Attuning to the Harmony and Dissonance of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”

Attuning to the Harmony and Dissonance of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes”


Songs of Modern Waste and Decay


Chaque jour vers l’Enfer nous descendons d’un pas,

Sans horreur, à travers des ténèbres qui puent.1

[Each day we take another step to hell,

Descending through the stench, unhorrified]

“La Musique creuse le ciel.”2

[“Music fathoms the sky.”] 


T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” sough the scene of modern life with the sense of rife urban waste and decay. The poster-poet of the modernist movement penned the lyric between the years 1910 and 1911, a period in which he also produced “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady,” prefacing his magnum opus The Waste Land published in 1922.3 Concurrently, Eliot was reading for his would-be unfinished Harvard dissertation on F.H. Bradley, a British idealist whose philosophy reimagined humans as “finite centers,” or islands essentially quarantined from one another by an unbridgeable abyss.4 Additionally, he spent the year 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris under the influence of French philosopher Henri Bergson. During this time, Bergson theorized breakthrough conceptions of perception through a new theory of individual consciousness, one responding to the changing phenomenal experience of time in the modern world.5 Traces of these philosophical influences undoubtedly surface and reverberate in Eliot’s “Preludes:” solemn and solipsistic dirges that treat a modern loss of human dignity filtered through a time-driven, stream-of-consciousness-like style. This paper, however, will refrain from attempting to circuit the network of references embedded within Eliot’s alienated subjects and his poetry’s form. Eliot argues for this restraint in his critical essay “The Three Voices of Poetry”:

The attempt to explain the poem by tracing it back to its origins will distract attention from the poem, to direct it on to something else which, in the form in which it can be apprehended by the critic and his readers, has no relation to the poem and throws no light upon it.6

This paper, then, will follow Eliot’s self-protective advice, foregoing the traces of possible origins and instead attuning to the frequencies of Eliot’s overlooked musicality inherent to his form. In this register, the poet’s dramatic voices draw our ears towards a surprising paradox between classical and open forms, positioning Eliot in constant play with traditions, and his own criticism. Eliot’s style can thus be said to attune itself to a modernist sensibility in how it masks and clashes with classical tropes and Romantic symbolism. Eliot’s cadences find their harmony in the space between these two poles, where his classicism reacts against tradition with a distinctly avant-gardist dissonance. Through additional consideration of Eliot’s criticism, the focus of this paper will be how “Preludes” attunes to the chaos of modern life and the rise of the masses emanating from the poet’s singular music.

The title, “Preludes,” places Eliot’s poems within a musical and poetic tradition which he paradoxically attempts to overturn. The word prelude by itself, announces a work as a precedent, suggesting a subsequent performance, and positioning the listener in a state of expectation. Instead, Eliot’s “Preludes,” which count to four sections in total, persist with an anticipation ultimately left unsatisfied. Eliot imprisons his reader in an urban pastoral where nothing seems to progress or bring relief to the impatient and infinitely suffering7 narrator. Before considering Eliot’s manipulation of time to create a simultaneous sense of flux and stasis, or growth and decay, in his artificial city, it’s worth thinking of the prelude more generally as that which functions to establish the tonal key of a musical composition. It was not until the Romantic era that Frédéric Chopin liberated the form from its Baroque status. His cycle of 24 Preludes began to reformulate the genre beyond a mere synopsis for a larger work, or a thematic introduction for the work to come. Subsequent preludes were unshackled from their strict dogma or their reliance on the whole, as they could be played independently. Under this spotlight, a collection of preludes came to suggest a tonal mood instead of an extramusical narrative. Eliot’s “Preludes,” can be thought of akin to Chopin’s revolutionary works, as evocatively atmospheric, driven by tonal motifs and not thematic foreshadowing. 

