Preludes, T. S. Eliot
Collected Poems 1909-1925, pp. 12-13
This poem, divided into four sections, depicts the change of a street throughout a day. Section I describes the deserted street in the evening, followed by Section II describing the same street in the morning. Section III contrasts with the first two, as it is written in second and not third person, and describes a person presumably living on the street and not the street itself. Section IV begins by describing the street’s return to the evening state, seemingly ending at the time the first section starts. The poem ends with a reflection on an infinite recurring change, culminating with the final lines
“The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots”
I love the continuity between the images in the different sections of the poem. For example, the “burnt-out ends of smoky days” in the first section become the “short square fingers stuffing pipes” in the last. Section I centers around the idea of rain pounding the street in the evening, and those showers become the “muddy feet that press/To early coffee stands” in Section II, and in turn the city block “trampled by insistent feet” in Section IV. The recurring, yet changing images are what create the idea of a continuous cycle.
The most literal interpretation of the cycle of the poem is as the cycle of night and day, yet the use of winter imagery at night gives additional layers to the poem, as does the first line of section IV:
“His soul stretched tight across the skies
that fade behind a city block”.
Eliot is likely referring to phenomena such as the change of seasons and the process of aging in human life. Of course, in true Eliot fashion, this cycle is portrayed as something dull, unchanging, and dirty–his descriptions throughout the poem use words like “grimy,” “withered,” “dingy,” “sordid,” etc.
This poem is an accessible poem. Although I’m probably missing some allusions and more complex metaphors, I was still able to appreciate it and gain additional meaning from it, as would have most readers at the time the poem was originally published.