-by are fused into a single dominant image. Eliot, we remember, was concerned with the Bradleyan philosophy of ‘finite centres’ at this time, which stated that the private feeling is continuous with, even identical to, the objective material that has provoked it. Subject and object become one in a pure contemplation. Here we have an artistic presentation of it.’ *
I am moved by fancies that are curled Around these images, and cling: The notion of some infinite gentle Infinitely suffering thing.
In these lines the poet speaks in his own person. The poet has so long dwelt on the dirty scenes of the street, of the people carrying on their daily masquerades. The poet’s mind clings to them. And consequently he approaches a vision of something gentle and suffering, beyond the dull perception of the people in the street. He of this scene of desolation can bear no more and he dreams of something gentle and something suffering-which could only be a redeeming figure like that of Christ or the Holy Virgin.
Comment: ‘Eliot deliberately and programmatically cultivated impersonality in his poetry. He believed that the aim of the poet should be to make an object out of words, a poem which was itself part of a longer whole; the tradition of poetry in the language. He only drew on his personal experiences as material which he could turn into poetry.
Some critics have argued that, while abjuring the aim of ‘selfexpression’ in his poetry. Eliot nevertheless is a very ‘personal’ poet. They point out that his poetry is immediately recognizable in reflecting his unique sensibility. The rhythm, the imagery, and the tone of his
poetry are intensely personal. And they quote lines such as these from
I am moved by fancies that are curled Around these images, and cling: The notion of some infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing. However, there is no contradiction between a poet writing in rhythms and using images that are unique to his sensibility and his writing poetry that does not express his subjective self.
Expl. Wipe your hand across our mouth, and laugh; The worlds revolve like ancient women Gathering fuel in vacant lots: (
In these concluding lines of the poem the poet reject outright the ossibility of anything genuinely good in this shabby urban setting. He laughs at this setting which is as tantalizing as the vain attempts an old woman searching fuel in some uninhabited rooms.
The plight of the woman and of the street collectively-the people whose souls are mere congeries of fugitive appearances-points up the meaninglessness of the universe, no living entity proceeding by instinct toward an appointed goal but a worm out mechanism with parts stuffily teiling as, without destination, it moves in endless epicyclic paths. And yet, of course, this closing image intensifies that pity against which the spectator has been warned. For the ‘ancient women’ are not to be derided; if perhaps in one moment they seem ludicrous they seem in the next distressed with the bleakness of destitute old age, ignorantly tondemned to privation. With the pathos of ‘brightness falls from the air’, there lingers in the poet’s mind the memory of an ancient golden age. Seeing the world as tragic in its very meanness, he manages to suggest, in retrospect, some pity even for the woman and the street.
(B. C. Southam)