Poetically speaking, titling any poem “Preludes” in the 20th century would be instantly associated with William Wordsworth’s autobiographical blank verse poem, The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind; An Autobiographical Poem, published in 1798. The preeminent work of Romantic literature sees Wordsworth reflecting on man’s relation to nature while he recollects his coming of age. In this light, Wordsworth’s visionary epic offered hope for the individual following the failed French Revolution to find spiritual communion and fulfillment not through the church but rather through a solitary and deeply philosophical connection to Nature. Wordsworth and Eliot undoubtedly had in mind the fact that the word “prelude” also evokes religious associations, as it refers to a preliminary sermon or hymn that begins a church service. Eliot’s title “Preludes” provokes the same religious associations that Worsworth’s Romantic opus intended to redirect, one which Eliot ultimately works to satarize in his grim and disenchanted urbanscape, devoid of any spiritual communion. 

In a different key, “Preludes” also speaks to Eliot’s desire for a classical revival, or the ability to see music and modern poetry as they once were understood by the ancients. The title “Preludes” conjures a sentiment that dates back to the ancient Greeks, who used the word “moûsike” to designate both music and poetry as one, unified craft. “Preludes” revitalizes this ancient understanding of how “moûsike” encapsulated poetry in the same Orphic vein of song. Eliot, music, characteristic of his modernist label, takes poetry’s connection to “music” a step further by tuning classical rhythms and forms to atonal and arrhythmic disruptions, one of which can be seen or rather heard in the poem’s opening.

“Preludes” opens musically with a romantic overture as “winter evening settles,” only to be immediately interrupted “with smell of steaks in passageways / Six o’clock.” From the poem’s first breaths, it subverts a classical form and romantic presuppositions, destabilizing a metrical and thematic continuity with the tick of the clock. While lines one and two follow iambic tetrameter, the suddenness of “Six o’clock” breaks the poem’s flow with prosaic, everyday speech in the shadow of ancient form and romantic imagery. This thematic and tonal shift from the closure of a “winter evening” to the pungent “smell of steaks in passageways,” is also shockingly discombobulating. As readers are primed for natural imagery, say a mountainscape or a hillside, they are instead transported to a claustrophobic, urban dwelling, possibly a large apartment complex, situated during suppertime. Moreover, the sibilance or repeated sound of consonants from “settles,” “smell,” “steaks,” “passageways,” and “Six-,” perhaps imitates the hissing sounds of steaks in frying pans, embodying the sense of the scene to shocking detail. The discontinuous, yet immanent rhyme of the first few lines of “Preludes’” introduces us to Eliot’s occasionally musical, and often satirical and sensorially overwhelming verse. 

Eliot’s classical overture and modernist interruption bear a resemblance to the cold opening of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which an “evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.”8 In “Prufrock” Eliot sings of another evening sky, yet one that is brutally analogized to an anesthetized corpse, which also harshly ends the poem’s meter and breaks from its romantic ideation. As in The Waste Land’s subversion of springtime, (“April is the cruelest month”) Eliot unsheathes his inclination to overturn the Poetic ideal of Spring as a source of creation and renewal as was imagined by the Romantic poetic tradition in works such as Wordsworth’s Prelude. “Preludes,” in line with Eliot’s other poems, sounds like a call for rebellion against his national poetic lineage, one inherited from his Romantic forefathers and their synthesis of Natural objects into catalysts for spiritual awakening. In turn, his non-linear, abstracted style unleashes a sonic barrage that temporally and spatially confuses the reader, producing a caustic shock to traditional poetic sensibility. Eliot’s reactionary style, notably rooted in an understanding of poetic tradition, speaks to the critique of Irish poet W.B. Yeats who noted a “satiric intensity9 at the heart of Eliot’s poetry. We stand witness to this “intensity” in the first three lines of “Preludes,” as Eliot offers and then strips his lyric of an expected Romantic musicality in order to embody the sense of sensory chaos he finds in modern phenomenal life.

