Quite often, TS Eliot’s poems remind us that they are from a period in time, in this case the years of the 1920s and 1930s, a time when the middle and professional classes in England, people like bank managers, accountants and the like, could still live in town-houses with servants’ quarters, in the attic or in the basement, and have a housemaid, a cook and perhaps a butler in their service. This poem is evocative of that era, combining it with an atmospheric depiction of the foggy and run-down, slightly disheveled streets of suburban London.
The point of view is that of the poet, gazing out of the window of his house, and describing not only what he sees but also the underlying atmosphere of despondent middle-class England, in decline.
Morning at the Window
T.S. Eliot, 1888 – 1965
They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.
The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.
The rattling of breakfast plates in basement kitchens are those of the servants washing-up their employer’s breakfast plates before embarking on the rest of the day. This done, the housemaids begin to emerge at the gates, perhaps to go out on shopping errands, or to sweep the porch – their souls are damp, reflecting the fog and rain of London, and their movements and outlook are despondent.
In the second stanza, the poet surveys the street rather than the houses – he sees faces through the fog and notes the mud on the skirts of some passer-by navigating the wet and dirty street. Her smile is aimless, irrelevant and rather hopeless, indicating a stoic acceptance rather than any inner joy.
The scene is cheerless and grim, but quite English of its time. Eliot lived in Kensington, now a very upscale part of London, but if you walk there today, you can indeed envision the scene described.
The Poetry Dude