Modernism is a terminology given by historians to literature movement around late nineteenth century. It is a movement in the arts which purpose is to produce art different traditional forms. Its literature aim is to criticize problems of their world. They use specific characteristics implicitly and explicitly; implicitly to send messages to each other or to educated people in authority or explicitly to influence public opinions. “We are talking about two chronologies. One is the sequence of texts; the other is the sequence of intellectual movements. Such as feminism or such as Marxism which change the way we read texts.” (Armstrong). One of the most influential modernist writers is Thomas Stearns Eliot. His one of many poems Preludes is a direct and indirect criticism to his society. I will discuss in the following paragraphs how structuralism, Marxism, feminism approaches are found in the poem and how historical background of the poem can add more understanding of modernism.
First, in the Preludes written by T.S. Eliot, structuralism can be easily identified as a main characteristic of modernism. First, verses have different length. “Six o’clock” (Eliot 9) consists of only two words, it is incomplete sentence structure and the rest of the verses consist between three and eight words. Second, parts are not equally divided whether equally in stanzas number or equally in verses number. For example, the first part is made of two stanzas, the second part made of two stanzas, the third part made of one stanzas and the fourth part made of three stanzas. The stanzas number one is formed by twelve verses, the second stanzas is constructed of one verse, the third and the fourth are formed of five verses. The fifth stanzas is of fifth teen verses, the six is of nine verses, the seventh made of four verses and the last one is made of three verses. Third, there is no fixed rhyme. From the beginning, the end of the first verse ends with “own” (Eliot 9) with no pair of it. It may rhyme but not much, like “ays” and “ays” (Eliot 9). Fourth, the poem has no fixed rhyme scheme. Perhaps it is intended by Eliot to show an unrhymed scheme which reflects the daily routine of characters and their chaotic life. Fifth, at the beginning, the point of view is omniscient. There is no personal pronoun; the speaker opens the poem with a description of scenery but then personal pronoun “you” (Eliot 10) is mentioned in the third part. Who is “you” (Eliot 10)? Who is addressed to “his soul” (Eliot 10)? Later the first personal pronoun emerges in the fourth part and in the seventh stanzas. So this poem breaks the rule of one point of view poem. Sixth, ‘Disembodied body parts’ form is used by T.S. Eliot to highlight the effect of city life that caused mentally and physically disability to people. Seventh, Senses like Smell, taste, sight, touch, sound make the city alive in the following excerpt:
“The burnt out ends of smoky days
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blind¬¬s and chimney-pots” (Eliot 9).
Eighth, we have many figurative speech used in this poem. Images are plenty in the poem. “’Preludes’ is strikingly imagistic, which perhaps isn’t surprising since each section evokes a scene and situation for the reader, visually, to imagine” (Martin 28). In the following excerpt “The thousand sordid images / Of which your soul was constituted” (Eliot 10), an image is used to show how city life makes the soul of woman sinful. “The images of “yellow soles” at the end of III and “his soul” in the first line of IV provide an ironic juxtaposition of the sordid and the spiritual, an apparent movement from the shabby and sensual to the profound.” (Hanlon 104-106) Binary opposition like “lighting” and “evening”, “morning” and “evening”, “night” and “light” (Eliot 9-10) shows a description of a street in different time at which different events occurred. In “One thinks of all the hands / That are raising dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms.” (Eliot 9) Repetition is used to assure the meaningless of characters’ life like “vacant lots” (Eliot 9,11), “newspapers” (Eliot 9-10),word “certainty” in “certain certainties” (Eliot 10) and the most recurred word of the poem is the word “street”(Eliot 9-10); five times the word “street” is repeated. It focuses on that part of the city and nothing else and the urban part where working class mostly lives. Alliteration of the ‘s’ in “With smell of steaks in passageways.” (Eliot 9) used to create the sound of heavy labouring.¬¬¬¬¬ Metaphor is used in “The burnt-out ends of smoky days” (Eliot 9) to show that all characters’ life is fading away like smoky days. Finally, personification make “shower wraps” (Eliot 9), “evening settles down” (Eliot 9), “light crept up” (Eliot 10), “morning comes to consciousness” (Eliot 9) and “conscience of a blackened street” (Eliot 10).
Second, Marxism approach is applicable in this poem and discusses many themes. The world, as the speaker sees it, is classified into social classes. T.S. Eliot comes from a wealthy family and lives in St Louis, Missouri, America in 1888. He sees two sides of St Louis’ streets. On one of them he writes the “Prelude”. He is the voice of poor. Since poor people cannot speak, being illiterate, he writes instead of them. He writes how society is at his time. People are socially classified. Each social class has its own street. Poverty theme is the most dominant. Working class lives poorly, rents a flat and drink beer. They used to visit prostitutes to forget their misery life; and at the morning when the sin is done, life resumes its natural flow as if nothing happened. Even the prostitute is doing her business forcefully as if there is no other choice. What about the beggar? Even he is ignored by the very social class who is in his turn ignored by upper social class. When does it end this dilemma? One of major themes is pretence. People live double life. At day, they work and drink coffee and at night they play and drink beer. From coffee to beer means from good to bad. From working to people to have workers (prostitutes) working for you. From living a lie at day to living the truth at night.
