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The Transcendence of the Sordid: Structural Irony in T. S. Eliot’s “Preludes”

In T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”, the reader is presented with a glimpse at life in a modern, mechanistic society: a glimpse showing such life as sordid, dirty, and inevitably self-consuming. The poem’s speaker builds this vision through a stream of images pertaining to death, decadence and decay, showing the inexorable entropic dissolution of all things. All of humanity's creations, all of nature, will, in the end, burn out into nothingness. This world view is supported by the poem’s tone, which is predominantly bleak and pessimistic, with hints of a disdaining superiority. The speaker attempts to distance himself from the fallen world which he is describing by hiding behind pronouns, lurking implicitly within the “one”, “you” and “his” used throughout most of the poem, and using this distance to tacitly judge his surroundings.

Ironically, however, when the speaker finally overtly shows himself, coming forward as an "I", he qualifies his initially bleak views. The seeming nihilism that infuses the bulk of the poem is subverted, as the speaker realizes that the spiritually dead world he has presented is far too negative to be unequivocally accepted, and too limiting and one-sided to be continued without qualification. The poem concludes with an almost grudgingly spiritual tone, shifting to encompass a feeling of resignation and acceptance in its final three lines.

The speaker’s attempts to be rational and scientific, to look at the grimy detritus of modern life and condemn all of society for it, fail; when he moves from the physical to the spiritual, from the emotional distance provided by looking at things to the immediacy of examining a person enveloped by those things, his perspective shifts. He admits the existence of something more, admits the power of the imaginative and the spiritual, and also his attachment to them, to the “fancies that are curled” around the squalid “images” which he deplores. The graphically negative imagery built up throughout the poem is ironically reversed; the description of spiritual beauty seen shining through the grime and filth of a modern city shows the ability of humanity to transcend its mechanical surroundings. All is not as bleak as the speaker would have the reader understand: his seemingly judgemental initial attitude is far more nuanced than it first appears.

The poem begins at day’s end, with “the winter evening settl(ing) down.” This introduces the speaker’s overly negative perception of a fallen world, decadent and decaying; the images detailed within it can all be seen giving authority to his dark vision. The imagery falls into three (non-exclusive) groups: death (“winter”, “evening”, “withered leaves”), decay/filth (“grimy scraps”, “smoky days”, “withered leaves… and newspapers”, “broken blinds and chimney-pots”) and immolation (“smell of steaks”, “burnt-out”, “chimney-pots”, the horse that “steams”, “the lighting of the lamps”). Even nature is seen as negative and malicious, “wrapping” man in his own garbage, and “beating” down upon his creations. The speaker’s ironic use of a horse image, usually a symbol of life and vitality, furthers the bleak landscape; this horse is “lonely”, lacking a rider to give it direction, and vaguely threatening as it “steams and stamps.” The only mention of a person is the metonymic “your feet", which centers the reader within the poem, positions the speaker as a distanced observer, and portrays the lack of self-connection which such a mechanistic world creates in its denizens. This initial stanza works to set up the one-sided world view which is undercut later.

The second stanza continues in the same vein of imagery, likening the waking street (and the modern worl) to a man with a hangover. The street is commonplace and dirty, “sawdust-trampled” by “muddy feet” hurrying to “early coffee-stands.” People are present, but are still referred to as only parts, as “feet” and “hands”, as if the speaker were shying away from an examination of anything but the physical street and its accoutrements, still avoiding the humanity of the city. The switch in pronouns, from “you” to the more impersonal “one”, continues and the emotional distancing of the speaker the street, but at the same time hints that he could become part of it: while it would be difficult to conflate the speaker with his "you", he could be seen as one of many "one"s. Combined with imagery of the stanza's end, this sublty modifies the poem's tone, making it less judgmental and more reflective. Thinking of the impersonal macrocosm of the city’s “thousand furnished rooms”, the speaker is moved to examine the highly personalmicrocosm of a single occupied room.

The negative imagery is returned to in the start of the third stanza; the “thousand sordid images” which “constitute” the watched person’s soul, are, presumably, the same types of images which have been previously related, images of grime and squalor. The break of day, however, brings about a transcendent experience; the return of “all the world” and of “light”, coupled with the sound of “sparrows in the gutters”, creates a mystical vision, a “vision of the street/ as the street hardly understands.” The “you” has been able to overcome the sordid squallor of the street, and see through to the beauty underneath; she sits on the edge of the bed with “the yellow soles of feet clasped/ in the palms of both soiled hands”, in a position of prayer or meditation, surmounting the filth and dirt with which she is surrounded.

In the fourth stanza the speaker begins by continuing the negative imagery which was moved away from at the end of the third; “his soul” is “stretched tight” and “trampled” by the commonplace movements of the other inhabitants of the street, who are again only body parts, “feet”, “fingers” and “eyes.” The street is still grimy, filthy and destructive, “blackened” and eager to “assume” the world. The transcendent experience of the night before appears to have been forgotten, until the second line grouping, where the speaker finally reveals himself as an “I”, showing himself as part of the society which he is condemning. These four lines, coupled with the “vision” of the third stanza, work to generate most of the poem’s irony, as the speaker finally admits that all is not as dark as it has been made out to be.

Despite his disdain for modern society, the speaker is “moved” by the Christ-like (“infinitely gentle/ infinitely suffering”) “fancies” that are inseparably “curled” around his bleak images. He is awed by the possibility of looking beyond the surface and seeing something greater and more spiritual than that seen on the surface; despite the decay and death which cover the street, someone has managed to look beyond and have a spiritual vision. The final three lines return to a bleaker outlook, but now with a sense of almost mocking acceptance, as if the speaker has realized that although the world, and even the larger cosmos, is destined to consume itself, the ability of mankind to move beyond the transience and decay of such a universe gives him the strength to accept it.

The speaker of T. S. Eliot’s “Preludes” works throughout the poem to generate the idea of modern society as self-consuming and emotionally dead; he removes himself from his depictions through the use of pronouns, creating a sense of moral superiority over that what he describes. When he finally speaks as himself, however, as an “I”, he reverses the negative imagery with which he has filled the poem. He admits to the presence of the transcendent and mystical, and to man’s ability to see through filth and decay to the spiritual “fancies” which “cling” to them. He qualifies and reverses himself, showing his initial portrayal of society to be flawed and incomplete, too harsh and mechanistic to account for the scope of life in modern society.