The word prelude comes from the Middle French word prélude, which means "notes sung or played to test the voice or instrument" (1530s), which is derived from Medieval Latin preludium "prelude, preliminary," from Latin praeludere "to play beforehand for practice, preface," from prae- "before" + ludere "to play.” It was first used in the purely musical sense in English in the 1650s (Oxford Dictionaries). In this poem, the title Preludes could refer to any and all of those meanings: testing the voice, a prelude to a longer work, before a play, or preface to a musical piece.
The first prelude of the poem is set on a winter evening in a city, at the time of day when people are returning home from work, during a rainstorm. It’s a dirty, sinister, pungent, lonely place filled with waste. Motifs are introduced that continue throughout the poem: time, light, newspapers, discarded and broken objects, the street, and vacant lots. The cozy domesticity and occasional rhyming meter is disrupted by images of desolation and routine depersonalization.
The second prelude takes place in the morning, which smells and looks disgusting. City dwellers are reduced to symbols of their work: feet and hands, moving repetitiously. They act as if in a play, with only a pretense of meaning. And their lives are all the same.
The third prelude introduces a character who the speaker addresses directly. She lies awake at night, thinking of her debased life. Then at dawn, she experiences a consciousness of the world as she prepares for her day.
The fourth prelude, written several years after the others, introduces Christian imagery. Christ is imagined in the sky, blocked by the city, and in the street, trod upon by pedestrians. The poem returns to the evening routines of the working class, numbed by nicotine and news. The speaker then gets personal about his emotional experience of a religious impulse intertwined with his poetic imagination. Then he dismisses these “fancies” with an embarrassed gesture, and ends with an image representing a spiritual void.
Eliot wrote these poems early in his career, so you can think of these short "preludes" as testing the voice of a new poet. They can also be seen in the larger trajectory of Eliot’s biography as works that preceded his longer poems, and established the themes of his poetry. Each of the four stanzas is a vignette set either in the evening or the morning, which in the industrial city are both devoted to preparation for—thus, act as a "prelude" to—the main act of work. Thinking of a prelude theatrically also fits with some of the imagery of the poem, which raises a curtain on pictures of modern life. Eliot also had a proclivity to title his poems in musical terms, such as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," and Four Quartets. As the last prelude alludes to Christianity, this suggests another meaning for the word prelude: the period before the second coming, when the world is waiting for the return of the messiah to bring back meaning.
The phrase “The winter evening settles down” is an example of the pathetic fallacy, a form of personification in which the feelings of the characters or speaker are embodied by inanimate objects. The winter evening experiences an orderly transition from day to night. It situates the poem at a particular time of day in a particular time of year: winter, at dusk. The first two lines are written in iambic tetrameter, or four emphasized syllables (da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM), beginning with a pleasant ordered musicality in the language, which is subsequently disrupted in the poem. Lines two and four rhyme, but lines one and three don't, in a free verse form that occasionally comes to order. The first four lines have a repeated “s” sound in the words settles, smells, steaks, passageways, six, ends, smokey, and days, which create a sibilant hissing sound, adding a sinister quality to the poem—suggesting a potentially threatening environment. The word passageways places the speaker in a city. The reference to “Six o’clock” is part of a motif of time in the poem, including the mention of evening, the ends of the days, and the lighting of the lamps (the time when it gets dark). Six o’clock is the time of day when people come home from work, eat, and transition to sleep. The voice of the poem seems to be located not inside eating with the worker, but outside in the passageway, suggesting alienation from everyday life.
“The burnt-out ends of smoky days” is a metaphor, which compares the time of day to the ashes of a cigarette butt. The adjective “smoky” also adds a dirty quality to the image, describing the air pollution in industrialized cities when burning coal for fuel was common. The tone is melancholic–imagine the bleak nature of a day filled with smoke, ending in exhaustion. Smoking a cigarette is also habitual, like all of the behavior of these urban workers. Lines five and six rhyme, playing with the form. They also use enjambment, continuing the sentence beyond the line without taking any pauses. In the third line, the poem uses the second person, bringing the reader into the poem as “you” is introduced. “Grimy,” “withered,” and “vacant” are emotive adjectives, that judge the leaves and newspapers to be dirty, depressing, and empty. The overall tone of the poem is of desolation. After the image of vacant lots, of abandoned places, the line ends with a semicolon, finally allowing a temporary stop to breathe. In lines nine and ten, the alliteration of “beat” “broken” and “blinds” creates the sensation of rain falling on buildings in disrepair. The alliteration continues with "steams and stamps" returning to the sinister sibilance of the first few lines. Line twelve ends with a full stop at a period, which brings us to pause longer at the image of the cab-horse. Line thirteen is set apart on the page, given more space, which points out its importance, even as it rhymes with the line above, relating the two images to each other. The “and then” places it next in chronological time: this is the moment when night has fallen. The “lighting of the lamps” refers to the lighting of gas street lamps. It begins the motif of light in the poem.
