Preludes Questions and Answers By TS Eliot
1. Attempt a short critical estimate of T. S. Eliot’s Preludes.
Preludes is a ‘fine evocation of contemporary life with its atmosphere of depression and decay brilliantly conveyed’. Here in the most contemptuous and ironical terms the poet describes the squalor and the ugliness of the common urban scene. The poet looks at the modern life but finds it to his dismay not only materialistic and spiritually barren but also finds it decayed and empty. The winter evening in the city emits smell of fried meat. The stormy wind pushes about bits of leaves coated with dirt and newspapers from vacant unoccupied rooms. The houses have broken and dingy blinds. The cab-horse perspires and stamps its foot forcibly. With the dawn, the street of the city resumes its day’s activity. The air smells of beer. The day advances and people put on false shows. The dirty windowshades are being raised to let in the morning light. A person who, having slept in one of the rooms furnished with old furniture, 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 foot, one looks out to see it in a changed aspect, an altered tone, of which the street itself a unconscious. The street stretches far and disappears behind a city block. The ceaseless flow of humanity always moves along the street. The men have their conventional beliefs and they are the conscience of the street. This scene of widespread desolation and hopelessness reminds the poet of something infinitely gentle and infinitely suffering. But he is finally appalled by life’s emptiness.
Eliot deliberately and programmatically cultivated impersonality in his poetry. He once said, ‘Poetry is not a tuning loose of emotion; but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality’. But in Preludes this has not always been possible. His unique sensibility is recognizable in the dreams of something gentle and something suffering: I am
moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing. With boldness Eliot drew his images from things hitherto regarded as “unpoetic”. The outward scene exists as a set of symbols, ‘a thousand sordid images’ through which the imagination senses the quality of a civilization, not of an environment. In Stanzas-I and II, the images of taste and smell are especially strong and as Helen Gardner points out, these two are the most immediate of our senses and their operation is most inescapable; we can avert our eyes, refrain from touching and even stop our ears, but we cannot, except momentarily, hold our nose and stop breathing:
The winter evening settles down With smell of steaks in passageways
…. And at the corner of the street A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
The morning comes to consciousness Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street With all its muddy feet that press
(St. II) To early coffee-stands. The satirical wit of Augustan poetry subsequently almost. disappeared from English poetry. Eliot was the first to use it again. In many of his poems the satiric sallies burst forth ‘In a bare, dry, satiric tone he makes his statements without qualification, expressing with seeming flippancy his contempt for vulgarity. In Preludes, he satirizes the middle-class people who maintain sham shows of living a high standard of life beyond their means. With the other masquerades That time resumes One thinks of all the hands That are raising dingy shades In a thousand furnished rooms.
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. In the style adopted in Preludes there is a fusion of the modern and the traditional. Here there is the use of simple, inherited verse-forms, especially the quatrain and blank-verse modelled upon Webster and Middleton. The poet’s ‘essential qualities of austerity and precision in the use of words, of novelty in rhythms and cadences and of intensity of observation’s are present in the poem. The vision of the woman sitting on the edge of bed is that of a realistic painting: 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.
2. Describe how Eliot represents the sordidness of modern city life in Preludes.
The urban scene as represented in Preludes is actually a symbol through which Eliot presents the boredom, emptiness and pessimism of modern life which is deeply materialistic and spiritually barren and desiccated. Preludes, an early work of Eliot’s, was first published in 1915. The early poems show us ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’, and the condition of the poet as a part of it. For he differs from others in the same environment only in his awareness of his plight. From these poems it is clear that it was not only the technical disciplines of the Jacobean dramatists and of the French Symbolists which attracted Eliot to these poets. He shares too their spiritual colouring, an attitude of disgust at the quality of the civilization in which they find themselves, and an added self-disgust. There is a sense of imprisonment in an empty, ugly and alien society, and the impossibility of escape from it. The poet can do nothing but escape into his poetry. There he can examine his situation, objectify and dramatize it. He can create in patterned language the moods of ironic and cynical repulsion, unromantic disillusionment and nervous intensity which mirror his predicament. He can transmute its welter of triviality and horror into a wealth of related symbolic detail. In Preludes Eliot has presented a few sketches of squalid urban scenes in a series of images.
The winter evening in the city of London emits smell of fried meat. The stormy wind pushes about bits of leaves coated with dirt and newspapers from vacant lots. The houses have broken and dingy blinds. The cab-horse perspires and stamps its foot forcibly. Soon the street lights will gleam murkily.
With the dawn people wake up drowsily and wearily with the smell of stale beer sticking everywhere and then they hasten with muddy feet through the sawdust-trodden streets to the coffee-stands. They have put on false shows of a high standard of their lives beyond their means:
With the other masquerades
That time resumes, One thinks of all the hands That are raising dingy shades In a thousand furnished rooms. Now the scene changes and reminds the poet of the sheer hollowness which consumes the pattern of our social life. “A person, who, having slept in one of these 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 is unconscious.
