T.S. Eliot wrote "Preludes" between 1910 and 1911 while he was a student in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then in Paris. The poem was included in Eliot's breakout 1917 collection Prufrock and Other Poems, but it was first published in the second issue of Blast!, the influential modernist magazine, alongside work of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis.
The poem is a series of vignettes of alienated and desperate life in the modern city. It is an important example of early modernism both in subject and in style. Eliot drew on the earlier French writers Charles-Louis Philippe and Charles Baudelaire in choosing to write about the life of the slums in the modern city. In style, he was experimenting with the techniques of imagist poetry, a movement founded by his friend Ezra Pound. These included an emphasis on clarity and economy. "Preludes" begins with a regular form and rhyme scheme, which is then disrupted with fragments of free verse.
Divided into four numbered sections, each of which describes a different city scene, "Preludes" can be read as four distinct poems with repeated words and themes. The main theme it examines is time in the modern city, and how it organizes a monotonous, debased existence for urban workers. In the fourth prelude the poem grapples with a religious vision that becomes intertwined with the imagist project, but ultimately rejects it, returning to a bleak image at the end.