“The morning comes to consciousness” is another example of the pathetic fallacy, repeating the form of the first line of the first stanza. The morning is the subject, and it is conscious of the smells of the city. The olfactory imagery of “smell of steaks in passageways” of the evening in the first stanza is replaced here with the day-after olfactory imagery of “faint stale smells of beer.” It places the poem in time—the morning—through sensory experiences of orderly narcotic food and drink consumption. The stimulant of coffee replaces the depressant of beer. The “s" sounds in comes, consciousness, stale, smells, sawdust, street, and stands echo the sibilance of the first stanza, again bringing a hissing, sinister quality to the sound of the poem.
The street then becomes the subject, with feet that belong to it. In two synecdoches, “all its muddy feet” and “all the hands/That are raising dingy shades,” body parts come to represent working-class city dwellers, implying that they are merely the sum of their repetitious actions, and that they are passive slaves to the city. The poem extends the observation to the entire city, and generalizes it through the hyperbole “a thousand furnished rooms.” “Furnished rooms” are cheap and impersonal. This points to the uniformity and degradation of lives living in a city organized by clock time. By implication, the poem seems nostalgic for a simpler, cleaner, and more individual human lifestyle before industrialization, a pastoral ideal.
As the shades are raised, light is let into the room. The line about “dingy shades” create a moment where a figurative 'curtain' is raised on the vignettes of the drama of these city dwellers’ lives, fitting in with the notion of a play. This is a dystopian vision of unceasing mechanical monotony and vulgarity. The emotive adjectives “Sawdust-trampled,” “muddy,” and “dingy” make the city feel disgusting. The enjambed lines offer no respite, as the reader’s senses are overwhelmed without pause. The metaphor “With the other masquerades” suggests that the people of the city are playing roles, wearing masks, pretending to have a meaningful life. With the claim that “time resumes” the masquerade, time is personified as a director of the play of city life. This time is industrial time, mechanically organized by the clock. The speaker, the “One” who “thinks,” seems depressed at his visions.
This stanza is written in the second person, speaking directly to “you,” a subject who in the first six lines lies awake at night with insomnia. There are three moments in these six lines, separated by the pauses of the semicolons. Because the setting is a bed, with its sexual connotations, and the subject is lying on her back, critics have read this character as a prostitute. (Eliot said that this stanza was influenced by his reading the novel Bubu de Montparnasse by Charles-Louis Philippe, which is about a prostitute in Paris). The second line could refer to waiting for a customer. In the third line, the night is personified, as the morning was in the second stanza. It’s also ironic that the night is 'revealing,' since it is dark—as opposed to light, which usually reveals. The “thousand sordid images” is a metaphor for the smutty imagination of a debased woman. It echoes the “thousand furnished rooms” but this time, rather than being hyperbolic, it diminishes her soul, which should be infinite, to a finite number of images. Her soul has the qualities of a dream, but plays while she is awake, but in the dark of night. The “sordid images” also nod to the genre of this poem: it is an imagist poem. Imagism was an organized modernist literary movement, led by Eliot's friend and editor Ezra Pound and in which Eliot participated. The poem takes a longer pause after the play of images on the ceiling with a period, so that you may linger there and imagine.
The next three lines all begin with “and” but no punctuation, suggesting a rapid sequence of perceptions. “all the world” is personified—it left in the night, but “came back” in the morning; the light is also personified as a sneaky subject who “creeps” and is blocked by the shutters; then it turns from a sight impression to a sound impression, with “you heard the sparrows in the gutters.” Hearing the sound of birds is a symbol of spring in classical poetry, but here they are the most drab birds, sparrows, in the most lowly urban setting, the gutters. The world is as bleak as her soul. Then there’s the complex line: “You had such a vision of the street/As the street hardly understands;” The street here is a metonym for the world. It is also another example of personification, and sends us back to the “sawdust trampled street” in stanza II. Since we learned in that stanza that the feet of the pedestrians belong to the street, through synecdoche, the people of the city also belong to the street. But the street is dumb—it “hardly understands” its power. But this woman, even with her limited soul, has the consciousness to see for a moment a vision of the street, and so the world. She starts to get ready for the day, removing the papers from her hair, which were used as a cheap way to get a curl. The papers also echo the “newspapers from vacant lots” in the first stanza. Notice that the poem refers to “your hair” but not “your feet.” It is possible that the “yellow soles of feet” are not her own, but those of a male customer. This image also continues the persistent motif of feet and hands, which especially when described as “yellow” and “soiled” describe working-class people by the appendages which allow them to do dirty work. This language can be read as insufferably classist. But there is also a sympathetic imaginative gesture in granting this woman a “soul” with a vision.
Prelude IV introduces a new male character, in the third person, also with a soul. His soul is either “stretched” or “trampled,” and thus is enduring discomfort. There is a spatial connection to the images of the soul of the woman on the ceiling in stanza III. But the scale of his soul and the horizontal image of it being stretched across the skies suggests a religious allusion to Christ’s cruciform position. The "street"—the character personified as the world in stanzas II and III—is being trampled by the now familiar synecdoche of feet. This image of the street taking on the suffering of the world also becomes a metaphor for Christ’s suffering. The “skies,” a symbol of heaven, “fade behind a city block”—covered, as the shutters cover the sunlight in stanza III, by the basic horizontal unit of the city: the block. This implies that the spiritual is fading and neglected in the modern city, but also immanent within it.
The poem has returned to the evening as in the first prelude. It continues the sibilant “s” sound pattern of the first two stanzas with the words soul, stretched, across, skies, city, insistent, six, short, square, stuffing, etc. The poem’s continued use of sibilance gives the speaker’s voice the alienation of an aesthete who seems like he would have long, elegant fingers. The adjective “insistent” suggests that the city dwellers are acting out of willful desire, likely to return home after work, and too busy to pause and notice that they are trampling the meaning of life beneath their feet. The motif of time returns with “four and five and six o'clock.” But before, the time was particular; now it has multiplied. These are multiple, syncopated preludes, that are nevertheless identical. The poem tries to get the reader to notice this identity, with two end stops at the rhymes block/o’clock.
The “insistent feet”, “short square fingers” and “eyes” are all synecdoches, instrumental appendages acting in undifferentiated plural masses. The “evening newspapers” are a metonym for the cyclical unchanging wastefulness of urban life, and for its narcotic effect on people, like the tobacco in the pipes. We remember from earlier stanzas that the newspapers will become curling devices to contribute to the masquerade of a prostitute’s hair, and end up as garbage blowing in “vacant lots” around the feet of commuting pedestrians. This is a depressing judgment of human intellect as wasted on daily mindlessly comforting entertainment. “Assured of certain certainties” represents a paradox, because the newspapers are telling us certain certainties—not the real whole truth. “The conscience of a blackened street” returns to the motif of the personified street that was “sawdust-trampled,” imagined by the woman, and then “trampled by insistent feet” earlier in the poem. Here it is “blackened” implying dirt and degradation but has a “conscience.” Again, this imagines the ethical-spiritual presence of Christ within the streets of the city—being trod upon, but waiting impatiently to begin to have power or responsibility for the world. The poem stops fully here with a period and a line break for the reader to fully comprehend the image.
The voice then changes to the first person perspective: “I am moved.” This makes the observation personal. The word “fancies” is a plural form of the word fancy, which was originally a contraction of the word fantasy. A fancy is something one imagines, a whim. So in this meta moment, the speaker steps back and talks about how he feels about how his imagination reacts to the images he himself has described in the poem. The verb “curls” echoes the curls in the hair of the prostitute in prelude III. It is describing the way a particular human imagination works: there are images around which notions cling. Images come first, but fancies embrace these images. With the phrase “some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing,” the speaker returns to religious allusion, referring to the infinite gentleness and suffering of Christ. The parallelism of repeating infinitely creates a pattern to emphasize the boundless nature of this notion. There is also an analytical mind here at work, that labels this religious impulse as “fancies” and a “notion.” So in this moment Eliot both expresses a religious desire that he experiences as inextricably bound up in his visions of city life, and intellectually distances himself from his emotion. By ending the line with “thing,” the speaker satisfies the ear with a rhyme for “cling,” but surprises by choosing a word that, along with “some,” is indefinite and usually describes a material object. How can a “thing” suffer, let alone “infinitely”? It can if personified in the poetic imagination: remember the poor trod-upon street.
The speaker then returns to the second person with “Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;” This gesture expresses embarrassment. It’s a self-directive, a contemptuous order uttered by the analytical intellect towards the self who was moved by religious fancies. “The worlds revolve like ancient women” is the only simile in the poem, so it stands apart and has extra gravitas. Remember “when all the world came back” with the sun in Stanza III. So the world vanishes and returns with the sun, that is with daylight and human perception. Later, the “conscience” of the street was “impatient to assume the world.” Religious fancies in the human imagination were impatient to take command over the meaning of the world. But in the end, the world revolves: it moves circularly without end. The preludes continue over and over, without the advent of meaning, a messiah who would break through the meaningless cycle of life and death. “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 they gather substance to burn—to light the world so they can see it, keep warm, and cook their food—but they are getting it from an empty space in the city, those “vacant lots” from the first stanza. There is nothing of real substance there. The world is a spiritual void, yet we continue to live in it. This describes a meaningless existence. The poem ends in despair. But the upwelling of religious hope at the beginning of the last stanza will return in Eliot’s later poems, “The Wasteland” and “The Hollow Men,” and finally triumphs after he converts to Anglicanism, and writes his first fully faithful poem, “Ash Wednesday,” published in 1930.