The first two preludes continue to cling to and abandon a classical meter littered with rhythmic vestiges of urban decay. The “grimy scraps / Of withered leaves,” “newspapers from vacant lots,” “broken blinds and chimneypots.” and other imagery of Eliot’s urban wasteland lack consistency in any one formal pattern. Throughout “Preludes,” Eliot disorientates the reader with intense transitions that break from form and straightforward comprehension. Still, with the sensory-driven imagery of “stale smells of beer” “sawdust-trampled streets” and “muddy feet,” Eliot paints a contaminated landscape of grime, indulgence, and vice, through an unpredictable pattern of free, blank, and rhyming verse. Eliot’s imagistic brushstrokes here carry even more thematic and formal semblance to the bars and brothels, or “sawdust restaurants” and “cheap hotels,” found in “Prufrock,” setting the stage for the second part of The Waste Land, “A Game of Chess,” which sees sex workers discussing their rotten teeth and infertility in the darkening hours of a bar’s last call. Eliot’s painterly depiction of urbanity reads like an homage to the work of nineteenth-century French poet Charles Baudelaire, who translated modern experience through disturbing vignettes of blight and spiritual defilement. Baudelaire’s work often offended Victorian taste and was considered to be obscene for its subject matter despite its often formal perfection. Eliot, who refers to Baudelaire as the “greatest exemplar of modern poetry in any language10 manifests a similar urban miasma that fills the “passageways,” “vacant lots,” lonesome street corners, and empty bars of “Preludes.”11 However, his poetic form often deviates from Baudelaire’s in its more succinct and melodious structures, favoring formal disruptions and informal cacophony that arises from everyday, common speech. 

In his essay “The Music of Poetry” Eliot notes how “dissonance, even cacophony, has its place: just as in a poem of any length, there must be transitions between passages of greater and less intensity, to give a rhythm of fluctuating emotion essential to the musical structure of the whole.12 As heard in “Preludes’” opening three lines, Eliot transitions from a classical voicing full of Romantic imagery to a rhythm-breaking, prosaic cacophony: “Six O’clock.”  Line three marks the first break in form becoming more complexly intertwined with the poem’s themes of modern urban experience in the wake of globalized time. A sense of passing time progresses the poem’s sections which frequently reference real-time in prosaic speech as in part IV, “At four and five and six o’clock.” Moreover, as day passes into night in between the first two preludes, twilight marks an uneasy in-between that foregoes transparent images for visceral, often fractured imagery like “broken blinds” and “withered leaves.” When morning arises in poem’s second stanza, it is personified as a collective experience, “morning comes to consciousness,”13 and latter vivified through collective rituals as people march “To early coffee-stands / With the other masquerades / That time resumes.”14 The narrator of the first two preludes dramatically describes various collective scenes through time instead of addressing a specific subject or audience. Eliot’s dramatic voice instead presents a sequencing of time that develops into mass rituals, such as the lighting of the lamps at night, or the hands of the masses drawing the blinds before migrating masses scour the streets in search of coffee. The emotional associations to these rituals, such as the “lonely”15 cab-horse beneath the streetlamps or the masquerading coffee addicts,16 and the hands that pull “dingy shades”17 relay a sense of alienated, ingenuine, and monotonous existence. The prevalence of time as a narrative device serves to organize the movement and emphasize the sensations found in the modern city, namely within the spectacles of the masses whose rituals lack immanent meaning or satisfaction. In other words, the first dramatic voice of “Preludes” speaks of an experience of collective time in the modern city as it fractures, interrupts, and repeats itself, eliciting a groundhog-day-esque feeling of recurring stasis and disillusionment. 

Historically, the idea of standardized, globally experienced time only became commonplace as early as the twentieth 20th century. Thanks to technological communication devices such as the telegraph and transportation networks like trams, cable cars, and the railroad, a greater sense of interconnectivity helped broaden the idea of a global and urban world that all ticked to the same clock. Moreover, global timekeeping began to shape the development and movement of the masses in cities that Eliot lived in while planning and writing “Preludes” like Paris and Boston, where clocks and talk of time were undoubtedly ubiquitous in everyday conversation and perception. When the first speaker of “Preludes’” interrupts the classical form with “Six o’clock,” it situates the poem not only in prosaic, everyday speech but a form of speech that characterizes the urban experience of space and time during the early 20th century. Eliot’s breaks in form, or his informal cacophony, and fluctuating emotional register, then, become expressive motifs for how the experience of real-time affects both the reader and the city dweller of his time. As the opening two preludes portray a city of collective stasis, bereft of harmonious and genuine life, their discontinuous form emulates a sense of time’s fracturing. In another phrasing, Eliot’s first break in form can be thought to reflect how real-time fractures the everyday experiences of the masses, who in turn pollute the city with their deadened and disingenuous rituals of disenchanted, urban life built upon industry and mass-consumption.

