T.S Eliot’s Use Of Imagery To Create Atmosphere In The Poem Preludes
‘Preludes’ is an imagist poem written by T.S Eliot prior to his days of becoming an influential poet. It was written over the span of two years which was in 1910 and 1911. It consists of four sections which comprise of seemingly related vignettes of the melancholic urban society as it vividly narrates the humdrums of working class culture and the lack of meaning in those humans’ lives. As the title suggests, it only provides a prologue instead of a full-length story of the many occurrences in the city. As a prelude, it only opens a small window of view towards the nature of the city and the streets from different point of views as perceived by the eyes of an attentive observer.
The whole poem is a journey, a narrative that moves adjacently with one of the major themes of the poem which is time — section I struts along dusk, section II lingers in the early morning, section III embodies a sleepless previous night, and section IV returns once again to the evening. The poem centers on the bleakness of the city, the mundane and meaningless habitual of the people living in it, and the fading spirituality of the modern society. Other themes that can be found in the poem are the repetitive cycle of humans’ lives and their ignorance towards their own conscience or as stated by the speaker — their souls.
The poem takes place in a monotonous bleak city. It encapsulates all the living and non-living things that exist in the murky concrete jungle. While each section varies little by little, their focus stays the same. Adjectives that are synonymous with dirt and decay are often being used especially in the first two sections of the poem. At the end of the first three sections, there is a presence of light. Although the poem is mostly literal, the last two sections are composed of certain figurative imageries that are influenced by the literal. One of the main literary devices used in the poem is imagery and that device is also responsible for setting the atmosphere of the poem.
Through the words used to describe the context of the city and its people, it can be observed that the atmosphere of the poem is far from warm. The poem retains a somewhat stale and subtly depressing atmosphere. However, there are a few slight differences in the moods and tones that are being delivered in each section therefore also varying the atmosphere from one section to another. The first two sections lay out a stark description of the city spectacle, dealing with external surroundings through city elements such as the streets, apartment rooms, and coffee kiosks. In the third and fourth section, the poem deals with more internal aspects such as a person’s soul, midnight thoughts, and disregarded consciences.
A detailed summary of the poem focusing on elements of imagery and atmosphere go as follows: Prelude I is almost completely literal and filled with concrete images that represent a rainy winter evening. As an imagism poem, the speaker utilizes his sense of smell, sound, and sight to illustrate little details of the evening that he is witnessing. The “smell of steaks” suggests that it’s probably almost dinnertime while “grimy scraps of withered leaves about your feet” helps readers to experience the sounds of the city. Although the word ‘city’ is never physically mentioned throughout the whole poem, words such as “passageways”, “chimney-pot”, “street”, and “cab-horse” are concrete imageries that allude towards the presence of a bigger picture which is the city.
In Prelude II, time subsides into the morning. The morning is still groggy and is yet to be fully conscious as subdued stenches of beer from the night before still lingers. “Sawdust-trampled streets” hints that the street has witnessed heavy works and its appearance is tainted by the debris and also the “muddy feet” of the working-class people. The speaker uses body parts to represent the city-dwellers, which diminishes the values of humans in this poem. The people living in apartments are lifting the shades from “thousands furnished rooms”, suggesting that everyone else’s lives are all just the same. While Prelude I focuses on the surroundings of the city on the evening, Prelude II delves into the lives of the people living in it — their routines, purposes and also habits.
Prelude III differs from the previous two sections as it is more figurative and is written in a second-person point of view. The use of past tense also indicates that the specific time has passed and it was probably from the night before. In this section, a woman experienced insomnia and as sleep arrived, she was haunted by “ten thousand sordid images” that had shaped her soul. Ironically, the true nature of the woman was revealed in the dark as opposed to being concealed in the dark. Again, body parts are mentioned and the woman’s “hair”, “yellow soles of feet”, and “palms of both soiled hands” portray the woman as a person who has been endlessly working — such is the nature of all the people that resides in the city.
Prelude IV maintains a slightly figurative tone while it elevates from mere body parts to someone’s soul. “His soul” could be the souls of the people but it could also be the souls of God. The people are so engrossed in their day-to-day routine, fulfilling materialistic and social needs but they turn their back on religion and also their true selves. These two souls are in fact so close to the people but they’re hidden “behind a city block” or even “trampled by insistent feet”. Once again body parts emerge as metonyms, signifying that even at the end of the poem humans still do not appear as a whole. However, in the end of the poem the speaker speaks directly in first person; he notices the “sufferings” that exist within the city and it touches him. He also acknowledges that the suffering is inevitable and all that a human can do is to laugh it off.
Throughout the whole poem, there are recurring images and motifs that can be observed and discussed. There are also prominent ideas that exist independently but evoke a strong sense of clarity in which clear judgments can be made about the atmosphere and the nature of the poem. A pattern of imagery that has been repeatedly used by the speaker is unpleasant words that are used to describe the state of the city such as “grimy”, “withered”, and “broken” from Prelude I; “sawdust-trampled streets”, “muddy feet” and “dingy” from Prelude II; “blackened street” and “infinitely suffering” from Prelude IV. These words help to conjure up the image of a city that has been stripped off of all glory and delight, unveiling the image of a city that is built upon filth and melancholy.
Instead of representing humans as individuals, the speaker refers to them only as body parts. Phrases such as “muddy feet” and “hands” not only act as mere metonyms but are also a symbolism of how the human lives are merely reduced to distinctive body parts. It shows that in this city, the people lack essence. They are humans as suggested by their physical attributes but they lack consciousness. In the sixth line of this section, humans are once again dehumanized into mere masks as they are referred to simply as “the other masquerades”. The speaker uses masks to represent the human faces in which they are all in a game of play pretend. Everyone puts on a façade and none of them are being true to themselves let alone to others. Suggestively, they lead a life that is directed by time. Everyone moves and acts accordingly to time as if time is the director of their lives. This strong imagery illustrates a depressing city filled with depressing people, leading depressive lives as they all move with constant fear of being trampled by the clock.
Another recurring motif in ‘Preludes’ is the “newspaper”. It is first introduced in Prelude I as a vital instrument of the city. However, it gradually develops a greater meaning as it is a recurring imagery that continues to appear in the later sections of the poem. While it covers current issues and important events that revolve around the daily life of the city-dwellers, the newspapers are on “vacant lots” and curled on a woman’s hair. It is treated as an object of less importance. Regardless, in Prelude IV the speaker highlights the newspaper as a tool in the human life that distracts the people from the horrid reality of their lives. It assures them of “certain certainties” but does not reassure them of the consciousness that they have left behind and the “soul stretched tight across the skies” which is the higher power which watches over them that they have neglected.
“The burnt-out end of smoky days” from Prelude I is another strong imagery and metaphor that likens the end of the day to the end of an almost burnt-out cigarette. It indicates that the day extends as long as the weary, cancerous, and scalding cigarette stick. Out of the many things that can represent the day, the speaker chooses a cigarette to suggest that the day is nothing more than a long, sickening drag that begins out of bad habit and ends without comfort. This imagery draws yet another painful atmosphere and truth about the city and how it affects the people. Like a cigarette smoke, the dirt from the all the “blackened streets” of the city has seeped into the “souls” of its people. This paints the image of a broken city and a broken society that co-exist out of unhealthy reliance.
The uses of all the imageries discussed are direct implications that the murky city is filled with hollow people with no souls or purpose. The atmosphere of ‘Preludes’ is undoubtedly depressing as it reiterates hopelessness and distress. It is not merely fiction as it also strongly mirrors the reality that people are actually living in. In conclusion, the gloominess of the city and the dreary cycle of the human lives are inevitable conditions that the people can’t avoid but have to go through nonetheless. The only thing that they can do is to “wipe their hand across their mouth, and laugh” as they endure through their harsh lives with their own unique sufferings.
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