An interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”. A vision of a vision

Seminar Paper, 2013

20 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Francesca Cavaliere (Author)




1. First stanza – Lonely street in the evening

2. Second Stanza – Busy street in the morning

3. Third Stanza – The street seen from above

4. Forth stanza – Business as usual on “final” judgement day

5. Metapoetic comments – The cycle of life


List of references

Preludes by Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965)


The poem “Preludes” was composed between October 1910 and November 1911 by the modernist writer T.S. Eliot and was published in Wyndham Lewis’s journal Blast in July 1915. “Preludes” is based on Eliot’s direct experience of citylife (Eliot spent most of his adult life in London) as well as literary sources such as Baudelaire’ “Crépuscule du Soir” and “Crépuscule du Matin” (cf. Jain, 1991: 63). The title of the poem suggests a musical term that is commonly defined as “a short musical composition on one theme, esp. an introduction to a longer piece” (OLD, 2000). Jain, however, emphasizes that the poem’s content rather represents an “antithesis to the Preludes of Chopin” as it reveals the “grim reality of city life”.

At first glance, “The Preludes” may therefore appear to be a faithful representation of urban life as it is without irrelevant comment. The putative objectivity and detachment of the speaker are, however, deceptive, as everything in the poem is imbued with his perceptions and told from his perspective. The speaker is probably a flaneur who writes down what he experiences while walking in the city. Even by their mere presence the people in the street are made accomplice to this act of writing, but they are unable to read the text they help to produce as long as they are part of the walking crowd. The hustle and bustle of every day life has clouded their view to such an extent that they can only grasp fragments of reality.

It will, hence, be relevant to find how the city and the city dwellers are depicted in the poem. What has provoked their limited view on the world and how can it be overcome? From which perspective does the speaker tell the events and how does this relate to his world view?

Answering these questions, one can draw the conclusion that changing one’s mental attitude automatically changes one’s outlook on the world. As a result, the map of life becomes readable only for those who perceive the world holistically from a higher and more distant perspective which allows them to discover the true nature of things.

In my discussion of the poem, I will proceed in a more or less chronological order. The first stanza envisions a lonely street in the evening drawing a connection between writing and walking. The 2nd stanza shows probably the same street on a busy morning illustrating the restlessness of the city dwellers as well as their lack of self-determination. In the 3rd stanza the street scene is left altogether, instead a single woman is depicted lying in her bed. In a state of expanded awareness she gains a superior view on the world. In the last stanza I shall indicate how the blindness of everyday routine hinders the rest of the city dwellers from noticing this sort of spiritual revelation.

The meta-poetic references in the end overtly unmask the speaker as being a poet, making plain that the poem is not to be taken as a means to communicate reality, but rather as the experience of a mental image.

1. First stanza – Lonely street in the evening

The poem is divided into four stanzas of which the first one is written in tetrameter verse. The dominance of number four in style is also mirrored in the poem’s setting. The first line starts with what is normally considered the fourth part of the day (after morning, noon and afternoon) or respectively the fourth season of the year: “The winter evening settles down” (1). Montgomery (1973: 61) points out that the image of the “winter evening” is representative for the doomsday atmosphere described in the following thirteen lines, as it can be considered the coldest and darkest time of the day and year in the Northern hemisphere. The reader also learns about the exact time: “six o’clock” (3) which suggests that one quarter of the day remains. Despite the concrete time given, Montgomery however argues that past, present and future would somehow coincide in this singular “six o’clock” creating an “empty timelessness” (61). This idea is confirmed by the use of simple present tense standing in opposition to the time reference: “now” (5) which would normally require the use of present progressive tense.

Similarly, Jain (1991:63) argues that there is no specific place given in the first stanza which presents but an ordinary street scene. The frequent use of the noun “street” (line 11, 16, 33, 34, 46) activates the notion of homelessness. This, however, contrasts with the ambiguous meaning of the verb “settles down”. Other than its meaning of “sinking slowly down or respectively falling from above” (OLD), it can also assume the meaning of someone coming to a rest and making a place his or her permanent home.