In the third and following prelude, Eliot shifts voicings while continuing to dismantle Romantic traditions and sensations of time, particularly symbols that are often associated with poetic creation and sight. The trifold repetition of “you” “you” and “you,” starts each of the first three lines, directing the narrator’s attention towards a subject internal to the poem. This change in narrative style and perspective also highlights a spatial shift in the poem’s physical setting from a collective urban exterior to a more intimate interior space. The narrator visualizes the subject lying in their cavernous apartment:

You dozed and watched the night revealing.

The thousand sordid images of which your soul was constituted; 

They flickered against the ceiling. 

And when all the world came back 

And the light crept up between the shutters 

And you heard the sparrows in the gutters, 

You had such a vision of the street

As the street hardly understands18

These lines taken from the third suite of the “Preludes” hone in on a single subject in a state of half-consciousness. While “dozing,” a flurry of images appears against their ceiling, exposing the subject’s soul. (Was it a vision, or a waking dream?)19 In this sense or lack thereof, our subject, paralyzed and idle, confined to their bedroom, appears to be unconsciously witnessing a filmic-like sequence of images while in an altered state of consciousness. Perhaps these “thousands of sordid images” are the imagistic motifs of the preludes hitherto, such the sawdust-filled streets and frying steaks in apartment building passageways. Notwithstanding, the images express a deep-seated truth for our subject, something that corresponds to their “soul,” or their innermost thoughts, feelings, and memories: what Plato might have called a window into the world of ideal forms, or Freud, through dream theory, a mirror into the depths of the unconscious. As the subject regains a sense of the world in the light of morning, they hear the song of “sparrows” sound from the “gutters,” which Eliot neatly end-rhymes with the newly alit “shutters.” Eliot’s occasional musicality sounds again and again, reverberating its reproach of Romantic style and associations. To understand Eliot’s caustic subversion within this musical rhyming, we must attune to the poetic symbolism of the scene, specifically of the connection between prophecy and light, as well as sparrows and the soul, through their classical and Romantic concordance. 


Edvard Munch, Morning Yawn, 1913.


Eliot strings together the light of day and songbirds musically through his end-rhyme of “shutters” and “gutters,” a musical cadence that satirizes the symbolic significance associated with such symbols. The sun’s rays classically can be associated with Apollo, God of the sun and its rays, music, and poetry, as well as truth and foresight. Moreover, in the Christian tradition light was the avenue of the holy spirit or God’s immaterial form which represents illumination, insight, or extraordinary wisdom.  The light that plays the “thousands of sordid images” for the spectator in their dream state, and creeps upon the shutters at morning, perhaps indicates an Apolloniac foresight or Christian moment of revelation, readying the scene’s subject for a spiritual epiphany through the divine light. After all, the light becomes the vessel through which the subject is able to witness their soul reflected through their “vision.” Instead of generating mystical communion with the divine, however, the prophetic “vision of the street” witnessed by our subject, is one “the street hardly understands.”20  The subject’s moment of revelation seen in their vision cannot be understood by the masses that roam the soiled streets pictured in the first two preludes. Instead, the subject’s vision withholding their soul is devoid of spiritual connection and serves incomprehensible to the assess. Moreover, the “sordid” images of urban decay seen through their “vision,” tarnish any sense that their soul withholds revelatory insight. Instead of a spiritual epiphany, or communication with the divine, their vision only reflects the waste-ridden “street.” In this absence of revelation or spiritual communion arises Eliot’s critique of the modern city. For the subject, the possibility of divine insight and human connection is foreclosed by the city’s state of decay envisioned in the prior stanzas. A sense of forlorn alienation and disenchantment then leaves the subject at the stanza’s end in a carceral state. Trapped in a now-feminized body, the subject clasps at her hair, then cradles “the yellow soles of feet / In the palms of both soiled hands.” The stanza’s closing lines mark the subject’s change into a tarnished, Goyaesque form. The light that once reflected her soul’s constitution now frames the “yellow soles” she holds in “soiled hands” as she shines with symptoms of bodily and spiritual decay. Eliot’s subversion of classical and Christian symbolism works to deconstruct the feminine seer’s “vision” as it exposes her to the deprivation of city life, leaving her devoid of hope in a decaying form.

