Where The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock examines how an individual internalises the disruption caused to their external environment, Eliot’s Preludes offers a depiction of what that destabilisation of one’s social, political, economic and cultural context actually looks like.
The sense of disruption and chaos is immediately established by the poem’s title, which is revealed to be ironic through the four-part structure of the poem itself. Specifically, while ‘Preludes’ indicates an introduction to something greater, that the poem is structured as four separate parts which each examine different perspectives of modernity in episodic form embodies the consistent uncertainty and disappointment offered by modern life; there is a constant anxious energy that is doomed to remain unresolved. Moreover, that Eliot presents his portrait of modern, urban life in the form of zooming in and out of different, semi-unrelated perspectives, emphasises the smallness of the individual amid their urban setting.
Stanza I begins with winter imagery, suggesting the end or decay of something. Such is furthered through the lines ‘With the smell of steaks in passageways / … The burnt-out cigarettes of smoky days,’ which together emphasises the sense of deterioration. What stands out in this stanza is the metaphor ‘A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps,’ which represents the internal frustration felt by those living amid such existential anxiety and, of course, social and cultural decay. Ultimately, Stanza I serves the purpose of constructing a portrait of the gloominess and despair that urban centres had come to be dominated by.
With its opening imagery ‘The morning comes to consciousness,’ Stanza II opens its exploration of the relationship between such an environment and humanity. Indeed, that opening line emphasises the inevitability and thus the inescapability of daily routine. The images of decay that follow it then contribute to the image of a wasted and tired place, while the synecdoche ‘With all its muddy feet that press / To early coffee-stands’ reveals the way in which individuals are stripped of their humanity and anonymised as a result of the overbearingly mundane routine that is enforced by city life. ‘With the other masquerades / That time resumes’ then suggests the performative nature of this routine; it is unnatural.
Eliot’s use of second person narration in Stanza III has the effect of locating the reader within this environment, to stress just how inescapable it is. The opening image is of someone who has been left unsatisfied by their sexual partner. The symbol of sex and intimacy contrasts the anonymity explored in the preceding stanza, as Eliot essentially utilises the image of sexual release to convey the sense of frustration and anxiety experienced; that is, life is a series of mounting tensions, with no end in sight. In its references to sex, this stanza moreover comments on the moral corruption of society prompted by modernity. The language in ‘The thousand sordid images / Of which your soul was constituted’ reflect Eliot’s condemnation of the immorality, while the closing descriptive imagery ‘You curled the papers from your hair, / Or clasped the yellow soles of feet / In the palms of both soiled hands’ depict a woman degraded and helpless, completely victim to the society in which she lives.
Stanza IV transitions to the perspective of the man referenced in the third stanza. His soul is ‘stretched tight across the skies,’ suggesting how he has been absorbed by his urban landscape and has in turn been deprived of his humanity. That this abstraction of his personality is not empowering is affirmed by the imagery ‘trampled by insistent feet’ – the man has been lost to the city streets; he is run over without notice. Eliot then presents different features of the urban commute and its participants as if they are one body, furthering the notion that the city consumes all. The dramatic tone in ‘The conscience of a blackened street / Impatient to assume the world’ encapsulates the perennial struggle of those living amid modernity: they are aware of the confines of their existence and so are bound to only ever fantasise about removing themselves from it.
That existential crisis is acknowledged in the poem’s closing as ‘some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing.’ Eliot offers a remedy for such worries: ‘Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh.’ His nihilistic imagery highlights his view that humanity is doomed to exist in this way forever. The infinite nature of that suffering is conveyed through the metaphysical ‘The worlds revolve like ancient women / Gathering fuel in ancient lots’ – the lots are empty, simply collecting waste, just as humanity is.