Rhapsody on a Windy Night
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.
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said, "Regard that woman
Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin."
The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
A broken spring in a factory yard,
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap.
The street lamp said,
"Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter,
Slips out its tongue
And devours a morsel of rancid butter."
So the hand of a child, automatic,
Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay.
I could see nothing behind that child's eye.
I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.
The lamp sputtered,
The lamp muttered in the dark.
The lamp hummed:
"Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune,
She winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smoothes the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,
Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smells of dust and old Cologne,
She is alone
With all the old nocturnal smells
That cross and cross across her brain."
The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars."
The lamp said,
Here is the number on the door.
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair,
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life."
The last twist of the knife.
-- T. S. Eliot
A cinemascopic strum of consciousness in divisions and precisions Rhasphody
sputters and mutters in an onomatopoeic
staccato. Composed in 1911 and first published in 1917, Rhapsody on a Windy Night
is far from a pretty poem. It whistles with underbellied seaminess through the cracked veneer of urban nightlife. American poets holding copper wired conversations. I cannot help but hear Sandburg’s Midwestern humming and thrumming Under a Telephone Pole
written in 1914, four years later WCW
on the east coast penned The Great Figure
. It’s almost impossible to not to feel an cacophonic jazziness of long extended notes from a saxophone drifting rag tag in broken reflections across the face of the moon that flickers full of Steven’s
1923 inflections and innuendos of disillusioned people
asleep in houses, ‘catching tigers in red weather.’
Eliot's poetry is pedantic and scholastic. He uses it to highlight his pronounced views on literary, religious and social subjects. A rhapsody is ‘an enthusiastic, ecstatic, or extravagant utterance or composition’ or ‘a piece of music in one extended movement, usually emotional in character, and by Greek history as ‘an epic poem, or part of it, of a length for one recitation.’ The poem is characteristic and reflects many of the same elements of his Preludes with its music and an urban landscape depicting a visual breakdown in society. Monotony and futility fill peoples actions he adds the influence of time and its inescapable nature. Memory and the past bring into focus relationships and lack of personal fulfillment, a concern with sexual perversity and relationships – emptiness, disgust.
Once the references of Eliot's literary allusions are known, meaning is often clarified. The apex of the poem lies on the key word memory and how the individual is limited to involuntary memory, which represents the non-linear, fragmented time of the past, as "memory throws up high and dry" a "crowd of twisted things".. Memory....the key : is an allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet Ophelia says to Laertes :
Tis in my memory locked,
And you yourself shall keep the key of it.
He unites with Jules Laforgue to making simile an allusion in
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium
Later in line 51 the words La lune ne garde aucune rancune
translate from French; `The moon holds no grudges whatsoever,' Eliot then borrows out right the line from Jules Laforgue's "Complainte de cette Bonne Lune"
Line 77 refers to the common practice of placing your shoes at the door for the staff to clean before morning and is a referent to Matthew 10:14
Many of Eliot’s contemporary critics found his work ‘amusing’ he was, they claimed after all, only in his mid twenties.
Mr. Eliot is one of those clever young men who find it amusing to pull the leg of a sober reviewer. We can imagine his saying to his friends: 'See me have a lark out of the old fogies who don't know a poem from a pea-shooter. I'll just put down the first thing that comes into my head, and call it "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Of course it will be idiotic; but the fogies are sure to praise it, because when they don't understand a thing and yet cannot hold their tongues they find safety in praise.' We once knew a clever musician who found a boisterous delight in playing that pathetic melody "Only a Jew" in two keys at once. At first the effect was amusing in its complete idiocy, but we cannot imagine that our friend would have been so foolish as to print the score. Among a few friends the man of genius is privileged to make a fool of himself. He is usually careful not to do so outside an intimate circle. Mr. Eliot has not the wisdom of youth. If the 'Love Song' is neither witty nor amusing, the other poems are interesting experiments in the bizarre and violent. The subjects of the poems, the imagery, the rhythms have the willful outlandishness of the young revolutionary idea. We do not wish to appear patronizing, but we are certain that Mr. Eliot could do finer work on traditional lines. With him it seems to be a case of missing the effect by too much cleverness. All beauty has in it an element of strangeness, but here the strangeness overbalances the beauty.
