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.




The Christmas Truce

1914The Christmas Truce in 1914 is an inspiring subject which captures the imagination of young people. I once did a lesson on the Christmas Truce, looking at two songs about the incident, but treating them initially as poems.

The two works were Pipes of Peace by Paul McCartney and Christmas 1914 by Mike Harding. Here are links to the songs:

This is the first verse of Christmas 1914 by Mike Harding. It is a beautiful poem and a lovely melody.

Christmas Eve, 1914, stars were burning, burning bright
And all along the Western Front the guns were lying still and quiet.
And men lay dozing in the trenches, in the cold and in the dark,
And far away behind the lines, a village dog began to bark.

Read the rest of the lyrics here. Christmas 1914 lyrics

Pipes of Peace lyrics – not overtly about the Truce, so should be looked at second

Suggested activities:

1. Show the picture (or similar) first. What is happening? Where are we? What is the date? Who are the people? Are they friends of enemies?

2. Look at the text of Christmas 1914. Read together. Use the five questions approach to studying the text.

3. Watch the video of the song Christmas 1914. How does this make you feel? Why wasn’t there a football match in Christmas 1915? What does this say about war?

4. Watch the Paul McCartney video of Pipes of Peace. How does this compare to the Mike Harding song? How is it different? Which do you prefer, and why?

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

 This poem intrigued my primary school class. We studied it just before Christmas and the ‘harness bells’ prompted quite a discussion about whether this might refer to Father Christmas! The mysterious nature of the visitor adds to the strangeness of the poem and could provide an interesting stimulus for further writing or even drama.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost 1922 (Frost lived from 1874 to 1963. He was an American poet and his life had many personal tragedies. His work also includes The Road Not Taken. Read his biography here.)

Questions for discussion:

What time of year is it? How do you know?

What do we know about this stranger?

What promises does he have to keep?

Where is he heading? Why?

What happens next in the story?

Other activities:

Try drawing the scene.

Show children a winter’s picture with a strange figure on a horse. Brainstorm vocabulary first. Get them to tell the story to each other. Only then read the poem to them at the end of that activity.

Ask the children to perform the poem in groups. Each group could be given one verse to learn and dramatise. You will end up with a complete class performance.

Notes from my own teaching diary

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost. I printed the poem out and cut it up, giving one line to each child (some were in pairs). Each child had to learn the line, put the paper behind their backs then go round the room and recite the poem to another child. Could they find someone who has a linked idea? I asked the children to stand in groups of four – and then arrange themselves into some kind of order. Then I asked them to recite their lines in order and see if it is anything like the real poem. This was a good opportunity for children to learn a brief line and recite it. They enjoyed finding partners and eventually noticed there were rhyming patterns which could help them arrange the poem into verses. We followed this with a discussion about the meaning of the poem, and whether it could refer to Father Christmas.