The romantic tone of the poem’s first line is suddenly destroyed by the prosaic language and the banal topic to follow: “with smell of steaks in passageways” (2). The “smell of steaks” serves here as a signal for the “steaks”. This creates a higher level of abstraction, as the real life object is replaced by the mere perception of its smell. Similar examples can be found elsewhere in the poem: “the lighting of the lamps” (13), “smells of beer” (15) or the “vision of the street” (33). The real thing or person is never present, there is but the “notion of some (…) thing (50/51).

Even the “rain” can be interpreted as the mere perception of its drumming sound. This idea is activated by the plural form of: “the showers beat” in line 9. Coupled with the following enjambement, the plural -s gives rise to the understanding of the genitive form: “the shower’s beat” (9). Appropriately, the expression: “And now a gusty shower wraps” (5) could be read as “shower raps” in an oral reading. This idea is in tune with the poem’s musical title “The Preludes”. This reading builds up the personification of the rain as an artist, practicing a hybrid art form between music and poetry. The personification of the rain is continued by the adjective “gusty” which other than a sudden strong wind, can also denote a sudden strong expression of emotion. One could consequently go on to conclude that the rain is characterized as being choleric, aggressive and violent, rapping out its hate against what could be defined as its semantic counterpart: “the burnt-out ends of smoky days” as they arouse associations of fire. However, as it seems the conflict between these two contrasting concepts has literally ended up in smoke.

Essentially, the adjective “smoky” arouses many different connotations here. Firstly, it suggests a lack of vision, possibly as a result of air pollution that is both passively suffered from and actively produced by the city dwellers. This is also confirmed by the mentioning of “chimneypots” (10). Alternatively, the lack of vision might be due to the foggy weather in the city. The reduced visibility is consistent with the limited perspective of the speaker. It must be assumed that he is a street walker or flâneur, as it seems that the bad weather forces him to look down on the street where he is noticing: “The grimy scraps/Of withered leaves about your feet/And newspapers from vacant lots” (6-8). The apostrophe “your feet” signals either the presence of at least one other person or the speaker’s ability to look on himself from the outside. This external view creates the impression of a more neutral and accurate look as it widens the perspective of the speaker. At the same time, the pars pro toto for the addressee: “your feet” illustrates the speaker’s incapability to perceive himself or someone else as a whole person. This depiction of human beings as dismembered body parts is continued throughout the poem: “feet” (7, 17, 41), “the hand s” (21), “masquerades”(19), “short square fingers” (43), “the eyes” (44).

The speaker’s partial blindness for the people in the street is is in tune with the alliteration: “broken blinds” (10) which other than broken window blinds might also refer to people who are metaphorically blind in the sense of not noticing or realizing the true nature of things. Moreover, the preceding adjective “broken” literally depicts the people in the street as fragmented parts of a larger whole. This connection of blindness and fragmentation is reminiscent of a parable told by the Buddha of a group of blind men who all touch a different body part of an elephant and arrive at very diverging ideas about its physical appearance (cf. Keown, 2000: 1-2).

This idea of fragmentation and blindness is also expressed by the prepositional phrase “grimy scraps of withered leaves”. Due to the ambigious syntax, it can alternatively be complemented by “newspapers” (8), allowing hence for the reading of: “grimy scraps of newspapers”. This thought takes on additional force by the polyvalent meaning of “grimy scraps” which among other things is used to denote small pieces of paper covered with grime which might be a synonym for printing ink. It can hence be concluded that “grimy scraps” serves as a depreciatory term for newsprint in general or headlines that serve to manipulate the readers’ world view.

Moreover, it is not too hazardous to assume some linkage between “your feet” and the “scraps”. In wet weather the ink is likely to come off the scraps which implies that the person(s) addressed here literally leave their footprints on the street, as they carry on the grime with every step they take. This gives rise to the thesis that the passers-by are metaphorically writing an urban text while walking. The same idea is aroused in the next stanza by the polyvalent meaning of: “feet that press” (17).