Eliot draws next the picture of afternoon which is at once dull and depressing. The street stretches far and disappears behind a city block. The man thinks of the street from the skyey height. The ceaseless flow of humanity always moves along the street. He has soaring ambition and conventional beliefs. He fills his pipe with tobacco and runs eyes over evening newspapers. This scene of wide-spread desolation and hopelessness reminds the poet of something which is infinitely gentic and suffering infinitely beyond the dull perception of the people in the street. The poet takes this resolution but instantly rejects the possibility of anything genuinely good in this shabby urban setting. He laughs at this setting, which is as tantalizing as the vain attempts of an old searching fuel in some uninhabited rooms. The plight of the woman and the street points out the meaninglessness of the universe: The worlds revolve like ancient women Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
3. Analyse the images in Preludes and point out their significance.
Most of Eliot’s poems do bristle with images. And Preludes is no exception. The images here are rather deliberately ‘unbeautiful. They are far-fetched. They are actually drawn from the scene of everyday life around us. Few of these images are taken from nature, they are almost ‘aggressively urban’ -and urban without the elements of the beautiful that may be found in cities. But the beauty of these images spring from ‘the poet’s ability to perceive meaning and significance even in scenes that are in themselves commonplace or ugly, in either city or country’. The function of these images in the poem is its expressiveness. Thomas Rees observes that one of the most important incidental images of the Preludes is that of smoke, appearing in the fourth line 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 encounter the yellow fog and the smoking pipes; in Portrait the motto occurs in the opening line (“Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon”) and in the final paragraph (“Afternoon grey and smoke……….. With the smoke coming down above the housetops”). The smoke-fog motto also appears in Burbank with a Baedeker as “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.
In Stanzas I and II, as in many of the early poems, images of taste and smell (“with smell of steaks in passageways”. I1. 2. ‘of faint stale smells of beer. 1. 15) are especially strong, and these two, as observed by Helen Gardner, 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.
Eliot focuses his art on bodily parts rather than on full portraits of people. In Preludes “feet” and “hands” (or “fingers”) are each repeated four times, while other bodily members (back, palms, hair, mouth) recur as variants. We have somewhat a detailed portrait of the woman in Preludes IV. But even here, we can visualize only her back, her hands, her tired feet and her artificially curled hair; she lies supine and sits on the edge of her head, 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 early coffee-stands.
the image of the people is particularized in the pressing “muddy feet”. Through all these images of bodily parts, the people 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.
In Preludes IV, Eliot has elevated the imagery from the street level
and placed in the region of planetary spheres:
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
The poet sees here in the image of 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 woman grubbing for bits of fuel, the poet (as a finite centre) reveals that his vision is earth-bound and that he unheroically perceives, not the glory, but only the boredom and the horror of a world without music.
VERY SHORT QUESTIONS
1. How do we learn poetry?
We learn poetry by analyzing it before we enjoy it. But to write a critical appreciation one needs to enjoy and appreciate a poem. When we do so we should be open and not compare. We should deal with poems the way we deal with kids. Each one is great in its own way.
2. Why are the poets great?
Poets are great because of their honesty. A dishonest poet is in no way great even if he agrees with great people and their thoughts. So, when we discuss a poem we only have to look at how well the poet has brought it all out on paper and conveyed to us even though he is far away and long ago from us.
3. What is the greatest work of Eliot? Why is it so?
TS Eliot’s great work is The Waste Land. It changed overnight the way poets wrote poems or discussed about the old ones. Echoes of this wonderful work of art can be heard in The Preludes too. One may disagree with Eliot’s view of life and literature.
4. Write a few lines about Eliot.
He was a great scholar and spoke several languages including Latin and Greek. Later in his life he changed his sect of religion from Protestantism to Catholicism. We may wonder how such a great poet
could insist on changing from one sect of a religion to another and that too officially and ceremoniously. We may even wonder how a great person could have several spoiled and spoiling relationships. But we have to remind ourselves that we are judging the poetry of a poet and not the propaganda of a citizen.
5. What were the times when Eliot wrote his poems?
During the time when Eliot was writing his main poems, the First World War was on the anvil. The quick gun leaders of Industrialization had gone in for legal looting. Religion no more held sway. People didn’t know what to look forward to or where to go to find peace of mind. They all waited.
6. What does the present poem talk about?
The poem talks about everything disgusting. Before Eliot’s time the poets were disgusted with what they saw around them and wrote about things which were far away and long ago. People took it up and they too began to feel disgusted of what was around them.
7. What is actually Eliot expressing?
Eliot is only expressing how the squalor, depression, loneliness and other feelings of desolation have worked their way into people too. Those are seen in people’s manners and ways of life as well as in their thoughts and thoughtlessness.
8. How is Preludes one Eliot’s best poem?
T. S Eliot’s Preludes, is one of his most prominent poems because it presents his view of society as a wasteland at that time. He does this by using concrete objects and images to metaphorically explore the nature of life and society.
