Modernism – T.S. Eliot’s Preludes Prufrock Essay
Modernism was the cultural movement in which innovation and experimentation of art and literature was celebrated and explored as a reaction against the formality and optimism of the preceding Victorian period. Thomas Stearns Eliot was a Modernist literary figure who contributed significantly to the movement in the early to mid 1900s. In Eliot’s “Preludes” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T. S. Eliot reveals some of the major concerns of his context linked to happenings on the cultural and industrial fronts; that is, urban decay, social entrapment and the fragmentation of Victorian England.
He examines the effects of these on the lives of human beings and laments the emptiness, futility, destructiveness and cynicism of life in the modern world. Eliot’s Preludes conveys the mundane and repetitive nature of people’s lives in 1911. The title itself is ironic in the sense that a prelude is and introductory piece which precedes something of higher importance, however in Eliot’s Preludes, this is not the case. Thus, one interprets that the titles acts as an ironic allusion to society, questioning whether the repetitive, impersonal lives that people lead will get them anywhere.
The poem consists of four descriptions of urban life at different times of the day. Within this day the monotony and futility of human existence is highlighted. Prelude I depicts a rainy windswept evening that seems to have that dreary feel of the day’s end. The movement is that of ‘wind and rain’, ‘withered leaves’ and ‘discarded newspapers’ in an ugly world of ‘broken blinds and chimney pots. ‘ The ‘lonely cab horse’ portrays a deserted street, which is further emphasized by the impersonal “lighting of the lamps. Such imagery evokes a feeling of being in a cold, wet, dirty city at night, reflecting the lives of those who live there. The second prelude progresses to describe the wakening of the modern world to a man with an apparent hangover.
“The morning comes to consciousness, Of faint smells of beer. ” The stresses in this line lend a heaviness to the day’s beginning, just as use of synecdoche in “muddy feet” suggest a kind of unwilling trudging off to work. Eliot refers to people’s actions as “masquerades” showing his opinion that everyone plays the part they are expected, void of identity and individuality.
Furthermore, the fact that people are referred to ‘hands’ and ‘feet,’ intensifies the impression of the impersonal nature of the industrialized and urbanized society of the modern world. The third prelude, portrays the dark, early hours of the morning, and makes particular the insistent dreariness that the poem presents. 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.
However, “The light crept up between the shutters” symbolically allows a truth to creep through the dark monotony of life, and the juxtaposition of the “sparrows in the gutters” symbolise hope in destitution. Nonetheless, after such hope, Eliot again returns to feelings of despair, as he describes the persona as clasping “the yellow soles of feet, In the palms of ‘soiled hands’ alluding to a sense of staleness and filth. The final Prelude, set in the afternoon, reveals Eliot’s belief that the spiritual elements of life remain distanced from those of everyday existence.
It is implied that Christ is being stretched to his limits and obscured by the city’s buildings or ignored by the crowds despite his apparently hopeless attempts to watch over and protect the people from the heavens. Then for the first time in the poem, the persona speaks in first person, “of some infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing” However, the persona sharply turns away from any thought of hope, and gives a bitter, cynical laugh, declaring that life and the world around him is nothing more than like old women gathering broken pieces of driftwood for fire. The final image in the poem is one of futility and hopelessness. The world revolves like ancient women, Gathering fuel in vacant lots. ”
In comparison to Preludes, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is an ironic comment on loneliness, cultivated triviality, and the failure of communication. It is an examination of the tortured psyche of Prufrock, the prototypical modern man; that is cultivated, neurotic, and emotionally stilted. As in Preludes, the setting of The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock is that of a modern city, through which the persona guides the reader through the form of a monologue. The poem begins with an epigraph from Dante’s Inferno which speaks of visiting hell.
Such a reference serves to establish the austere tone of the poem to follow. Prufrock’s hell is on earth, in a lonely, alienating city. As in Preludes, the images of the city are sterile and deathly, the night sky being ‘Like a patient etherized upon a table’. Furthermore, the streets are described as “half deserted”, evoking a state of loneliness, again likened to that of Preludes. Through his protagonist Prufrock, Eliot goes on to focus on the social uncertainties that are common to all, as well as on the relentless emptiness of social routine prevalent within modern society.
Prufrock is portrayed as someone who is in despair and helpless, avoiding decisions at all possible costs in the fear that such decisions will precipitate change and its uncertainties. Eliot’s view of the degradation of modern society as described in Preludes is reflected in Prufrock’s fragmented and outlook on the world – ‘evenings, mornings, afternoons,’ as well as the triviality and little significance with which he views his own life – ‘I have measured my life with coffee spoons’.
Most importantly however, Prufrock agonizes over his social actions and his physical appearance, in conforming to the “women that come and go, talking of Michelangelo. ” Hence, one sees Eliot convey the idea that our modern society is void of personality, and losing its personal identity, as a result of social conformity. To illuminate such a message, Eliot refers to his idea of routine masquerades – of preparing a face ‘to meet the faces that you meet’, conveying his idea of the loss of individuality in modern society, as he did in Preludes.
In contrast to the rest of the poem however, in the last section Prufrock distances himself from the harsh urban world, allowing a moment of romantic escape with images of mermaids ‘riding seaward on the waves. ‘ Like the tender image of the “infinitely suffering thing” in Preludes, the mermaids refer to beauty and emotion, something that people in this modern world long for, but deny themselves as a result of choosing the certainties of materialism. As such, this image of hope and tranquility quickly fades, as this dream can only continue “Till human voices wake us, and we drown”
Both Preludes and The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock are significantly influenced by the ideas and techniques of Modernism, and reflect the context in which they were written in. Eliot has described the hopelessness, futility and monotony that shape modern societies, blaming mankind for the atrocities that he must endure. Hence it becomes so clearly evident that Eliot’s concerns with spirituality, urban expansion and the breakdown of communication and society have grown and have been greatly shaped by the influences, trends and approaches of his modern context.