The title of the poem itself, "Preludes," already contains a reference to chronological time. A prelude is something that comes before ("pre") the main action ("lude," play or action).
Each of the preludes is set at a particular time of day. In the first prelude this is precise: six o’clock. Clock time relates to other types of time in the poem such as the time of year—winter, when it gets dark early. The lighting of the lamps suggests one way that city life goes contrary to nature: it’s an artificial way to continue daylight beyond its natural course, to supercede a diurnal cycle with modern technology. The mechanical nature of clock time determines the way that people move and relate in urban life. The poem’s focus on disembodied feet and hands performing repetitive actions could also be a reference to the hands of a clock. There is also a judgement in the poem about the quality of life lived in the context of industrial time: “The burnt-out ends of smoky days” is a metaphor, which compares the time of day to the ashes of a cigarette butt. So: life in the city is filled with smoke, and ends in exhaustion.
Time is also marked by the sensory experience of human behavior. In "Preludes," the evening and morning are personified as themselves experiencing the cyclical smells of human life (steaks for dinner in the evenings, and stale beer from the night before in the morning). Moments in time are marked by the consumption of pleasurable and comforting substances: food, beer, coffee, tobacco, newspapers. The movement of papers through the poem also marks time, going from trash, to curling papers, to evening newspapers. The cycle of news is, itself, another artificial construct created by modernity.
Finally, the poem personifies time as a kind of director of the play of city life. Take the phrase “time resumes” the “masquerade”: This implies a fictional existence, organized by a false order of time. In the final prelude, time multiplies to “four and five and six o’clock,” seemingly all at once, but the human actions are nevertheless identical and thoughtless, ignoring both the divine nature of the “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering” sky above them, and the dirty street below them. This infinite nature of God contrasts with the mechanical clock time of the industrial city. This also gives another meaning to the word "preludes": a reference to being before the arrival of the messiah, or the second coming, when people experience time as messianic and infinitely meaningful. The last line brings the poem into historical/mythic time, with the phrase “The worlds revolve like ancient women/Gathering fuel in vacant lots.” This time is also infinite, but cyclical and empty of meaning.
Repetition is built into the structure of the overall poem. Over the course of the four preludes, evening turns to morning, which returns to evening, then morning, then evening again. This by itself isn’t tedious, but when you add emotive descriptors like burnt-out, grimy, broken, and lonely, the cyclical nature of life in the city takes on the burden of misery, becoming monotonous. The theme of time deepens into despair when mechanical time produces mechanical people, whose lives become anonymous and identical: “all the hands/That are raising dingy shades/In a thousand furnished rooms.”
"Preludes" contains many images of human life reduced to something partial, sinister, and broken. In the third prelude, this is expressed most directly as “The thousand sordid images/Of which your soul was constituted.” A soul, which should be infinite, is limited to a thousand ignoble images. Humans are described by their feet and hands—body parts that move and work, and get “muddy,” “yellow,” and “soiled”; the speaker does not mention the more personal, "spiritual" areas of faces and hearts. Their lives are also directed by their appetites for food, sex, alcohol, and coffee. Life is described as a “masquerade,” a false pretense of reality. Symbolically, the songbird in the tree representing the hope of spring, is replaced by the degraded sparrow in the gutter. The city dwellers are so preoccupied that they blacken the holy street with their “insistent” feet; their debased state ignores the possibilities of grace and salvation. Even old women at the end are reduced to scrounging for fuel.
Preludes Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Preludes is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.