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Rhapsody on a Windy Night -- T S Eliot

(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.
 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
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

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).

  `The moon holds no grudges,' from Jules Laforgue's "Complainte de cette
  Bonne Lune": "-- Là, voyons, mam'zell la Lune, / Ne gardons pas ainsi
  (Poésies complètes, ed. Pascal Pia [Le Livre de Poche, 1970]: 44).

  Put your shoes at the door: for the staff to clean before morning.


  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


  An interesting essay comparing some of Eliot's poems
  [broken link]

  But is it Art?
  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]
  and the slightly different Broadway version:

  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


19 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Anonymous said...

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