A reading of Eliot’s early poem
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’), Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic early poem by Eliot
‘Portrait of a Lady’ first appeared in T. S. Eliot’s first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, which was published in 1917. The title is a nod to Henry James’s 1878 novel, The Portrait of a Lady, although this is a piece of misdirection on Eliot’s part, since the poem that follows will be much more about its young male speaker than it will about his older female companion. The poem is the other long monologue Eliot wrote satirising early twentieth-century society, alongside ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, the title poem of that debut collection. You can read ‘Portrait of a Lady’ here before proceeding to our short analysis of the poem below.
‘Portrait of a Lady’, in summary, charts the friendship between a man – though this time a younger man than J. Alfred Prufrock – and an older woman. In the first section, they attend a concert together; in the second, she talks regretfully of being old, and envies the young man his youth (he, meanwhile, busies himself reading comics and the sports pages of the newspaper); in the third, he tells her he is going abroad, and she makes him promise to write to her. After he leaves her, he reflects on how he has treated her. Does he have the right to smile? Has he treated her badly? Read the rest of this entry
A summary of a surprisingly comic poem
‘Mr Apollinax’ is one of the twelve poems included in Prufrock and Other Observations, T. S. Eliot’s debut collection of poems from 1917. The collection is highly sought after now in a first edition, but the initial print run of 500 copies wouldn’t sell out for five years. Nevertheless, the poems contained in this volume are among the first great modernist poems written in English. ‘Mr Apollinax’ displays the arresting imagery and serio-comic vein that run through the whole of the collection, as we’ll try to demonstrate in our analysis and discussion of it. You can read ‘Mr Apollinax’ here.
Why ‘Mr Apollinax’? The title suggests the Greek god Apollo, but more specifically, ‘Apollinax’ might suggest Apollonis arx, which Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, in their recent co-edited 2-volume edition of Eliot’s poems, point out was, in Greek mythology, ‘a place at the entrance of the Sibyl’s cave where the Sibyl left her prophecies, written on leaves’. Eliot’s name ‘Apollinax’, then, may suggest that the titular subject of the poem is both godlike (as in the mighty Apollo) but also prophetic or vatic, someone whom people view as a sage. Read the rest of this entry