Third, this poem contains a number feminist issues occurred in Eliot’s era. First, women’s sphere is clearly troubling. On one hand we have women who are living in a domestic sphere cooking and taking care of their husbands. And in another hand we have women (prostitutes) who are taking care of husbands of domestic housewives. Ironic isn’t it? It seems women are in both roles caretakers of men. And in both roles, they are suffering whether as housewives of men of a working class or as an entertainment tool for men’s suffering. But who heal women’s wounds? In the first part, it is only mentioned the smell of cooking and not the women. There is no mentioning of women cooking at all. They are confined in their flats. Also, in the second part, they also put on their fake life in the day and pretend that yesterday’s house duty and where their husbands were drinking beer in pubs and at the prostitutes’ cabana did not happen. As if it is a way of living. In part three, housewives also share prostitutes’ “sordid images” (Eliot 10). They imagine their husband with other women, there would be no harder pain. They see their lives in agony knowing exactly the place of their spouses and that there is no escape from this bitter reality. Prostitutes become parts of body “hair”, “hands”, “feet” (Eliot 10), the other parts are useless. In fourth part, perhaps this is the reason why they ignore the beggar in the street knowing that he represent their consciousness. They are aware of their mistakes and need no one to keep remembering them daily. They know that their acts defy the logical and religious believes. Yet again, where is God when you need him? They can find him in the beggar who could represent Christ and see him not as a salvation but as a judgment. In the end, Eliot says to wipe your mouth and smile at time as you are in stocked in this endless vortex, you can only smile as it is society only purpose is to make you weak and unhappy.
Fourth, using knowledge of Eliot’s era and how Eliot speaks about problems of his era in the poem, modernism is understood more. “He was an influential writer, who was one of the first to reject traditional verse forms and language”. (Goldman 3) The poem speaks of events in a single day which begin at “Six o’clock” (Eliot 9) and ends at “six o’clock” (Eliot 10). In this poem, Eliot depicts the alienation of working class from the society. One of interpretation of the poem is that an observer looks at a poor city and describes one of its streets and neighbourhoods, in which probably a prostitute is standing on a pavement at a specific time at 6 o’clock afternoon. “I am not sure that we can say that Eliot ever speaks in his own voice in Four Quartets, and if he does not, then that fact is of great importance.” (Olney and Harold 67-68)Working people lives in small apartments and they are cooking. The weather is windy and rainy, blowing up everything including newspapers and turning the street in a mess. A mystery person arrives by a cab-horse, probably a client for the prostitute. In second part, the observer describes what happens at early morning of a street, smell of beer fills the air. After playing around finished, masquerades shows begin again for the prostitute and her ‘gentle men’. In the third part, the observer addresses the prostitute. He describes what happens in room where the prostitute does her job and where all masquerades is finished and all secrets are revealed in bed. She is living in a hell, mentally and physically. At night, she leaves the world and at day the world comes back. At day she sees the street and its pedestrians as a lie, at night she sees the truth of it. In last part, a winter’s afternoon at a street is described by the observer. The street is crowded by people and one single beggar. The beggar is ignored by the passing through. The beggar might represent the Christ soul ignored by those who are clients to the prostitute. Suffering will continue but those who suffer will not crucify Christ. All the day, people’s life is pointless. It a closed circle that keep circling endlessly. The beggar who might represent as the Christ is looking at the wasteland (street) searching for any sign of hope of redemption. Comparing Preludes written in around 1910 and 1911 with another modernist writing like The Second Coming by William butler Yeats, written around 1919, do not offer any new definition of modernism. They both criticize their corrupted society and the way the poor people are living using modernist characteristics such as structuralism and Marxism
Finally, structuralism, Marxism, feminism has been taken up in above paragraphs along with historical knowledge of the poem that contributed to a much more understanding of modernism. “We’ve looked at the relationship between theory and text” (Armstrong) and this relationship is strongly used by modernist writers such as T.S. Eliot. It is the use of those theories that contribute to the creation of the term by historians to show that discontinuity of following the rules of literature is the very concept that men of literature wanted to disavow the old rules.
Armstrong, Izabelle. “From English literature to literatures in English.” Literature in the Modern World. 2005.
Eliot, Thomas. The Waste Land and other poems. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1972
Goldman, Phyllis Barkas. “T.S. Eliot. By: Goldman, Phyllis Barkas, Monkeyshines on Great American Authors, 1996”. Ebscohost.com. ELL Reference Center.15 December 2011
Graham Martin. “Poetry” Literature in the Modern World. The Open University, 2005
Hanlon, Tina. “Preludes”. ebscohost.com.
EBSCO information services. 14 December 2011
Olney, James and Harold Bloom. “Four quartets: “folded in a single party”.” ebscohost.com. 20050304. EBSCO information services. 15 December 2011