It seems that most of the poems I read and stumble across have no happy medium, not that this will come as a major shock to anyone. Poetry usually conveys one of two states: Optimism and pessimism. Hope and desire. Happiness and sadness. However, depending on how one reads a particular poem, there's a good chance of finding both ends of the emotional spectrum in one piece. A poet can find optimism in even the most dire situations. Sometimes this optimism can be disguised as brutal honesty. With the economy and the job market being worse than most of us can remember, I felt that this poetry installment, given the fears and uncertainty that a lot of us are feeling right now, would benefit from a work by T.S. Eliot. A Cliff Notes-style idea would be to select passages from "The Waste Land," but instead, I feel that there is relevant imagery in "Preludes (originally published in 1915)."
"The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
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 blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps."
The imagery here is decidedly urban, with the atmosphere of the end of another working day. The lines are compact and brisk, evoking (to me) the emotions of workers marching home in a wintry evening. To relate this to today's world, the line that jumps out the most is line eight: "And newspapers from vacant lots." I think about the decline of the newspaper, with the very real possibility of several major city papers closing down. I buy The Seattle Times every day, and as much as I love the Internet, the idea of reading news solely online just doesn't appeal to me.
"The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms."
In this second stanza, I admire how Eliot makes the beginning of a new day more troublesome than the previous evening. Again, referring to The Seattle Times, a recent article noted how, despite the economic woes, local residents are still buying tobacco, alcohol, and (to a lesser extent) sex. The data shows that people turn to vices to escape reality, which might be an obvious statement, but is very relevant today. This stanza shows the area waking up, still smelling the odors of the previous night (presumably, where the first stanza leaves off). "With the other masquerades/That time resumes" could very well refer to thousands of people going into work during the week, attempting to don masks of confidence and leisure, despite deep worries about finances and well-being. The dingy shades could belong to people we relate to, or people who have lives worse than our own, in good economic times or bad.
"You tossed a blanket from the bed
You lay upon your back, and waited;
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 understands;
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."
Of course, the nighttime is always the best time to reflect on...well, everything, whether they be known issues or deeply personal. This is the second use of the word "thousand" in this poem, and I feel that Eliot uses it as a sort of reverse hyperbole. There are more than a thousand people pulling shades, and at night, it can feel like you're fretting over more than a thousand problems. Eliot brings the reader very close to hope ("And you heard the sparrows in the gutters") before plunging back into tough reality. The final three lines of this stanza need no explanation. The imagery stands alone.
"His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots."
The final stanza reflects the opening one, although this time, the hope is evident, even while coupled with the despair of the entire work. The newspaper returns, not as a sign of decay, but as a normal part of the evening. "I am moved by fancies that are curled/Around these images, and cling." Even in the hardest times, we still have dreams, ones that we can hopefully realize before too long. "Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh" reminds me of the famous line from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Both lines evoke an almost childlike relaxation, without fear of offending anyone with a lack of manners. It does not matter if the time is the beginning of World War I or the American economic crisis of 2009. No matter how awful life may seem, it will get better. There's no need for sugarcoating problems. As Eliot shows, with honest imagery, hope is never too far away.
Eliot, T.S. "Preludes." I and II written at Harvard, October 1910; III in Paris, 1910-11; IV at Harvard, November 1911. Published in Wyndham Lewis's BLAST (second and final issue), July 1915.
Kermode, Frank. Publication/citation notes copyright 1998 by Frank Kermode.