Preludes Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Time (Motif)

Time is a motif in the poem and also a theme (please see Themes for further analysis). Every prelude makes reference to some type of time: clock time, the time of day, the time of year, time as marked by human rituals (such as the lighting of lamps, the cooking of dinner, the consumption of coffee and alcohol), messianic time, and historical/mythic time.

Newspapers (Motif)

The “evening newspapers” in prelude IV are a metonym for the cyclical unchanging wastefulness of urban life, and for its narcotic effect on people, like the tobacco in the pipes. In prelude III, newspapers act as curling devices to contribute to the masquerade of a prostitute’s hair. In prelude I, at sunset, they end up as garbage blowing in “vacant lots” around the feet of commuting pedestrians. This is a depressing judgment of human intellect as wasted daily on mindless, comforting entertainment.

Filth (Motif)

With adjectives such as smokey, grimy, dingy, soiled, and sordid, the poem returns again and again to the inescapable filth of the city. It collects on hands and feet and window shades, and it stinks. Decayed, wasted, and broken objects also contribute to the disgusting living conditions.

Light (Motif)

Natural and artificial light have a tense relationship in Preludes. As the evening falls, lamplighters ritualistically light the streetlamps, continuing the evening on past the natural diurnal cycle. In the morning, “dingy shades” are raised to let light into equally depressing rooms. The light thus creates the images of the poem, as if they were theatrical vignettes. There is also an ironic moment when the dark of night reveals the soul’s images. Sunlight is personified as a sneaky subject who “creeps” and is blocked by shutters, but brings all the world back with it.

Sparrows (Symbol)

In classical poetry, the sound of birds is a symbol of spring. But in "Preludes," Eliot mentions the drabest of birds, sparrows, in the lowliest urban setting, the gutters. The sparrows are thus a symbol of the debased world.