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T.S. Eliot


Prelude 1

Keith Tankard
Updated: 4 March 2014
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"Preludes" is a series of verses about the decadence and decline of modern society, and more particularly of modern urban society. Each prelude deals with a different aspect of this decline.


Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888. He attended Harvard University and graduated with a Masters degree in Philosophy. While there, he published several poems in the Harvard Advocate.

The poet left the United States in 1910, moving first to France, then Germany and finally London. He married Vivienne Haigh-Wood in 1915, which caused him to settle permanently in England.

His marriage was never successful, however, and they separated in 1933. In 1956 he would remarry, this time to Valerie Fletcher.

Early during his stay in London, Eliot fell under the influence of Ezra Pound -- the great American poet -- who also assisted in the publication of his early poetry.

The publication of his first book of poetry -- Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917 -- revealed Eliot as a forerunner of Modernism, the philosophy of Modern Art. His next book -- The Waste Land, 1922 -- is claimed by many to contain some of the most important poetry of the 20th century.

Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. He died in London in 1965.

"Preludes" has been described as a vivid portrayal of the decadence and decline of modern society, and more particularly of modern urban society.

This was not a new theme. Indeed, Oswald Spengler -- the great German Philosopher of History -- was already writing about the collapse of Western Society. The Great War of 1914-18, Spengler wrote, was simply a manifestation of this collapse.

Eliot and Spengler were contemporaries and it is probable that the poet would have read the German's writings while studying philosophy at Harvard University, although Spengler's best known work -- The Decline of the West -- would be published only in 1918, one year after Eliot's own publication of "Preludes".

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

It has been claimed that this prelude gives a portrayal of death and decline.
  • Count the number of times the poet uses the following images in the space of just this one prelude:
    = death/winter/coldness;
    = burning/smoke/immolation;
    = decadence/disintegration;
    = loneliness/darkness;
    = pollution. (10)

[Need help?]

  • Examining these words, explain how they justify the comment that this prelude deals with death and decline. (10)

[Need help?]

  • By examining these images, would you care to comment on the poet's intention? (6)

[Need help?]

"The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days."
  • It has been said that the "smell of steaks" indicates a relatively affluent area of the city because the poet is describing people who can afford to eat steaks. Is this argument true? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the most delightful image, "burnt-out ends of smoky days". (4)

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  • Does the poet have a particular city in mind as he writes this poem? (4)

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It has been said that "Preludes" paints a picture of the breakdown of society?
  • While confining your answer to this first prelude, indicate to what extent the above statement is true. (4)

[Need help?]

"Preludes captures the impoverished spiritual lives of those living in a lonely, sordid, decadent culture"?
  • To what extent is this statement a correct interpretation? (6)

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See also:
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