(Unsigned Review, New Statesman. 18 August 1917, vol. ix, 477.)
Eliot displays a keen eye for detail; the little nuances of sight, sound and smell that accost the narrator on his drifting path through night and memory, the omnipresent streetlights ticking off the hours in a spitting inexorable regression, the florid confines of light and dark, the solitary, weary incursions of life, the stale, brittle note of civilization all portray a tapestry of pointlessness. Eliot was also influenced by Henri Bergson’s
concept of time as a psychological rather than quantitative measure of existence. In Rhapsody on a Windy Night
, time in the present is measured by the streetlamps, but there is also a far more significant change in time between the past and the present. On this point, Eliot has to say this about Bergson’s view:
“The past exists in the present, which contains the future. The concrete and ever present instance of duration is life, for each of us living individuals is his own time”.
With the friendship and advice of Ezra Pound
, his wife Vivienne, and others, Eliot came fully into his own as a poet with Gerontion
and The Waste Land
. Mr. Pound had this to say about Eliot’s work:
Mr. T.S. Eliot, whose book Prufrock and Other Observations is really hardly more than a pamphlet, is also a realist, but of a different sort. Like Mr. Gibson, Mr. Eliot is a psychologist; but his intuitions are keener; his technique subtler. For the two semi-narrative psychological portraits which form the greater and better part of his book, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and the "Portrait of a Lady," one can have little but praise. This is psychological realism, but in a highly subjective or introspective vein; whereas Mr. Gibson, for example, gives us, in the third person, the reactions of an individual to a situation which is largely external (an accident, let us say), Mr. Eliot gives us, in the first person, the reactions of an individual to a situation for which to a large extent his own character is responsible. Such work is more purely autobiographic than the other -the field is narrowed, and the terms are idiosyncratic (sometimes almost blindly so). The dangers of such work are obvious: one must be certain that one's mental character and idiom are sufficiently close to the norm to be comprehensible or significant. In this respect, Mr. Eliot is near the border-line. His temperament is peculiar, it is sometimes, as remarked heretofore, almost bafflingly peculiar, but on the whole it is the average hyper-aesthetic one with a good deal of introspective curiosity; it will puzzle many, it will delight a few. Mr. Eliot writes pungently and sharply, with an eye for unexpected and vivid details, and, particularly in the two longer poems and in the "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," he shows himself to be an exceptionally acute technician. Such free rhyme as this, with irregular line lengths, is difficult to write well, and Mr. Eliot does it well enough to make one wonder whether such a form is not what the adorers of free verse will eventually have to come to. In the rest of Mr. Eliot's volume one finds the piquant and the trivial in about equal proportions.
(From Ezra Pound, "A Letter From Remy De Gourmont," Little Review. December 1917, vol. ix, 6-7.)
After Harvard, Eliot continued his education at Sorbonne in Paris and Oxford University in England. During those times he wrote his first major works: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, his Preludes, and Rhapsody on a Windy Night. In the beginning Eliot drew from French symbolist poetry, especially the works of Jules Laforgue. The original text for this poem was printed in Prufrock and Other Observations (London: The Egoist, 1917): 27-30. The first publication date was two years earlier in Blast 2, July 1915. You might be interested to know that Trevor Nunn's Memory, although it drew on a few other Eliot poems as well, from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats, was adapted mainly from 'Rhapsody'
for dem bones
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "T(homas) S(tearns) Eliot," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
The Oxford English Reference Dictionary “rhapsody”.
Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner:
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) Rhapsody on a Windy Night:
The Wondering Minstrels: