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A critical assessment of TS Eliot’s poem, ‘Rhapsody on a windy night’

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Rhapsody on a windy night was written directly after Preludes and echoes many of its themes. Rhapsody… charts the night-time journey of a man through the streets of a city. Held in a trance by the moonlight, he is shown various sights by the street lamps he passes, and these sights evoke images, feelings and recollections. From the sights revealed by the lamps, and the responses they induce, a portrait of the city life is painted.

The poem begins by establishing the scene. A man is wandering “Along the reaches of the street / held in a lunar synthesis”. Although the street is reaching, as if to entrap the man, it is held in stasis by the moon. This idea of the moon having power to release the wandering man from his everyday pattern of thought, from the “conscience of the blackened street”, prevails throughout the poem. But it is not just the day-to-day considerations that the moon expels: “memory” too is dissolved, with all its “clear relations / Its divisions and precisions”. The metaphor of “dissolve[ing]…floors” suggests that memory was a platform, which is being wiped away – the man is left floating in space.

The lines

Every street lamp that I pass

Beats like a fatalistic drum

have a number of possible implications. One possibility is that the passing lamps remind the man of the passing time, and that soon he will be home, and forced out of the “lunar synthesis”. This interpretation is supported by the references to the time at the beginning of each stanza. The lines “Half-past one…Half-past two…Half-past three”, are like the beating of a drum, and a fatalistic one in that the progress of time is inexorable. Alternatively, the lines could be emphasising the fear and fatalism inherent in the visions revealed by the street-lamps. For the visions do carry an element of fear, and though, as we shall see, yearnings are expressed, fate seems set against their satisfaction.

Despite the “lunar synthesis”, “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium”, i.e. the memory is lost but the night shakes it still, trying for some reaction. The petals that might fall as the madman shakes, become the fragments of thought and memory unearthed by the various visions in the subsequent stanzas.

The first vision is of a woman. She “hesitates towards” the wanderer as if she yearns for company; possibly she would herself like to enter the “lunar synthesis”. Her dress is “torn and stained with sand”, which conjures up the image of her alone on the beach. Perhaps her dress has been torn on some branches, as if they were preventing her from passing, holding her back from the object of her yearning. This object of yearning seems to be escape of some sort, suggested by the image of the beach as a place of escape and the door which “opens on her like a grin”, threatening to swallow her up. Despite her desire to evade the ugly grin of the door, the woman’s eye “twists like a crooked pin” – there is no hope for her, the mechanical world with its “divisions and precisions”, possesses her body – she is a hopeless prisoner of the empty “masquerade” of the city existence.

The woman reminds the wanderer of a “crowd” of things, “twisted” in the same way as the woman’s eye. She brings to mind a “branch upon the beach”, re-emphasising that image of loneliness, and adding to it with the suggestion that the woman has been sucked of life (“eaten smooth”). There is also a suggestion in the lines

As if the world gave up

The secret of its skeleton

that this woman and those like her form a fundamental part of the world, and even support it.

The woman also brings to mind a “broken spring in a factory yard”, implying she has been used by society and then discarded, perhaps as she has grown old. Her “strength has left”, sapped by the world, and all that remains are the outward signs of her decay (“rust”). She is in a state of tension (“hard and curled”), and some dramatic change must occur soon (“ready to snap”): possibly her death.

The next vision presented by the street-lamp is that of a cat “which flattens itself in the gutter”. The image of the animal pressing itself to the dirty gutter, as well as implying a general picture of decay, suggests that the people of the city press themselves towards the kind of life that has destroyed the woman discussed earlier, and are not just swept unwillingly into it. The cat slipping out its tongue reminds the narrator of a child whose hand “…automatic / Slipped out and pocketed a toy”. This memory reinforces the idea that the people of the city act mechanically, and without thought, or purpose (“I could see nothing behind that child’s eye”). The memory immediately following, however, suggests that there is a strong desire among the people to escape from this state of automation: indeed the narrator has seen “eyes…trying to peer through lighted shutters”. This image suggests yearning, as does the crab, which “gripped the end of a stick”, desperately trying to escape its prison-like pool.

At last, the street lamp turns the wanderer’s attention to the moon itself, saying “La lune ne garde aucune rancune”: the moon harbours no ill feeling. In other words, the moon does not judge, does not play any part in the day-to-day affairs of the people, and does not feel those worries or concerns that constitute the mechanical and empty lives of the people. Indeed, “the moon has lost her memory”, it is permanently in the state of “lunar synthesis”. However, one gets the impression that a constant existence in this state has taken its toll on the moon. Her face is worn out by “smallpox”, and her hand “twists a paper rose”, as if she is longing to see some of the meaningful love that the rose represents, but all she sees night-after-night is the emptiness and phoniness of people’s lives: her rose is a fake.

The visions presented to the narrator are seen by the moon every night, and have been forever: the smells are “old”, and they “cross and cross” across her brain, tormenting her. Furthermore, “she is alone”. She is the only one who perceives the suffering of the people, but is unable to do anything but “smile” and “wink a feeble eye”. This contemplation makes the narrator too think of everywhere he has seen this meaningless, paper life. Thus, he reflects on a flood of claustrophobic scenes,

…female smells in shuttered rooms

And cigarettes in corridors

And cocktail smells in bars

the scenes pluralized, indicating that he has seen them often.

“The last twist of the knife” comes in the final stanza, when memory returns to the narrator. The lamp commands:

…the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,

Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life

The narrator is snapped from his state of trance, and he too must return to his meaningless life, with its rote chores. His time of freedom is up.

Through the use of evocative images and the objective correlative, Rhapsody on windy night effectively paints a portrait of city life. Eliot portrays a man who finds it repetitive, empty, cruel, dirty and lonely. The man sees people striving to escape this life, but not succeeding. The one possible escape is transitory, and is provided by suspension in a trance-like state by the light of the moon. The only one to have truly escaped this life is the moon, but she is lonely and pained by the suffering of others. The moon has the ability to “synthesis[e]” i.e. fuse together that which is fragmented: memory, experiences, human relationships, and life itself.

Rhapsody is also about the passing of time, and about memory. There is a sense of the “fatalistic drum”, not only beating the time to the end of the “lunar synthesis”, but to the end of life itself. This adds an urgency to the desires for escape expressed in the poem – soon it will be too late. Perhaps it is already too late for the midnight wanderer, and this is why his thoughts seem mainly in the past.

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