Eliot’s songbirds meet a similar fate of disenchantment and rot. Songbirds such as sparrows have been poetically bound since classical times to the soul’s transmigration, as well as metaphors of sorrow and love – perhaps the deepest emotional pool in the well of poetic inspiration. Celebrations of bird songs defined many nineteenth-century famous poems with the idea that birds possess lyric powers that transcend the mortal poet and evoke the spirit at the heart of their art’s creation. In this way, the sound of the bird embodies the poet’s ideal, as Keats sang in the famous lines of his Ode of the Nightingale: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” Eliot, in his essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” analyzes how Keats’ Ode fuses a number of feelings, namely anguish and passion, or sorrow and love, that have nothing precisely to do with the nightingale, but because of its “reputation,” serves to conjure for the poem’s reader in its song. In Wordsworth’s oeuvre, songbirds, and more specifically the sparrow, reflect its ancient connection through mythology and Early Christian symbolism to the soul. In a passage from “Persuasion,” published in 1822, Wordsworth compares the sparrow movement with the transmigration of the soul: “Even such, that transient Thing / The human soul; not utterly unknown While in the body lodged, her warm abode.” Moreover In one of Yeats’ poems from The Rose published in 1925 and titled “The Sorrow of Love, he reifies the sparrow’s song as “the lamentation of the leaves, / Could but compose man’s image and his cry.” Eliot, aware of this tradition, works to tarnish the image of birdsong and its connotations for preceding Romantic poets, using the motif to intensify his satiric rebuttal of its lament. Eliot’s “sparrow,” sings not from the heart of a forest or of the soul’s warmth and the sorrow found in love, but from the end-rhymed “gutters.” In Eliot’s music, the poet’s songbird sounds from the mouth of the city’s waste and symbolic decay. The swallow’s song then serves not to connect the poet to his craft or symbolize the sublime sorrow of his passion, but to amplify Eliot’s critique of the modern city and how it degrades the soul. Similar to how the light “creeping” from the shutters is perverted from its classical symbolism, Eliot divorces the symbol attuned to the poet’s craft in all its passion and longing for transcendence, exterminating any hope or inspiration for the urban soul.

“Wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh; 

The worlds revolve like ancient women

Gathering fuel in vacant lots.” 

These last three lines of the poem attune to a different kind of voice. Abandoning the rhyme scheme of the previous stanza, Eliot channels a third narrative voice that speaks directly to the reader, commanding them to wipe their mouth and laugh. The wiping of the mouth, or cleaning of the vessel for speech, suggests a purification of some kind, while the laughing triggers a catharsis or release of tension. The change in narrative voice is accompanied by an overall change in tone which expresses a cold, wanton ambivalence to the horrors and “infinite suffering” found in the city’s “thousand of sordid images” which the reader is now told to treat comedically. As the city’s decay at the hands of the polluting masses and the soullessness of the feminine seer has been laid bare, we are told by the third narrative voice to embrace an absurdist finale. 

