Preludes by TS Eliot

This was, perhaps, my biggest gamble as a poetry teacher but it really paid off. I noticed that part of T S Eliot’s Preludes was included in the excellent poetry collection, Sensational, edited by Roger McGough. It also appeared in a transition unit for use between Years 6 and 7. Preludes is a four-verse poem in which a hidden observer describes dusk on a winter’s evening in a poor part of the city. We don’t know exactly where, or necessarily when, though the poem was written in 1920.

In a sense, we do not need to know anymore because we want children to use the language to imagine where we are and what is going on. For this lesson, I just used Preludes Part I. There is enough in here to support a whole week of literacy. (Please note that the other parts do contain themes unsuitable for primary age children). It begins like this:

The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

(TS Eliot, 1888–1965)

I read the full Part I to the class and then displayed a series of pictures, partly suggested by the text. Which picture would they choose and why? These are a couple of the images I found:

Prelude 1prelude 2

The last two lines of Part I are:

And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

I asked the children to discuss this cab-horse. Who is inside? Where have they come from? Who are they meeting? Why is the cab-horse lonely? Why is it stamping? Is it anxious to get somewhere?
From these questions, children can begin to construct a mood and a scenario. You might wish to begin writing an alternative version with the children’s own vocabulary. You might wish to turn this into prose and construct a story around this bleak image.
Here is an example of one poem written by a Year 5 pupil:

The Station (inspired by Preludes by TS Eliot)

The veil of mist shrouds all
As the girl glances back.
Gears grinding.
The train heaves down its track
And now the veil of mist is back.
The girl on the train
Fiddles with her feet.

The train chugs away from the strife,
Brought on by her life.
She orders from the trolley
And readies her brolley
For outside, the rain is reluctant
To cease its fire at the earth.
But she likes the rain.

(Max Crossland)

I think you will agree that this is a pretty impressive effort. It was highly commended in the John Betjeman Poetry Competition.

You can read the full text of Preludes here.

Words and images from Preludes have, of course, been used in the production of TS Eliot’s Cats poems for the stage, particularly in the song Memory. Here is a video of the song, sung by Elaine Paige, which could also be used as a stimulus for writing. Children could also try to spot which parts of the poem appear in the song.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Preludes by TS Eliot

  1. Carol Ley September 8, 2015 / 4:55 pm

    Did you use a particular image to inspire The Station poem. I’ve been searching for something suitable but haven’t found anything.

    • John Howes September 8, 2015 / 7:24 pm

      No, I think the student was inspired by the cab horse image and then took the poem in his own direction. He used the structure of Preludes but chose a new location. I recall that the children were fascinated by the cab horse and who could be in the carriage.

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