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Imagery is One of the Most Potent Instruments

Imagery is the ability to form mental images of things or events. It signifies all the sensory perceptions referred to in a poem, whether by literal description, allusion, simile, or metaphor. Like senses such as reflex movement, which occur due to a reaction to something that is coming to hit the person, human emotions occur due to the personal interpretation of the literature terms used by the poet.

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The emotions are the sentimental reactions of the reader based on their interpretation of the certain poem, phrase or sentence used by the poet. This technique, which when used properly can have a huge impact on the reader and on their understanding of the poem is used largely by T.S. Eliot in the ‘Preludes’ and ‘The Journey of the Magi’.

The poet’s intentions behind a poem can be guided by the poem’s title since, it is the first thing that a reader is likely to read and thus, the title helps to put up certain first impressions as intended by the poet. By the name, ‘Preludes’ it could be told that this is the first poem by the poet in the collection and is thus, likely to give impressions about the topics that the poet will further explore in the later poems.

On the other hand, ‘The Journey of the Magi’ gives the impression that the poet is talking about the three magi’s who traveled a long distance just to see the birth of Jesus Christ and thus, the whole poem is about the events that took place during their journey and thus, their experiences.

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The title also helps to set up a base on which the poet then further extrapolates within the poem itself.

Metaphor and imagery create the scenes and evokes the feelings of the personas and characters in an indirect manner, however poetry also involves the sounds of the words to carry the same power. In ‘Preludes’, sound patterns are important in conveying similar concerns. The scene in the working class house is evocatively shown by the alliteration of the ‘s’ in ‘With smell of steaks in passageways.’ The repetition of the ‘s’ sound creates a domestic image, showing the sizzling steaks filling the passageways and presenting both a homely scene of domestic meals and a claustrophobic atmosphere. The alliteration of the ‘b’ sound in ‘Broken blinds’ with its hard, thudding sound captures the sense of things falling apart. At other times consonance is used, such as in the line, ‘A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps’, to evoke through sound the image of the horse stamping his feet as the cold air issues out of his mouth. Rhyme is another device of sound and is used at times to emphasize an image. In the rhyme of ‘shutters’ and ‘gutters’, the harsh sounding double rhyme accentuates the disparity of the situation and the bleakness of city life. Read how certain events change our impressions of life

In both poems, time has been mentioned early in the poem to show its importance in our lives. ‘Preludes’ is discussing the daily boring repetitive routine of the modern people. Therefore, he starts the poem at ‘Six o’clock’ in the first part and ends in the same place in the final part to capture the monotony of the day.

“At four and five and six o’clock”

During these routines that appear inevitable, the people’s lives are empty and purposeless. This is very evocative and can be seen in the cigarette metaphor of ‘The burnt-out ends of smoky days.’ Peoples lives are burning away to nothing – the butt end is useless and extinguished and the adjective of ‘smoky’ also suggests a lack of vision and the presence of squalor.

In ‘A Journey of the Magi’, time is mentioned to show how long and difficult the magus felt that their trip was. They continuously faced obstacles such as lack of sleep during their trip and were regularly tempted to go back.

“A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of year…”

The first five lines are a quote from Lancelot Andrewes’ sermons of the Nativity. This scene describes a very cold winter and three important people are going on a long journey. The camels have sores where the baggage straps have rubbed against their skin. They are being stubborn and won’t get up. At this point, the magi’s attendants are becoming unruly and want to turn back. In addition, the Magus, who is telling the story, feels himself the temptation to go back.

In ‘Preludes’ patterns of imagery appear throughout, especially in the first part, where people’s lives seem to be controlled by what goes on in the world around them. The images of decay and disintegration (‘burnt-out ends’, ‘grimy scraps’, ‘withered leaves’, ‘broken blinds’) expose a world that is falling apart. This description goes beyond the physical visual squalor of living conditions, emphasizing how little purpose some people have in their everyday existence. The rhyming scheme and rhythm also contributes at times – feet/beat/street- aurally captures the movement of the people’s feet coming home drudgingly after work.

In ‘A Journey of the Magi’ some repetition of the words “we had of it” from the first line occurs. Moreover, Eliot, at this point, starts a list with a lot of “ands” meaning that the Magus did not want such inconveniences.

“Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile, and the towns unfriendly,

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.”

The repetition of ‘and’ is also prevalent in ‘Preludes’ purposefully. It is repeated continually to suggest the monotony and repetition of the activities of everyday people, both in the tone and rhythms of the lines: ‘At four and five and six o’clock/And evening newspaper, and eyes’ The image of ‘vacant lots’ is repeated in the first and last stanzas and besides revealing the unchanging emptiness of peoples lives the repetition links the vacant lots of city blocks to the vacant lots of earlier societies.

