Preludes Literary Elements

Speaker or Narrator, and Point of View

"Preludes" has an omniscient speaker who observes both the “you” on the street and a home interior, and who also speaks for himself later in the poem. This voice is judgmental, using many adjectives to describe the dismal nature of the city.

Form and Meter

Preludes can be read as four separate poems and or one poem of 54 lines. The four preludes are written in free verse that goes in and out of organized meter and rhyme. The first two lines are written in iambic tetrameter, with four emphasized syllables. The short third line interrupts the rhythm with three syllables. This form of establishing an eight-syllable iambic line and then disrupting it occurs repeatedly in the remainder of the poem. It suggests that life in a modern city is both ordered and fragmented. There is also an irregular rhyme structure, tying together images with words like “wraps”/“scraps,” “stamps”/“lamps” and “shutters”/“gutters.” The second prelude is the most regular, with an abcadefdef rhyme structure. Phrases that start with “And” create the feeling of an accumulation of loosely connected images. The third prelude is one sentence, that contains a sequence of parallel clauses beginning with “you” and “and.” This emphasizes the theme of monotony. The fourth prelude is the most irregular. The soul moves through it as a subject both “stretched tight across the skies” and “trampled by insistent feet.” This is disrupted by the synecdoches beginning with “And.” The second stanza has a regular meter and rhymes “cling” with “thing”—it expresses a religious harmony. The final stanza disturbs with its lack of musicality and abruptness.

Metaphors and Similes


“The burnt-out ends of smoky days”
This compares the time of day to the ashes of a cigarette butt.

“With the other masquerades”
People are acting within the pretense of a meaningful life.

“The worlds revolve like ancient women/ Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”
The world moves circularly without end. The preludes continue over and over, without the advent of meaning. “Ancient” refers to the old problem of the human condition. “Women” are physical representations of the cycles of life because they give birth. The last image is a paradox, because the women gather substance to burn, to light the world so they can see it, keep warm, and cook their food, but they gather it from an empty space in the city. There is nothing of real substance there. The world is a spiritual void, yet we continue to live in it.

Alliteration and Assonance

The repeated Bs in“Beat,” “broken,” and “blinds” creates the sense of something striking or hitting.
"S" sounds repeat throughout, suggesting a sinister or alienated atmosphere.



Modern poetry


An unspecified modern city.


melancholic, alienated, messianic, cynical

Protagonist and Antagonist

Major Conflict

Between religious imagination and dismissive despair.





“His soul stretched tight across the skies”
“The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.”

This is a religious allusion to Christ and the crucifixion.

Metonymy and Synecdoche


“Muddy feet”
“All the hands”
“Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.”
“insistent feet”
“short square fingers stuffing pipes”
“and eyes”

The poem represents the people of the city as their feet and hands, the parts of their bodies that work and perform repetitive routines.


“The winter evening settles down/With smell of steaks in passageways.”

“The morning comes to consciousness/Of faint stale smells of beer”

The time of year and time of day are given conscious and sensory experiences of the city.

“With the other masquerades
That time resumes”
Time is personified as a director of the play of city life.

“The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.”

In the fourth prelude, filled with Christian allusions, the street has a consciousness, implying that Christ’s spirit is within the humblest everyday places.


“In a thousand furnished rooms.”
The poem’s vision of meaningless modern life multiplies by a thousand, raising it to the level of social critique.