(Poem #466) 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. Half-past one, 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. Half-past two, 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. Half-past three, 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, "Four o'clock, Here is the number on the door. Memory! You have the key, The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair, Mount. 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.
This is not by any means a 'pretty' poem; in themes that recur through many of his poems, Eliot explores the darker side of the city and of life. Or, perhaps, 'seedier' is a better word; the poem seems to probe and catalogue the myriad cracks in the veneer of the city, thrown into relief against the backdrop of a gaslit night. In some sense, it is diametrically opposite to the previous two poems, finding a very different kind of poetry in the urban landscape. As in the Preludes, 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 sputtering but inexorable progression, the fluid boundaries of light and dark, the lonely, tired incursions of life, the stale, brittle note of civilisation all combine into a tapestry of pointlessness. Some thoughts on the theme as a whole... firstly, it is noteworthy that all three poems directly involved the time of day. Noteworthy but not really surprising; the character of City can vary dramatically with the ebb and flow of the day. Also, light and/or darkness feature prominently - again unsurprising, since the ability to banish the dark is one of the key features of civilisation (or at least, of an 'artificial' environment, of which a city is surely the canonical example). Notes: `The moon holds no grudges,' from Jules Laforgue's "Complainte de cette Bonne Lune": "-- Là, voyons, mam'zell la Lune, / Ne gardons pas ainsi rancune" (Poésies complètes, ed. Pascal Pia [Le Livre de Poche, 1970]: 44). Put your shoes at the door: for the staff to clean before morning. -- http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/rp/poems/eliot4.html And re the title, here are some of the meanings of 'rhapsody': 1. An epic poem or part of one, e.g. a book of the Iliad or Odyssey, suitable for recitation at one time. 3b. A literary work consisting of miscellaneous or disconnected pieces, etc.; a written composition having no fixed form or plan. Obs. 4. An exalted or exaggeratedly enthusiastic expression of sentiment or feeling; an effusion (e.g. a speech, letter, poem) marked by extravagance of idea and expression, but without connected thought or sound argument. -- OED2 Links: An interesting essay comparing some of Eliot's poems [broken link] http://www.hewett.norfolk.sch.uk/curric/english/Contrast.htm But is it Art? http://www.usask.ca/english/prufrock/recept1.htm and search for 'rhapsody' See also Trevor Nunn's 'Memory', from the Lloyd Webber musical 'Cats', which was adapted mainly from 'Rhapsody' (although it drew on a few other Eliot poems as well). [broken link] http://www.playbill.com/playbill/buckley/records/tlc/ltlc15.html and the slightly different Broadway version: http://www.catanna.com/grizabella.htm And finally, for a biography of Eliot, see the notes to Prelude I poem #107 Offtopic afterthought: For a rather different kind of underside to the city, read Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere'. -martin