In ‘Preludes’, Eliot also contrasts natural and urban images. ‘The morning comes to consciousness’ demonstrates the potential beauty of morning, with its promise of new life and energy, which then evolves into an image of a hangover when coupled with the line ‘Of faint stale smells of beer’. People wake up as if from a coma and need to rush to ‘early coffee-stands’ to start their days. This sentence also emphasizes the fast-paced modern life where people work so much that they have to sleep very heavily and then the only way they can make it through the next day is by drinking stimulant drugs. This also suggests that life in the city has lost contact with its natural rhythms and is consumed by the routines that ‘time’ demands.

The second comparison of nature and an urban image appears in the third part of the poem,

‘And you heard the sparrows in the gutter’

The beauty of nature and bird life is brought down to the level of the city gutters, and more importantly, it is connected with the only character that the poem focuses on. It can be said that the fact that such beautiful creatures are living such a “low” life can be compared to the main character of the poem who is also beautiful yet can barely hold on to any self esteem at all.

Throughout the poem, Eliot also refers to living entities merely in terms of body parts in an attempt to de-personify them. The character (the sex is ambiguous) in the third part of the poem is only hair, feet, hands; and the people rushing home in the first and final parts are merely feet. This shows the partial, fragmented lives these people live; there is no sense of personal identity or individuality. These characters are merely the ‘parts’ that add up to incomplete and disillusioned people. This part of the poem really concentrates on the loss of personal identity and touches on the idea later written about in so many works (e.g. 1984) that we are only pawns in a game, a larger picture, and that our individuality and persona have no significance.

On the other hand, ‘A Journey of the Magi’ provides us with religious Christian images regarding Jesus Christ’s resurrection.

“And three trees on the low sky.

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver

And feet kicking at empty wine-skins.”

All of the information above has something to do with the last days of Christ. The “three trees” represent the three crosses on Calvary, where Jesus and two thieves were crucified. The “old white horse” symbolizes Christ when he was resurrected. The “Tavern” represents the vinegar wine that was offered to Christ while on the cross by Roman guards. The “vine leaves over the lintel” represents the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head by the Romans soldiers that mocked him. The “six hands…dicing” represent the Romans gambling over Christ’s clothes, while he was still alive on the cross and the “pieces of silver” are the thirty silver coins Judas received for betraying Christ. Lastly, the “empty wine skins” represent the Last Supper of Christ and the Apostles.

The images in ‘Preludes’ up to this point are given a more human face or at least there is a sense of lives that are suffering. This theme is taken up fully in the third part where the persona is fully involved and addresses the woman or man and perhaps the reader in the second person ‘You’. This creates a marked change from before and the harsh tone involves the reader directly. The hard-sounding repetition of ‘You’ in the first three lines is confronting and personal and the scene and the events and feelings shown are given more urgency – an involvement that was missing in the earlier two parts. The voice does soften half way through this part of the poem and there is sympathy for the woman who finds herself without meaning in the world as well as appearing aged and worn out. This sympathy builds up in the second last stanza of the poem where an ‘I’ figure comments freely:

“I am moved by fancies … The notion of some infinitely gentle suffering thing.”

The poem has built up to this moment, where there is a presence that seems to care for the plight of humanity, however the final stanza undercuts this attitude dramatically by revealing that this is impossible and foolish.

“Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh:

The worlds revolve like ancient women

Gathering fuel in vacant lots.”

This suffering is a part of life and has always been so and nothing can be done about it. The cynical tone, the writer’s attitude and the difficulty of preparing for a changed world return the reader to the emptiness of the ‘vacant lots’ that appeared in the beginning and the poem ends accepting this final worldview as the way of life.

In ‘A Journey of the Magi’, the arrival of the Magi at the stable seems to only be “satisfactory” experience for the poet, as it seems that he disapproves of the Messiah being born in a stable. In the third and final stanza, the Magus looks back at his journey and thinks about Births and Deaths. The Magus talks about the birth of a baby, Christ, and at His death, the birth of a religion, Christianity, and, at the same time, the death of the old ways and the old religion:

“This: were we led all this way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But thought they were different; this Birth was.

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death”

The “Hard and bitter agony… like Death” is an example of a simile that means that the journey for the Magus was like dying to him, because he had gone from the comfort from his home, traveled a great distance and suffered hardships that he had probably never had to endure through before, all to see a baby being born in a stable whilst at the same time, sees the baby’s death on the journey.

At the end of the stanza, and the end of the poem, the Magus finishes with thoughts of his own “subjects” still believing in an old religion and he looks forward to his own death

“With an alien people clutching their god.

I should be glad of another death”

Overall, natural and urban imagery has been used by TS Eliot in ‘Preludes’ in order to represent the monotony of the daily routine of the modern people which is taking them away from religion, images of which are prevailing in ‘A Journey of the Magi’ to show how religion has changed Eliot completely and that it can have similar good effects on us. Eliot uses the imagery to exemplify his hatred for the monotonous modern life and how religion helps him to get over this.

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Imagery is One of the Most Potent Instruments. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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