The idea of walking writers is also illustrated by the allegory at the end of the first stanza: “A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps” (12). Whereas the verb “steams” suggests that the horse is exposed to the cold and wet weather, the verb “stamps” might indicate its impatience to walk on. Again, it should be born in mind, however, that the image described here is not a snap-shot of what the speaker is observing at the moment of speaking, as this would require a progressive aspect of the verb. The use of simple present indicates a repetive movement. This associates the second meaning of “stamps” which other than “to put your foot down heavily and noisily on the ground” (OLD) can also take on the meaning of “to print letters or words onto something” (OLD). Combining both meanings, one could again come to the conclusion that the horse metaphorically writes a text while walking through the city. This idea seems plausible when taking into consideration that the horse actually helps to distribute letters and newspapers. Moreover, this interpretation of “stamps” is consistent with the polyvalent meaning of “steams” which alludes to the use of the steam powered rotary printing press that allowed for the mass production of printed works in the 19th century (cf. Lomas, n.d.).

2. Second Stanza – Busy street in the morning

Paradoxically enough, the “lightening of the lamps”, which closes the first stanza, indicates the settling of nocturnal darkness. This can be seen as an allusion to light pollution in the city where the difference between day and night is completely blurred. The night is consequently skipped altogether as the second stanza immediately sets in with the following morning. Just like the “winter evening” in the first stanza the “morning” is personifined: “The morning comes to consciousness” (14). It seems well planned that the change from evening to morning time coincides with a change in the speaker’s state of consciousness. Montgomery therefore concludes that time serves as “a mask for the entity of awareness of Eliot’s poem” (1973: 63). The following enjambement, however, explains in more detail what it is that altered the speaker’s consciousness: “faint stale smells of beer” (15), just like the “smell of steaks” did in the first stanza. In fact, this linkage seems not too far-fetched as scientists assume that a familiar smell can trigger deeply hidden memories and feelings (Stafford, 2012). Another evidence that a change of consciousness has occured is given by the semantic opposition between “the smells of beer” (15) and “coffee-stands” (18), as both allude to drinks that produce very opposing effects. Whereas beer is typically consumed at night for the lethargic and drowsy effects of the alcohol, coffee is preferably drunken in the morning for the activating effect of the caffeine. It can hence be concluded that the speaker feels physically alert and awake now.

A similar semantic contrast is inherent in the phrase “the sawdust-trempled street” (16) that, just like: “grimy” (6), “muddy” (17), “dingy” (22), “sordid” (27), “soiled” (38) and “blackened” (46,) evokes the gloomy and dirty atmosphere of the city. Sawdust was, however, also used to take up dirt on floors (cf. annotations). Moreover, Germer (1966: 95) argues that “sawdust” arouses the connotation of a circus, drawing with it the noun: “masquerades” (19). This depicts the anonymitiy of city life where faceless people hide their real identity behind masks. The second part of the word “sawdust- trampled” (16) signals the presence of feet which on their own are but a pars pro toto for the people in the street. This fragmentation of the city dwellers negates their individual identity, as it expresses the monotonic and mechanic movement of their “feet that press” (17) all in the same direction “to early coffee-stands” (18).

The lack of individual autonomy is also expressed in the following line: “all the hands that are raising dingy shades/In a thousand furnished rooms.” (22/23). The phrase probably describes the city dwellers who simoultaneously pull up their window shades. Germer (94) considers this an automatic, repetitive gesture of daily routine just like the “feet that press/To early coffee-stands” (17/18) or the “short square fingers stuffing pipes.” (43).

Moreover, “dingy shades/in a thousand furnished rooms”, associates the meaning of dark and blurred colours. This idea is also supported by the parallel syntactical structure with: “the thousand sordid images” (27). One could consequently go on to conclude that the speaker is looking from the street at the lighted windows of surrounding buildings in the early hours of the morning. The expression: “a thousand furnished rooms” (23) alludes to a big hotel complex and stands in ironic contradiction to the “vacant lots” (8) in the first stanza. The idea of pre-furnished rooms illustrates the restlessness of the city dwellers who do not dispose of a permanent, individually furnished home where to “settle down” (1). A similar notion is present in the term “early coffee-stands” (18) which implicates that the clients are probably drinking their coffee while walking or at least standing on their feet. This and the time reference “early” (18), illustrate the frantic pace of citylife which allows but for a hasty breakfast.

