‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ by T.S. Eliot was published in Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917 and is a free verse poem that is unrestrained by a specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The lines are a variety of lengths, as are the stanzas.
There are a number of elements of this piece that create a feeling of unity in the text, one of the most important of these is time. The poem begins at twelve o’clock AM and ends at 4:00 AM. No matter what happens in the real world, time progresses. From the maddest, darkest moments on the street, the wandering man makes it through, finally ending up at his home and his mundane existence.
The poem begins with the speaker describing a wandering man walking through a dark street. It is midnight, and memories twist and blur. This corrupts one’s experience of the world, making it harder to determine what is real and what is not. The wanderer hears the street lamps making noise, and eventually speaking. They tell the speaker to look in a doorway and observe a woman standing there. Her face is twisted, and the scene has a sinister feel.
This encounter brings on some of the strange memories that are distorted by life. There is one of a smooth branch on the beach. It represents the bones of the world that have been scrubbed clean of anything living. The next lines speak to a loss of innocence, as seen in the eyes of a child. Then the poem moves on the moon. “She” is a calming presence, due to the fact that she lost her memories. The poem eventually concludes with the speaker returning to his apartment. Everything is there, ready for him to go to bed and get up in the morning and return to the dark and depressing world described in the previous five stanzas.
The themes of this piece are numerous, and Eliot is able to weave them all together into a bewildering and depressing portrait of contemporary life. Memory is seen as something lost, found, and twisted. It crops up multiple times in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night.’ From the speaker who seems lost in distorted thoughts, to the moon who forgets, and then the speaker again, who remembers the bleakness of life on earth.
Madness is intimately connected to the struggles with memory in the poem. There is confusion to the sights and sounds the speaker relays and a clear feeling of dislocation on the part of the wanderer. The modern world, with all its dark corners and twisted smiles is enough to drive any person mad. This becomes even more pronounced when the person is isolated as the wanderer is.
Analysis of Rhapsody on a Windy Night
Twelve o’clock.Along the reaches of the streetHeld in a lunar synthesis,(…)And through the spaces of the darkMidnight shakes the memoryAs a madman shakes a dead geranium.
From the first lines, the setting of the poem is clear. It begins at 12:00 AM on a windy night. The world is held in a “lunar synthesis.” The moon is an important image in the text and its symbology, specifically as it concerns madness, is crucial. “Lunar” is used again in the fourth line and is connected to “incantations” or whisperings that the speaker is saying aloud. The “floors,” which are usually stable, “Dissolve” as he speaks. This makes the memories he’s reflecting on all the more confusing. Perhaps this is a symptom of his madness, or a cause. The moon appears again later on in Rhapsody on a Windy Night.
He transitions to speak on the surroundings and how they are impacted by what’s going on inside him. He states that the streetlamp are beating like drums. This is probably only happening inside his head but it shows how consuming his mental state is. In the next lines, the dark, groundless place in which the speaker is existing is expounded upon. He is somewhere that is compared to the shaking of “a dead geranium” by a madman. Night is personified in order to show its importance to the speaker, and the geranium is added into the text as it is has symbolized at points, folly, or foolishness.
Half-past one,The street lamp sputtered,The street lamp muttered,(…)Is torn and stained with sand,And you see the corner of her eyeTwists like a crooked pin.”
As with all the stanzas, time moves forward. At the same time, the speaker doesn’t seem to. Things don’t change on any significant level for him, at least at this point. The street lamps do move on though from beating to “sputter[ing]” and “mutter[ing].” A reader should take note of the repetition in these lines, this technique is called parallel syntax. It occurs when lines are grammatically similar to one another. Usually, this is employed to enhance the meaning or emphasize an element of the scene. This is definitely the case in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night.’ The street lights are becoming more and more important to the narrator.
They are personified, so much so, that they begin to speak. The lights tell the speaker to “Regard” or look at,
[…] that woman
Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
Although it is not openly stated, this woman is likely a prostitute. Whether she is or not, there is no doubt that she is not in a good way. Her clothes are “torn and stained with sand.” She is standing in an open doorway, which sinisterly appears like “a grin.” The street lamps also tell the speaker, through a strange simile, to take note of the corner of her eye. She has an interesting, and perhaps foreboding expression. Her eye “Twists like a crooked pin.”
The memory throws up high and dryA crowd of twisted things;A twisted branch upon the beach(…)A broken spring in a factory yard,Rust that clings to the form that the strength has leftHard and curled and ready to snap.
