Rhapsody on a Windy Night
‘Rhapsody’ generally refers to a piece of music that has an irregular form but can also be used to mean a dream. And that is exactly what Eliot’s poem is: a depiction of a slurred, borderline-nonsensical nightmarish vision of modernity, in which the persona floats around the city streets at night. As his journey progresses, it becomes clearer just how much society has become dislodged from the objects that once provided stability and meaning, especially time and memory. In that way, Rhapsody on a Windy Night can be understood as a visualisation of an individual’s attempts to relocate a sense of stability amid the uncertainty of modernity.
The opening reference to the time, ‘Twelve o’clock.’ Commands our attention and injects the poem with a tone of certainty. That tone is continued through the mystical reference to the moon, which holds the street in a ‘lunar synthesis.’ The chaos then begins however with the imagery ‘Dissolve the floors of memory,’ as the persona sets off on his journey through a deconstruction of time and space. With ‘Every streetlamp that I pass / Beats like a fatalistic drum,’ Eliot not only reveals the journey to be home-ward bound, but also conveys the feelings the persona has towards that proposition: he despairs over it. Indeed, the symbolic imagery ‘Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium.’ Communicates the way in which the persona is traumatised and unsettled by his experiences.
With the use of ‘Half-past one,’ to open the next stanza, it is important to make note of two key ideas. Firstly, Eliot is continuing his references to the time. However, as you will notice with the next references to the time, he marks the note as ‘half-past.’ The intended effect is to embody the sense of being stuck in limbo – he is neither here nor there. Building on from that, we see that although the time moves forward, there is no indication from the persona that they are actually moving forward or progressing at all. The image of the woman in this stanza represents temptation and, in turn, shame – she stands in the doorway, ‘which opens on her like a grin.’ Indeed, the world is smiling at the persona’s vulnerability. The grotesque description of her appearance, as her eye ‘Twists like a crooked pin,’ furthermore suggests how she blends in with her environment, as the persona is pitted against the hostile night.
The way in which modernity has seemingly stripped humanity of its dignity and decency is stressed through the lines ‘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.’ Together, these lines sum up how the forces of modernity have resulted in humanity losing its innocence.
The next stanza, which concerns itself chiefly with the moon, is metaphysical; ‘La lune ne garde aucune rancune’ is French for ‘The moon holds no grudge.’ While the opening lines construct an image of a caring, motherly figure gently intruding into human affairs, the truncated ‘The moon has lost her memory.’ Symbolises the total destruction of sources for meaning and stability. The subsequent depictions of decaying objects reflect the way in which the spiritual death of certainty brings with it the devolution of all of humanity. The stanza builds into a crescendo of unpleasant imagery, collectively demonstrating that humanity has wasted away as a result of the forces of modernity.
The narrator’s journey ends with the definite time of ‘Four o’clock.’ By which Eliot reintroduces a degree of certainty as the morning approaches. The abrupt tone furthers that sense of certainty, but also contributes to the establishment of a rising sense of dread, as we consider what could explain the drastic change in pace and tone. ‘Memory!’ is no longer some vague and obscure thing; it is a command, and the persona has the ‘key.’
‘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.’ Eliot’s poem ends with a devastatingly effective piece of irony, as the persona realises that as distressing as his hallucinatory experience has been, the real tragedy is that the life he returns to is just as unimaginably tortured.