9. What do we discover in this poem?
In this poem, we discover society as corrupt and desolate going through a cycle of meaningless routine where people bare a false hope of a divine source overlooking and protecting humanity.
10. How is the title itself significant?
The title itself holds significant meaning. A prelude in general and particularly in a musical sense characterizes an introduction to something. This is suggesting that the characteristics of society we are provided with in this poem are merely an introduction to what we should be viewing society like.
11. What is in the first stanza?
The first stanza introduces the tone of the poem with a description of a typical street from an omniscient point of view. We are first given the impression of a desolate, corrupt and exhausted society through use of a variety of verbs like x is accumulation of verbs is heavily supported through a the use of alliteration of the “s” sound in words like x This technique evokes our sense of smell imagining the picture Eliot is describing.
12. What suggestion do we get in the first stanza?
Throughout the first stanza, we are given the suggestion of the presence of people though it is not actually ever stated. This is evident in the mentioning of “smell of steaks…feet.” This effectively communicates to us that this is a fragmented world where nothing is whole.
13. How the of the first stanza concluded?
The darkness of the first stanza is concluded with a pause, creating anticipation followed by the line “then the lighting of the lamps…” This line gives us a feeling of hope as the darkness is contrasted with the mentioning of light. However, the start of the second stanza marks the next morning yet the tone is still identical to that of the first.
14. How Eliot stresses the morning as a new life?
Eliot stresses out the fact that it is now morning, the possibility of a new start, through the use of personification. But we are soon to discover that nothing has changed. The lines that follow it give us the feeling of a “hangover.” This is depicted by the mentioning of “faint
stale smells of beer from the sawdust-trampled streets…” Once again the alliteration of “s” reminds us of the sense of smell of the image we are given.
15. What does the rest of the stanza shift to?
The rest of the stanza continues the motif of emptiness created in the first stanza with the extensive use of “muddy feet…hands.” The last line introduces a change in perspective as we now focus on a more personal view, assuming the point of view of one particular person. The shift to the second person immediately leads us to become more involved with the situation.
16. What do the first three lines depict?
The first three lines depict a haunted and restless night using the repetition of “you” and the accumulation x whole stanza constructs a shattered and desolate life, strengthening the picture painted from the earlier stanzas. This is portrayed by the “sordid images of which your soul was constituted…”
17. Where is the epiphany in the lines and about whom?
The woman in this stanza even goes through an epiphany, in which we are shown that she herself makes a discovery of life to be meaningless. This opinion of society is reflected as an opiníon shared by the whole society since this partícular woman is representative of everyone because she is just one of “a thousand furnished rooms.”
18. Where do we find the climax of the poem?
The final part of the poem embraces the climax of the poem’s message and wraps up what is stated. After three stanzas of describing a failing society, this stanza suggests it is an ongoing cycle. The view is now switched to another particular person, a man this time.
19. Where is the alliteration used in the poem?
The alliteration of the “s” is reintroduced here in the first line “soul stretched tight across the skies…” Eliot points out the action of ‘stretching’ to suggest a sense of pain and agony created by restlessness.
This idea could also be extended to almost make it seem like the man is vulnerable and fragile since his soul is personificated to be “stretching tight.”
20. What is the reference of “evening newspapers”?
The “evening newspapers” is a reference to the people who travel in public transport everyday and reading the paper in the evening, a routine many people share. The final three lines are very dramatic as Eliot reveals that people are constantly “assured of certain certainties” outlining the lack of uniqueness among society and yet again explaining how we are part of a meaningless routine.
21. How does the perspective change in the poem?
The perspective changes to the first person with a very personal view. His mentioning of “the notion of some infinitely gentle infinitely suffering thing” is a reference to Jesus, a divine source, whom many people of society rely on for hope. Eliot is stating that he is succumbing himself to the hope of a god to save him and society. This denotes that this is exactly what people think of for hope, a divine intervention of some sort to save humanity.
22. How does the poet dismiss the source of his hope?
Eliot quickly dismisses this source of hope in the final concluding stanza. Using an extremely harsh and savage tone, Eliot totally disregards the hope of a god saving the world. This yet again brings us back to the tone of a sense of hopelessness, as the world has no one to save it.
23. What does the use of the word “revolves” signify?
The use of the world “revolves” tells us that society is still undergoing a continuous process, a reminder of the idea of a meaningless, mechanic routine which society goes through. The very last line “gathering fuel in vacant lots” is a very bleak and terror-filled tone, which the poem concludes on.
24. What views of the poet is expressed in this poem?
Eliot’s Preludes, is a poem that expresses his view of society as a hopeless world where the streets are lonely, shattered and exhausted and its people are mechanical, going through a constant, meaningless routine that lacks vividness and uniqueness.
25. How are the readers forced to face the discoveries?
Discoveries are forced upon the reader as we are faced with the harsh reality of society. Divine sources are what people believe in for hope but he dismisses this idea as well, stating that it doesn’t exist and that no one will save this world from its doomed state.