Background to this Essay
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OK, I'm cheating a little. I wrote this a couple of years ago, and is partly in homage to my father. My father was both a poetry reader and a writer. One of his favourite poets was TS Eliot. I wrote this after my dad died for the university degree I recently finished, and hope I did him proud. This is dedicated to him.
Darkness and Despair - Preludes
If one can judge a man by his poetry, TS Eliot was a man obsessed with desolation, decay and despair(1). Many of his works had themes of hopelessness and aridity, culminating in The Waste Land. His poetry, at least until his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, has, by some critics, been seen as a sort of personal search for something: perhaps, salvation, faith or hope.(2) This search is combined (in his poetry) with disillusionment and pessimism verging on hopelessness. We find this desolate landscape even in his early poetry, such as The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, an analysis of which I will leave to others, and in Preludes, both published in the latter half of the 1910's.
Preludes has several main themes running through each section, and techniques to remind us of the sordidness of the city and of those who pass their lives in it. The poem introduces us to stages of the night and day(3), starting with evening in part I, to morning in part II, the middle of the night into morning in part III, and back to evening in part IV. During this 24 hour period, certain themes intrude themselves into the reader's consciousness. The landscape and the souls inhabiting it are dirty, grimy, and obscured by filth. We are made aware of the passing of time and its 'masquerade' with mention of the time of day each activity takes place, and the appearance of discarded newspapers to remind us that the past is gone. We cannot wholly sympathise with the denizens of this sad place, because we are never introduced to a whole person. Instead Eliot describes their feet, eyes and hands. Their sordid souls are insubstantial, 'flickering' on a ceiling, or stretched across a grimy sky. All these half-people and their souls seem to spend much of their time waiting for something that may never arrive - indeed, perhaps they are waiting for nothing at all. Even a horse 'steams and stamps', perhaps awaiting its own salvation, or perhaps simply waiting to go home. Throughout the poem, we are reminded that reality is not as real as we think it is, and what we see is likely only to be the surface grit: that appearances can be deceiving and that there is, in this locale, no hope. Each section, stanza and line emphasises and expands on desolation, grime and hopelessness.
Part I sets the season as winter, and the time as evening. Traditionally, winter is seen as lifeless and grim, but the first two lines, if not cheerful, lull us into a false sense of security. The evening 'settles down' and there are 'smells of steaks in passageways'. These are cozy images and words. Eliot then uses a very short line with no description to shock the reader out of his reverie; it is simply a bald statement of the time. The end of the day is not peaceful, it is 'burnt out', and the day itself is 'smoky': obscured and dirty, with a false pall of smoke in the air. Even nature offers no succour, the leaves are grimy, whipped around legs like street trash. The old newspapers, like the leaves, also tangle about the feet. Both are dead remnants of days and seasons past. 'The showers beat/On broken blinds and chimney pots'. Even the rain, so often seen as life giving, and so conspicuously absent in The Wasteland(4) provides no renewal, since it beats down only on man-made, lifeless things. The rain can only dampen and erode; there is no rebirth in this landscape.
The only sign of life in this section is the 'lonely cab-horse'. It however, has no spark, it simply 'steams and stamps' and pointlessly and impatiently waits for nothing important, like (as we shall see) many of the souls we meet. The section ends with a single line set apart from its fellows: 'And then the lighting of the lamps' This should be a hopeful sign, but it becomes clear later that it is not. It is merely a statement of fact. Because of the phrase chosen, and the time in which the poem was written, the lamps that are being lit are likely to be gas lamps. Gas lamps tend to smoke and sputter, obscuring what they should be illuminating. The lighting of the lamps offers no hope. There is no light at the end of this tunnel.
With the arrival of morning in part II, we see the shift in style and focus that is so common to Eliot. With two five line stanzas and a more regular rhythm and rhyme scheme, the reader may think that there is the arrival of hope, but this is not to be. The 'morning comes to consciousness/Of faint stale smells of beer'. There is no re-birth, and there is not much true consciousness for the people of this city. Having spent the night imbibing one consciousness-altering substance, which can still be smelt faintly from the street, the 'muddy feet' are now pressing for another, to the 'early coffee stands.' Like the cab-horse, they are impatiently waiting for nothing much at all. Eliot only mentions the feet of these people, he does not describe whole individuals queuing to buy coffee, instead, we are forced to look down at the street covered and obscured with sawdust, and feet on this street obscured with mud. We cannot see anything for what it really is.
In the second stanza, Eliot again emphases obscurity and disguise: 'With the other masquerades/That time resumes,' Morning brings with it pretence rather than reality. The occupants of the rooms continue their safe routines, perhaps simply to mask the general gloom and hopelessness of their lives. Like in the previous stanza, the poet does not allow the reader to form a picture of specific individuals, only describing an isolated part of the body: the hands 'raising dingy shades'. The shades, like nearly everything else in this poem are stained. They hide the outside world from those within, and they are hidden themselves by the grime covering them. These people living in their 'furnished rooms' pretending they are in their homes, yet owning none of it. There is no personal stamp to these surroundings.
