The Fabric of the City

The Fabric of the City


Sensory Perception in the Poetry of T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot was an American poet, author, and critic whose work defined poetry in the years following World War One, producing such genre-redefining works as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and The Waste Land. Eliot’s work is intimately connected with the experience of urban life in the early twentieth century, as technology and new forms of economic organization reorganized the social fabric of America and later the United Kingdom, his adopted home. This essay will analyze how Eliot portrayed what he perceived as the vacant meaninglessness of urban existence in two of his early poems entitled “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” In doing so, this essay will analyze the primacy of the senses as a tool to convey meaning within Eliot’s poems. Eliot uses sensory description in both “Preludes” and “Rhapsody” to situate the reader within the physical scene of the poems, as well as to emphasize their conceptual material by providing tangible, sensual referents. These referents can be related either to the personal address “You” which is present in “Preludes,” or to a more universalized sensory experience latent throughout both poems. Furthermore, Eliot’s imparting of agency to physical objects in “Rhapsody” subtly hints at a quasi-Proustian understanding of the power of the senses in both poetry and everyday human existence. 

Both poems make extensive use of sensory descriptions to build the reader’s perceptions of the world Eliot portrayed. Indeed, the descriptions are these poems’ most evocative elements. “Preludes,” especially, is rife with such intense portrayals. Its first and second lines set the tone for the poem: “The winter evening settles down/With smell of steaks in passageways.” These lines both give us a situation in place—the passageways—and a sensory perception to anchor us—the smell of steaks. There is also physical motion: the winter evening is settling. Though a winter evening cannot truly settle down, merely the people involved in it, by imparting agency to the evening itself, Eliot emphasizes that this settling is a more atmospheric experience. Physical description continues, elaborating upon the smell of steaks with “The burnt-out ends of smoky days,” while also bringing in physical touch, as “a gusty shower wraps/The grimy scraps/Of withered leaves about your feet.” Already, in the poem’s first seven lines, we have experienced the physical perception of Eliot’s world through being placed in the position of the subject (“you”): smoky, withered, windy. 

Eliot’s description then turns to something more universal: this world is populated by “vacant lots,” as well as “broken blinds and chimney-pots.” Having placed the reader within this vacant situation, he portrays a universalized situation: “at the corner of the street/A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.//And then the lighting of the lamps,” This again places the reader in a generalized physical space, and engages the senses: visually, one imagines a lonely horse at a street corner, losing its way, and hears the intensely auditory description of “steams and stamps,” one which is almost onomatopoetic.       

The next section continues with more universal description, that is nonetheless intensely physical: “faint stale smells of beer” enter one’s “consciousness” on the “sawdust-trampled street/With all its muddy feet that press.” It is important to note that in these descriptions, Eliot makes consistent use of adverbs and adjectives which combine to give feelings to the subject and verbs within the clauses. Feet are not just feet, but muddy; the street is not merely a street, but a sawdust-trampled one which is pressed by thousands of feet. The stanza moves to a different idea, but again uses modifiers to create a universalized, highly sensory experience: “One thinks of all the hands/That are raising dingy shades/In a thousand furnished rooms.” Ending the section on this line emphasizes both the scale of the scene Eliot evokes in this stanza, continuing from the numerous muddy feet that press in the section’s first half, and emphasizes the contrast between the “dingy” shades that are being raised—another physical action—and their setting, the nominally pleasant, “furnished” rooms.       

The third section brings the poem’s description from the general environment to intensely personal experiences, and challenges the reader by expressing itself in second person. The first three lines all begin with “You.” The descriptions of the action Eliot places upon you are all oriented towards the senses: you “tossed a blanket from your bed,” and “watched the night revealing.” By using this recursive “You” and situating the reader within the senses, the conclusion of that thought packs more punch: what is revealed is “The thousand sordid images/Of which your soul was constituted.” After this astonishing line, Eliot instantly brings the reader back to a personal sensory reality: “They flickered against the ceiling.”        

Morning returns, as usual accompanied by vivid sensory description: “light crept up between the shutters/And you heard the sparrows in the gutters.” What do “you” do in this scenario, after seeing these thousand sordid images during a restless night? You experience intense alienation, elaborated by Eliot in visual form. “You had such a vision of the street/As the street hardly understands.” Yet even in this alienation which is derived from “your” conceptual experience of the past night, Eliot again places us again within the physical plant of the scene, as related through the senses, to drive the point home: 

Sitting along the bed’s edge, where

You curled the papers from your hair,

Or clasped the yellow soles of feet

In the palms of both soiled hands.1

The final section of “Preludes” rehashes many themes explored in the initial three sections. Emphasis on the urban setting of the poem is present—“His soul stretched tight across the skies/That fade behind a city block”—as well as the procession of nameless citizens: “Or trampled by insistent feet/At four and five and six o’clock.” Yet in this final section, Eliot finally adds his own, personal commentary. Even in the narrator’s personal experience, physical, sensory perception is paramount; people’s desires are “curled/Around these images, and cling,” and the narrator is “moved” by them. Eliot could easily have said that such desires impact him, and explained the relationship between the desires and these images in non-physical terms: indeed, after a semicolon, he elaborates upon this relationship conceptually. Yet Eliot’s usage of intensely physical language in this conceptually crucial moment within the poem illustrates the primacy of spatial relationships, and the sensory perception of those, in his writing.