The “Preludes” close with a vague and atonal threat to demolish the “worlds” Eliot enlivens in a state of decay amid the modern city’s waste. The “worlds” that “revolve” in the last three lines parallel the continually recurring stasis of the city, attuned to mass rituals that lack any inherent meaning or sense of progression. Eliot also likens the world’s revolutions to “ancient women (53).” This simile suggests how feminine archetypes or idols appear to recur throughout history since ancient times. The poem’s final subjects are not seen as divine idols or saintly figures but are instead the marginalized workers of the city. Their setting in “Empty lots,” situates them in the ghostly in-between spaces away from the city’s polis. The alienated and desanctified “ancient women” recall the apartment dweller who sees a vision of her soul in the third prelude only to wallow in her grotesqueness. While the identity of these subjects seems connected to their feminine alienation, it is clear they embody the polluting effects that Eliot diagnoses as the root of decay in the modern city he portrays. Moreover, a possibly terroristic instinct or mechanization of “the ancient women” further supports Eliot’s association of urban miasma with feminized icons. The “fuel” that the “ancient women” gather can be imagined as a recipe for arson or the weapon with which they prepare to burn the decaying world to ash. Additionally, the “fuel” they gather can also be read as the required ammunition for modern industry. In this way, they become themselves the mechanisms of decay and waste or the cogs to the industrial machines that “revolve” a world fueled by mass consumption which the newspapers and cigarettes littering the city’s streets in the first prelude conjure. In other words, the simile between “women” and “Revolve” connects the feminine masses to the language of industrialization, and an eternally recurring sense of stasis. Eliot is keen to link and depict these divine feminine idols with the masses, who generate urban chaos through modern technology and the potential destruction of the modern city. While the poem’s finale reads ambiguously, its emphasis on “ancient women”’ as agents of chaos, setting out to destroy the corrupting “worlds” of “Preludes,” paints them as the culprit for its decay. The view of how feminized masses are somehow guilty or culpable in the corruption of the “worlds” through industry and its subsequent pollution, also suggests a political tension between the masses, modern consumerism, and the modernist poet. Further interrogation of how “ancient women” are represented throughout Eliot’s oeuvre, such as Sibyl begging for death at the entrance to The Waste Land in the poem’s epigraph, might help illuminate Eliot’s critique of the modern city and industrial technology in its association to a feminized swarm.

Eliot’s three narrative voicings that tune to a decaying cityscape perform a musical structure that subverts, alienates, and fractures the poem’s form, much like how Eliot envisions the effect of modernity on his subjects. The strange sense of sonic stimulation in “Preludes” speaks to his painful awareness of modern phenomenal experience and the subsequent fragmentation of his time. The poem’s resulting lack of form and rhyme, or its refusal to sing, generates an occasional dissonance that shapes Eliot’s avant-garde style whose influence on modern expression cannot be overestimated. While “Preludes” ends with the calling for destruction from the terroristic, mechanized, feminine masses, the poem also protects pockets of harmony that feel infinitely lost in the unforgiving purgatory of Eliot’s lyric. It’s the sense that Eliot’s phrasings withhold sincere emotion within a satiric ambivalence that generates an ambiguous emotional affect—one clear only through attention to his form’s harmony and dissonance. Perhaps this clash is what gives Eliot’s paradoxically alluring yet bitter musicality its sense of intensity, one that emanates not only from parody but lost faith and futile longing.

  1. “Au lecteur,” from Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, and Other Poems (University of Virginia Press, 1961).
  2. Quote attributed to French poet Charles Baudelaire.
  3. T. S. Eliot and Peter Washington, Eliot: Poems and Prose (A.A. Knopf, 1998).
  4. Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Third Edition, Volume 1, “T.S. Eliot,”460.
  5. Norton, “T.S. Eliot,” 460.
  6. T.S. Eliot, “Three Voices of Poetry,” in On Poetry and Poets (Farber, Strauss & Giroux), 108.
  7. Eliot, “Preludes,” 58-51.
  8. T. S. Eliot and Peter Washington, Eliot: Poems and Prose (A.A. Knopf, 1998).
  9. Norton, “T.S. Eliot,” 463.
  10. Charles Baudelaire, Selected Poems (Penguin Classics, 1955).
  11. Eliot, “Preludes,” 53-4.
  12. Eliot, “The Music of Poetry,” 24-25.
  13. Eliot, “Preludes,” 14.
  14. Eliot, “Preludes,” 18-20.
  15. Eliot, “Preludes,” 12.
  16. Eliot, “Preludes,” 1418-19
  17. Eliot, “Preludes,” 22.
  18. Eliot, “Preludes.”
  19. John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale,” 1820.
  20. Eliot, “Preludes,” 34.
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