3. Third Stanza – The street seen from above

The third stanza is distinct from the two preceding ones in that it brings about a change in place, time and persona. Away from the street scene, the speaker zooms into a room, probably one of the “thousand furnished rooms”. More so, the first line gives a precice close-up of the bed: “You tossed a blanket from the bed” (24). The verb “toss” implies that the blanket is thrown carelessly from the bed. One can arrive at the conclusion that the blanket serves as a bed’s cover during daytime. The removal of the blanket hence indicates a change from day to night. As has been noted so far, a change in the poem’s time relates to a change in the speaker’s consciousness. The removal of the blanket literally uncovers what lays beyond the consciousness, that is the subconscious.

It is moreover noticeable that the speaker switches from present to past tense. Whereas in the two preceding stanzas the habitual aspect of simple present tense was used to underline the recurrent process of daily routine, it now seems as if the speaker recite from memory a particular moment in the past.

Like already in the first stanza the speaker directly addresses another person here, as can be detected by the frequent repetition of the personal pronoun “you” and the possessive “your” (24, 25, 26, 28, 32, 33, 36). The identity of the “you” is not revealed. Probably, it’s a female persona as can be deduced from line 36: “You curled the paper from your hair”. Jain (65) argues that this change in persona illustrates the speaker’s split personality. Moreover, both Jain (64) and Germer (96) suggest an allusion of these lines to a passage from Charles-Louis Philippes’ novel: “Bubu de Montparnasse” where a prostitute is discovering to suffer from syphilis, as Eliot drew upon this novel, esp. his subject and images from passages that describe street-walkers. Ironically enough, the alleged “street-walker” is not walking in the street. Instead the woman is lying on her bed with her face directed towards the ceiling: “you lay upon your back and waited” (25). The question arises what or respectively whom she is waiting for: for sleep, for the next customer, for the next morning?

The following lines give rise to the idea that she is waiting for some altered state of consciousness as she deliberately abandons herself into a trance-like state: “You dozed, and watched the night revealing/The thousand sordid images/Of which your soul was constituted;” (26-28). The verb “doze” reveals that she is neither fully awake nor fully asleep. This absence of dualities is also expressed by the verb “flickered” (29) which describes a light that keeps going on and off, being neither really bright nor dark, neither day nor night. Again these lines can be read as an allusion to the problem of light pollution in modern cities. This idea is confirmed by the mentioning of dirt and light in the same context: “thousand sordid images (…) flickered against the ceiling”. In its second meaning, however, the word “flickered” can also denote “emotions or thoughts that appear somewhere for a short time” (OLD). Viewed in this light, “the thousand sordid images” are likely to represent sinful thoughts about sexual excess and promiscuity which confirms her identity as a prostitute. The diffuse light serves hence as a metaphor for her scattered thoughts and feelings that unfold like a silent film before her eyes.

Watching this film is like entering another world as can be suggested by the following line: “And when all the world came back” (30) which implies that there is more than one world or reality, activating the distinction between spiritual and worldly world. Moreover, it promotes the idea that the woman has rejoined the world in the sense that she has regained full consciousness and awareness. It can be concluded from this that the “you” has attained some sort of religious enlightenment which in Buddhism is described as “the complete state of awakeing” (Keown, 22). The transition from one world to the other is depicted as a creeping process: “And the light crept up between the shutters” (31). This line can be interpreted both as a description of the dawning sun and as a metaphor for her enlightenment. Combining both ideas, it can be supposed that the true nature of reality has finally dawned on her.

Ironically enough, the idea of enlightenment is consistent with the symbolic meaning of the “sparrows in the gutters” as Hindu tradition has it that birds represent “the higher states of being” (Cirlot, 2002: 26). Additionally, birds are universally considered a symbol of the human soal, suggesting a supernatural link between the physical and the spiritual world. Especially the birds’ chirping has long been considered a link to the divine (26/27). The only evidence indeed of the birds’ presence is the woman’s perceptions of their chirping: “You heard the sparrows” which leaves open whether they are really present or merely part of the woman’s imagination.


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An interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”. A vision of a vision
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik)
Symbolism and Modernism in British Poetry
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Francesca Cavaliere (Author), 2013, An interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”. A vision of a vision, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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