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T. S. Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Excerpt from "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"

The speaker of T. S. Eliot’s "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" goes for a four-hour walk beginning at midnight in an undisclosed city. The poem consists of 78 lines contained in eight versagraphs. Rime is sporadic as is rhythm, and the theme is the mocking desecration of the city coupled with a drunken fantasy.

Although T. S. Eliot’s works have been taken as deeply serious social commentaries on society going to hell in a hand basket, it is seldom pointed out that he did so with an often belly-laughable humor. That humor appears raucously in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and it appears in this seemingly straight-faced piece as well.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Excerpt from "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"

Twelve o'clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

To read the entire poem, please visit "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" at Poetry Foundation.

Commentary

The speaker turns a four-hour walk into a social commentary through grotesque images, loopy sporadic rime, and hints of societal degradation being ushered in by the postmodernist mindset.

First Versagraph: Describing the Sights of the City

In the first versagraph, the speaker reports that it is "Twelve o’clock." He dramatizes his walk through the streets, describing what he sees: he asserts that the moon is encasing the streetscape, as it provides a kind of canvas on which to write his social commentary. The "lunar synthesis" is the important backdrop for the streetscape. The moon with its chant-like iterations causes the speaker’s memory to disappear like sugar in water. The speaker is finding his ability to remember where he is a bit difficult; at this point, the reader might suspect that the speaker is considerably inebriated.

The drunken portrayal of the street lamps offers further evidence that the speaker is possibly so drunk that his thoughts and memories are misaligned, because he states that each "street lamp" by which he stumbles seems to be beating like a "fatalistic drum." It is likely that it is the speaker’s head that is beating like that deadly persuasion instrument.

The speaker then offers the hilarious image: he concocts a deranged fellow shaking a "dead geranium" and likens that preposterous image to his own memory being shaken by midnight because of the dark spaces which that time of day features. He is finding his memory as well as his drunken status are making it difficult for him to maneuver through the midnight streets.

The speaker is implying that only through a drunken stupor could a sane individual find the courage and wherewithal to try to navigate the filth through which he must move.

Second Versagraph: Sporadic Rhythm and Rime

By the second versagraph, the speaker has been walking for an hour and half. The reader is treated to one of the sporadic rimes that pop up occasionally: "The street lamp sputtered, / The street lamp muttered."

The speaker encounters another person out walking, and the street lamp tells him to look at her. She is undoubtedly a prostitute whose "dress / Is torn and stained with sand." The speaker’s mind again is strangely interpreting things as he sees "the corner of her eye / Twists like a crooked pin." But then it is the street lamp that says all this, so one cannot place all the blame on the speaker for reporting such gibberish.

It should be noted that T. S. Eliot was writing at the edge of postmodern gibberish, and thus he did not shy away from taking advantage of the latitude that was being offered up by that reckless and disingenuous style. The important difference between Eliot and the postmods is that Eliot had an important point of view and the skill with which to express it.

Third Versagraph: Twisted Things

The third versagraph merely reports that his memory is vomiting a bunch of things that are twisted, things that are also "high and dry." He offers examples of those twisted things, such as "a twisted branch upon the beach." This line alerts the reader that the speaker is walking in a coastal city.

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The speaker also notes that the twisted branch appears to be stripped so smooth that it reminds him a skeleton, "still and white." He then marks a rusty "spring" in a "factory yard" that has been abandoned an is likely dangerous because it appears to have hardened, and now it is "curled and ready to snap." A kid or any person walking by that loaded spring could become a victim akin to a stabbing.

The speaker places that possibility in the mind of readers for special effect to remind them that he is describing a degraded landscape that has the ability to take victims in unexpected places.

Fourth Versagraph: Keeping Track of Time

It is now "Half-past two." The street lamp is talking again; this time it is reporting that a cat is in a gutter eating butter—an image that is offering up another sporadic rime. Then the speaker likens the cat’s tongue lurching out to grab the butter to a street urchin grabbing a toy as he ran "along the quay." The speaker describes the child’s eye as holding "nothing"—a very disturbing image that again adds to his description of degradation and poverty that continues to flood the landscape—especially the streetscape.

The speaker then continues his report about empty eyes that he has seen before. He has seen such blank stares through "lighted shutters." Then he is ready to add another ridiculous image to his repertoire: he has observed an "old crab with barnacles on his back" and that old crab was grabbing the "end of a stick" that the speaker was holding out for him.

Fifth and Sixth Versagraphs: The Lamp Rimes Again and Speaks French

The street lamp again offers the opportunity for a sporadic rime, again it is "sputtered" and then "muttered" as the dark continues to remain ascendent. But now the street lamp begins to speak French as it describes the moon, telling the speaker, "La lune ne garde aucune rancune": the moon never holds a grudge. The moon lights the corners of memory, as she performs a number of operations such as winking a "feeble eye," soothing the "hair of the grass," offering up the image of a "smallpox" scar across her face.

The speaker continues to lend the moon an array of odd activities, such as twisting "a paper rose" and exuding the smell of "dust and old Cologne." He claims that it is only the moon that arouses these strange smells of the night. Of course, it is the speaker’s own drunken memory that is responsible for the concoction of these odd smells along with all of the other images he is creating. Across the brain of the moon, he claims, come these smells that vary: "sunless dry geraniums," dust in tight places, "chestnuts in the streets," "female smells" in closed rooms, "cigarette" in hallways, and "cocktail smell in bars."

And interestingly, even though the "moon has lost her memory," the speaker remembers quite well all of these grotesque smells he has experienced—all of these grotesque smells that the power of the moonlight has brought to the forefront for the speaker, as he walks along the polluted streets of this polluted town.

The term "lunatic" etymologically descends from the Latin "luna" moon; the original definition of "lunatic" described individuals who were adversely affected the phases of the moon. This speaker’s outlandish images are influenced by the moonlight and the moon’s memory, a perfectly useful symbol for the speaker’s commentary on a spiritually dry and deplorable society.

Seventh and Eight Versagraphs: Back at the Flat, as the Knife-Key Turns

It is now four o’clock in the morning and the speaker has arrived at a flat. And again, the lamp is doing the speaking telling the speaker that the number he is seeing and remembering is, in fact, his. The speaker holds the key, which becomes a knife, as he finishes his dramatic reportage with a flourish.

The speaker’s final thrust appearing in the eighth versagraph, "The last twist of the knife," rimes with the preceding line from the seventh versagraph, "Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life."

The speaker’s whole midnight walk has consisted of nothing but metaphorical knife thrusts from the moon encasing a decaying streetscape to a cat lapping up rancid butter, to a prostitute’s eyes twisting like "a crooked pin," to a child’s blank expression, to all those rancid smells that have accosted him.

It is, however, his own memory that has brought all of this dissatisfaction and deadening spiritual dryness to the forefront of his thoughts. Thus, it is hardly surprising that his final notion of sleeping and then starting life over again come morning should be nothing but another "twist of the knife."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on January 23, 2016:

Thank you so much, whonu! Yes, Eliot was deeply flawed but less so than so many others, especially the postmods. And yes, I think we rightly cherish them--warts and all!

whonunuwho from United States on January 22, 2016:

As always interesting work about the heroes we cherish or at times accept despite their little faults. Well done my friend. whonu

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