I could spend many pages discussing the conceptual meaning of this final section—as well as the previous ones, for I have much to say—but in the interest of space, and because they are less related to the topic of sensory perception which animates this essay, I will instead turn my attention to another Eliot masterpiece, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” 

Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” like “Preludes,” begins by placing the reader within the space of the city, though in “Rhapsody’s” case, it comes directly after, rather than before, Eliot situates the reader within time. The second line of the poem: “Along the reaches of the street.” We have our setting. Again, clearly conceptual content, the idea of dissolving “the floors of memory,” is elaborated upon in physical terms by Eliot when he specifies in the next line, “Its divisions and precisions.” Eliot then turns to the most important recurring literary device in the poem, a street-lamp: “Every street lamp that I pass/Beats like a fatalistic drum,” again placing a sensory perception on an inanimate object.2 Unlike “Preludes,” however, Eliot imparts agency to this recurring subject of the lamp, rather than the second-person “you.” Eliot achieves this effect by creating an incantatory repetition which takes the reader into a space between the physical plant of the city and the memories which the street-lamp’s speech spurs in the narrator. 

The poem settles into a clear pattern. The street-lamp says something to the narrator, and the narrator is then taken back, sometimes into the scene, but usually spurred directly into a memory. This happens four times. The first and third times, in stanzas two and five, the narrator emphasizes the sound of the lamp. Stanza two says that “The street-lamp sputtered,/The street-lamp muttered,/The street-lamp said,” while in the fifth stanza, “The lamp sputtered,/The lamp muttered in the dark./The lamp hummed.” Both invocations by the street-lamp are then followed directly by memories. In contrast, in stanzas four and six, the lamp’s statements are prefaced with the less sensorially oriented “The street-lamp said” and “The lamp said,” respectively.3 These statements by the lamp are then followed not with descent into memory, but rather perceptions or commentary stemming from the present. 

One might easily read nothing into this pattern, but I will not be so lazy. This connection between how the street-lamp’s statements are evoked by Eliot, and the narrator’s reaction, is, intentionally or not, referential to Proust, as well as to sixth-grade English class. In those bygone years, I was evoked to show, not tell. Proust, similarly, illustrated that showing the madeleine, through the senses, brings up emotion and memory, while merely telling of it, through voluntary memory, begets a flatter picture, more tangible to the present. This pattern of invocation in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” produces a similar effect in Eliot’s work, and again illustrates the primacy of the senses in inducing meaning and feeling in Eliot’s poetry, and the power he gave to them. Furthermore, the placing of agency within the lamp connects to another very Proustian concept—the power of places themselves to hold memories, and bring those memories up in others, just as the street lamp “Beats like a fatalistic drum” in the first stanza.4

As in “Preludes,” “Rhapsody”’s scenes, both in memory and in the present, are described through the senses, using many of the same techniques, and focusing on a variety of senses. A strong example is the memory at the end of the fifth stanza, an olfactory reminiscence which includes “Smells of chestnuts in the streets,/And female smells in shuttered rooms,” as well as “cocktail smells in bars.”5 Another reminiscence, in the third stanza, is oriented around the sense of touch, emphasizing both fragility and the feeling of twisting and clinging from which fragility springs. Even the feeling of reminiscing itself is physical in this instance, as “The memory throws up high and dry/A crowd of twisted things.” A branch is again “twisted,” and later described as “Stiff and white.” The stanza ends with an intensely physical description: “Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left/Hard and curled and ready to snap.” Yet vision is not spared: the poem is chalk full of intensely visual descriptions, such as in stanza two, when the street-lamp tells the narrator that “You can see the border of her dress/Is torn and stained with sand,” the “her” being a woman “Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door.” Indeed, light, both artificial and natural, is crucial in setting the feeling of the poem, both with the stuttering, flickering street-lamp, as well as the narrator’s description in stanza four that “I have seen eyes in the street/Trying to peer through lighted shutters,” a line which combines with a grasping old crab to give physical feeling to the stanza’s overall theme of reaching and grasping, even if it is merely for “a morsel of rancid butter.”6

And so in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” just as in “Preludes,” the senses are a primary vehicle through which Eliot relays both meaning and setting. Eliot’s representation of the senses is wide, and can be both personal to the intended reader, or more universalized, general descriptions which portray the poignant scenes for which Eliot is so famous. The drive to convey meaning through sensory perception pervades both poems, right down to the end: “Rhapsody”’s iconic last line is indeed perhaps the most stunning use of the senses to portray meaning within Eliot’s oeuvre, when, after the lamp implores the narrator to be happy, and prepare for life, Eliot creates a new stanza and concludes the poem with the evocative “The last twist of the knife.” If that short, final stanza within Rhapsody is not a testament to Eliot’s belief that sensory feeling conveys meaning better than description, I don’t know what is.

  1. Eliot, T.S. The Complete Poems and Plays (Faber & Faber, 1969), 23.
  2. Eliot, 24.
  3. Eliot, 25-26.
  4. Eliot, 24.
  5. Eliot, 25.
  6. Eliot, 25.
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