Part III concerns itself with yet another time of day, the small dark hours of the morning, and yet another change in style. With the frequent use of the personal pronoun 'you', the poem becomes somewhat more personal and individual. It is not clear to whom the section is addressed. It could possibly be the narrator's wife or partner or an anonymous inhabitant of the city, or perhaps to each individual reader, who could recognise elements of his own life in the lines. Despite, however, the change in voice and style, the themes that run through the poem are still evident, though with some semantic differences. There are here some examples of revelation, but not of a helpful or hopeful kind. 'You tossed a blanket from the bed': there is finally an uncovering, but what is being uncovered is unclear and dirty. The person, like the horse and the coffee drinkers, is waiting - once again, it seems, for nothing important or particular, since each day is hopelessly the same - simply for morning. Whilst waiting, the 'you' is dozing; neither asleep nor awake, perceiving neither dreams nor reality fully. Like the time of day, this person is in a half and half world between night and morning, and between slumber and wakefulness. The reader cannot therefore be certain how 'real' the images to follow are. The darkness of the night here seems not to be obscuring, but revealing, although the images revealed are far from hopeful or comforting. For the first time, we see the interior of a soul, instead of the landscape. The soul was constituted of a '...thousand sordid images.../that flickered against the ceiling'. The soul is dirty and unclear, insubstantial yet squalid. It is hidden by its grime and at the same time by its flickering transience.
Finally, the morning comes, and with it sound and vision. However, hope does not arrive with the morning. The light, like so many other things, is obscured, and can but '[creep] between the shutters'. Small, drab city sparrows sing in the squalor of the gutter. Yet through all this, Eliot gives the subject what seems to be a true vision of the street, 'As the street hardly understands.' The reader is lead briefly to find a ray of hope in this grim day. However, it does not last. 'You' returns to the empty routines. With the return to routine, Eliot once again limits his description of this person to isolated body parts: the hair, the feet, and the dirty hands. All these pieces of this person are again obscured by filth; the feet are yellow, and the hands, like the soul, are soiled.
Part IV reprises the evening from the first part and the soul from the third. It ties the images and themes from the previous sections together. The soul is 'stretched tight across the skies'. I do not think it matters whether this is the same soul from the previous section. All souls in this city are sordid and troubled. This time, the soul is not projected on a finite ceiling, but on the skies, which 'fade behind a city block': hidden by the grit of the city, 'or trampled by insistent feet'. In each stanza, Eliot has us looking down at dingy feet, unheeding of the rest of the person. Like the 'muddy feet' pressing for coffee, these are stamping and impatient, trampling the souls underfoot. As in the first stanza, the time is mentioned, but it is no longer the precise 'six o'clock'. It no longer matters exactly what time it is, for it is all the same. The same things happen each day, each time, to each isolated part of the landscape. The isolated fingers are stuffing pipes, creating more smoke and filth to obscure reality. The newspapers from part I return, soon to be discarded as old news, ending up as 'newspapers from vacant lots' to be wrapped by gusty winds around the feet. The eyes that are described think they can discern reality and certainty, but cannot, because reality is obscured. It becomes clear here that it is not people who have either consciousness or conscience, but things such as the morning in Part II, and the street in this section. The street is blackened and obscured by soot and grime, and the street, like the eyes, is 'impatient to assume the world': convinced of its own knowledge and reality.
In the second stanza of Part IV, the narrator is for the first time speaking directly about himself. There is a brief glimpse of hope that something positive can come out of all this desolation. He is moved by fancies that curl and cling like smoke around these 'images', and he can almost see something beyond the squalor, something Christ-like(5) that can save him. However, he can go no further, there is no hope, and both he and the reader are forced back to the false reality described throughout the poem. The vacant lot from the first section is here again, with the worlds compared old women collecting the leaves, newspapers and other detritus of urban desolation to fuel the narrator's hopelessness. The 'infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing' is only a chimera.
Preludes paints a picture of desolation and squalor. It is the musings of a man disgusted with the sordidness of the world, who has brief fancies of something better, but cannot hold onto them. The feet, the grime, the obscurity of the things in the world are here revealed. The reader cannot hide behind the things that obscure reality. Despite the gloominess of the landscape and the souls who live in it, I liked the poem. We have all lain awake at night and despaired. Eliot put words to that despair. The tone of the poem may indicate hopelessness, but the fact that the poem was written (and that Eliot eventually escaped his Waste Land) bring a kind of hope. The narrator may dismiss his fancies, but he does have them. The world is perhaps not as dirty or as grim as it seems at first glance(6), but such naked optimism often makes us laugh in embarrassment at our folly. Eliot captured a mood which he would later expand on in his masterpiece The Wasteland.
(1) Matthiessen, F O. The Achievement of T S Eliot New York, 1947 esp pg 121 He advances the arguement that one cannot separate entirely the poet from his poetry, and that for much of Eliot's life, he was hoping to feel 'a more compelling faith' than he did.
(3) Williamson G A Reader's Guide to T S Eliot. London: Thames and Hudson 1967, 1988 pg 78
(4) See especially part V with its 'arid plain...there is no water'
(5) Although this poem was written well before Eliot's conversion, the image of the gentle yet suffering thing is much as Christ is often described - gentle as a lamb, and suffering for man's sins.
(6) ...but then again.....
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