In the third stanza of ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ the speaker goes to another memory. It is “high and dry” and hard to recover. It throws the speaker “twisted things” and brings to mind even more. Such as a “twisted branch upon the beach.” It has been smoothed over by the ocean like,
[…] the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
These dark images add to the already depressing mood of Rhapsody on a Windy Night. All that is left in this simile is the “Stiff and white” bones. It is like the world, and everything good in it, has been worn away. This is the mental state the speaker is existing in.
The next lines speak of rust on a “broken spring” and how all the “strength” in the world has left. It is “ready to snap.” Just like the speaker, who seems to be approaching some climax in his madness, the world is on the edge.
Half-past two,(…)Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay.
The street lamp continues to talk in the fourth stanza. With the progression of time, it asks the speaker to “Remark” or again, notice, “the cat” that is flat in the gutter. It sticks out its tongue and eats “a morsel of rancid butter.” This line is composed so that the cat seems desperate. As if there is nothing else to eat, and it must resort to the worst helpings the street has to offer.
At the same time, the action is automatic, like a child grabbing “a toy.” In this description, it seems that the child is stealing. This is emphasized by the fact that the scene is supposed to be taking place at half-past two in the morning.
I could see nothing behind that child’s eye.(…)Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.
The child is not a happy one. There is no purity in their eyes, instead, there is “nothing.” The speaker recalls how he has,
[…] seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
This is just one example of an instance in which he saw nothingness in the eyes of another being. He continues on to refer to a crab in a pool with barnacles on its back. It grips tight to the end of his stick as he examines it. This is a larger metaphor for the state of the world described in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night.”
Half-past three,The lamp sputtered,The lamp muttered in the dark.
The fifth stanza is the shortest by far. It contains only three lines, but it continues the pattern. It is an hour later, at “Half-past three.” The lines from the second stanza regarding the lamps sputtering and muttering are repeated. All this goes on in the dark still. These lines are something of an interlude in the story, showing that time is passing and darkness and madness remain.
The lamp hummed:(…)The moon has lost her memory.
In the first part of the sixth stanza, the speaker returns to the lamps again. They “hummed” and told the speaker to “Regard the moon.” It is personified, emphasizing the way that it does not judge the speaker. Unlike the street lamps which look on him constantly, “La lune ne garde aucune rancune.” It does not hold a grudge against him for what he does or how he’s lived. Instead, the moon,
[…] winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smoothes the hair of the grass.
As a reader would probably expect, the moon is referred to as a female The repetition of “She” in these lines is known as anaphora. It occurs when a word or phrase is repeated multiple times in lines situated closely together. She is a gentle presence in the world. Her eye is “feeble” and she smiles and “smoothes the hair of the grass.” A reader can connect the description of the woman in the second stanza to this one of the moon. The next line adds that she has “lost her memory.” This is important because of the general theme of madness that runs through the piece. There she is, peaceful and ignorant, perhaps because she can’t remember.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,Her hand twists a paper rose,(…)And cigarettes in corridorsAnd cocktail smells in bars.
In the second part of the sixth stanza a few more, less endearing details are added to the moon’s depiction. She has smallpox scars on her face, a metaphor used to describe the craters and cracks on the moon’s surface. The most important part of these lines is that the moon is “alone / With all the nocturnal smells.” Just as the wandering man seems to be. Once again the image of the “geraniums” appears. It is accompanied by the man recalling some of the memories he lost.
The memories are all sense based. From the smell of “shuttered rooms” to the “cocktail smells in bars.” These are not pleasant sights and smells, therefore fitting in perfectly with the rest of Rhapsody on a Windy Night.
The lamp said,“Four o’clock,(…)The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.”
In the last stanza of ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ it is 4:00 AM. All of the complex similes and metaphors of the past five stanzas fade away and the language becomes much clearer. The speaker has come upon,
[…] the number on the door.
The speaker is brought back into the world. He is at the correct doorway, has the right key, and goes inside. Everything is as he left it, mundane and commonplace. Eliot wanted to emphasize the bleakness of everyday life. One must go through these routines every day in order to enter into the world.
The last line is separate from the stanza and provides the poem with a powerful conclusion. Eliot adds, “The last twist of the knife.” The fact that life goes on like this forever and is always going to be bleak is the worst part of the situation. For Eliot, or at least the speaker he was channeling in this piece, and in others, existence is hopeless.