A reading of Eliot’s early poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Sylvia Plath once said that she thought anything should be able to be used in a poem, but she couldn’t imagine a toothbrush in a poem. Yet at the end of ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, T. S. Eliot had used the toothbrush as a way of hinting at the workaday world (we brush our teeth every day, at least if we wish to avoid too many trips to the dentist), with it hanging on the wall, just as the shoes wait by the door, ready for the following morning when the world will once more spring into action. ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ is often overlooked among Eliot’s early poems – ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘Portrait of a Lady’, and ‘Preludes’ are more famous – but its innovative imagery deserves closer analysis. You can read ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ here.
This poem is quite difficult to get your bearings in, or, once you’ve got your bearings, to keep them. So a short summary of the poem as its nocturnal descriptions develop may be advisable.
‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ takes place between twelve o’clock – midnight – and four o’clock in the morning. At midnight, the speaker wanders the streets of a city and observes the moonlight on the streets and the ways in which it renders everything – even the speaker’s own memories – vague and indistinct. For instance, the light of the streetlamps seems to emit a sound as well as a light (‘fatalistic drum’), and the abstract ‘midnight’ appears to possess agency, shaking the speaker’s memories about much as a madman shakes a flower (the implication being that this time of night exercises this effect upon our memory without it being conscious of what it does, like the madman).
We move forward an hour and a half to half-past one in the morning. Now the very street-lamps appear to speak, beckoning the speaker to a woman standing in a doorway (probably a ‘lady of the night’, or prostitute), although the woman’s appearance isn’t exactly flattering. The sand on the woman’s dress appears to call up a memory of time spent on a beach, and the twisted branch of a tree, dried out and bare, which the speaker recalls seeing there, looking like the bones of the very earth jutting out of the ground (much as a skinny person’s ribs stick out and are visible). The image of the ‘broken spring in a factory yard’, covered with rust, suggests a loss of energy and vitality – this coiled spring that was once capable of bouncing and contracting and expanding is now abandoned, useless, without life.
We move forward another hour to half-past two. The speaker of this poem must be an insomniac. Doesn’t he go to bed? The street-lamps start talking to him again, telling him to observe a cat in the gutter: the animal is eating some stinking and gone-off butter. This image seems to call up an image from the speaker’s childhood, when he saw a child slipping out its hand in one darting movement (like the cat’s tongue slipping out to devour the butter) to pocket a toy that was running along the quay (we’re back at the beach again – perhaps a childhood holiday at the seaside?). The speaker could not look inside that child’s mind to discover why it took that toy. He then recalls an old crab covered in barnacles, which he found one afternoon in a rock-pool and played with.
Another hour down the line, at half-past three, and the lamp speaks again. Is this speaker drunk, or just sleep-deprived? Anyway: the lamp instructs the speaker to look at the moon, and recites a line in French which translates as ‘the moon holds no grudges’. The moon has lost her memory, we are told, and the craters on its pale surface are likened to the pock-marks left on the face of a small-pox survivor. But this moon also has hands, one of which twists a ‘paper rose’ smelling of dust and perfume. This image conjures up more memories in the mind of the speaker: images of dryness (‘sunless dry geraniums’, ‘dust in crevices’) and femininity (that perfume again: ‘female smells in shuttered rooms’).
Half an hour later, and it’s four o’clock in the morning. The speaker arrives at home, at his front door (‘the number on the door’). He unlocks his door and steps inside, climbing the stairs to bed. His toothbrush is hanging on the wall, ready to be pressed into service in the morning; the lamp commands the speaker to put his shoes at the door ready for tomorrow, when he will presumably be getting up and washing and dressing ready to go to work. The whole workaday world of routine and drudgery will beckon again in a few hours’ time. This, the speaker confides to us in that chilling final line, is the ‘last twist of the knife’: the final straw.
Eliot was fond of giving his poems titles drawn from music: compare ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘Preludes’, ‘A Song for Simeon’, Four Quartets. A ‘rhapsody’ is a free instrumental composition in one extended movement, especially one that is emotional in character, and this word fits Eliot’s poem with its free verse, irregular metre and line lengths, irregular stanza lengths, and emotional content.
Some of the phrases from ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ appear in the lyrics to the song ‘Memory’ from the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Cats, which was inspired by Eliot’s book of light verse for children. And indeed ‘memory’ is a key word for ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’: the word occurs five times in the poem, including the first stanza and the final one (before that standalone concluding line, that is). But the relation between the nocturnal observations the speaker makes and the memories these conjure up is not always clear. Yet we can propose several explanations which help to make the poem slightly less ‘surreal’ than it might otherwise seem. The cat’s tongue suggesting the child’s hand seems clear enough, given the swift, furtive movement of both; but why this should summon up the crab is less obvious. But crabs are hard-shelled creatures, and this one is doubly armoured by having barnacles clinging to its shell: just as the child’s expression gives away nothing about how the child is feeling, so the crab protects itself with its strong carapace, and despite the speaker holding it with a stick, the creature holds fast.
If you found this analysis of ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ useful, you might also enjoy our short introduction to T. S. Eliot’s life and work.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.