Rhapsody On A Windy Night: by T.S Eliot - Summary & Analysis

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       The atmosphere of the poem: The poem Rhapsody on a Windy Night records the memory and fancy of a young man, returning to his lodgings between twelve and four at night. His memory does not function normally. It is confusing and therefore his impressions do not follow any system and pattern. It is possible that the night-walker is drunk and therefore his impressions are disorganized. The poem evokes a mood of horror due to the squalor, rottenness and corruption of the nightlife in urban centers. The total impression given by the poem is ugly and disgusting. Its smell of the dirty drain and gutters of modern city life, the disordinaries of ideas appear quite natural because his mind is in a disintegrated state. This may be partly due to his being moon-struck. But there is an undercurrent of horror and degradation arising out of the scene on the street corners. The prostitute inviting her customers with eye gestures, the cat devouring rotten butter, the child stealing a toy, the sex-hunter peeping through lighted shutters and the moon looking like an old prostitute, echo the atmosphere of sordidness and corruption that bedevils city life.

As the night-rambler walks through the streets of the city, he feels drowsy on account of the wine that he has drunk.
Rhapsody on a Windy Night

      Modern 'Inferno' (Hell): There is a marked contrast between silvery moonlight brightening the streets and the hellish memories of night wanderer. The night-life in a modern city, is a foul as hell. Stephen Spender writes in this connection: "Modern life is a kind of Hell, but even that view has to be modified, it is, as it were, a fragmentary Hell, a Hell devoid of consistency, too stupid to punish anyone, and without any moral severity," and adds: "The peculiar horror of this world is that the people in it are as much 'things' as the gutter, the street, the cat, the pipes, etc. They are spiritually dead, and there is a dead sameness about all their activities". The horrible scene at night evokes a feeling as painful as the sensation caused by a sudden knife attack on a passerby.


      The poem is a record of the memories and impressions of a young man walking through the streets of London. It appears that he is drunk and is trying to find out his way to his lodging after midnight. The duration of his march is about four hours and the scene is laid in London where a storm has lashed the city. The wind still blows through the streets.

L. 1-12. It is now twelve o'clock in the night. A man is finding his way through the ends of the streets. The streets are arranged in a magic formulation and are whispering some magic words. These things dissolve the memories and their definite associations and their exact time and relationship. As I pass through the street, the street lamp makes a fateful should like that of a traditional drum in old times. As I pass through the dark passages, my memory is disturbed. I am not conscious of myself like a mad man shaking a dead geranium plant. I dreamily move through the streets.

L.13-22. It is now half-past one. The street lamp made a sound when disturbed by the strong wind. The street lamp whispered something. I believe the street lamp said "Regard that woman" a prostitute who stands in a doorway under the light and seems to invite you for sexual relationship. Her smile can be observed in the dim light. You can also see the border of her dress stained and torn, perhaps by some lover. She makes a sign from the corner of her eyes - a kind of an invitation to sex. Her eye twists and rolls like a broken thing.

L. 23-35. The memory of the midnight wanderer throws up impression of a lot of events, disconnected and disjointed. The first memory is of an ice-cream bar, the empty stick of which has been thrown upon the beach. The ice-cream has been licked completely and only the skeleton-stick is left over. It appears as a symbol of the modern world, which has revealed its skeleton, a lot of bones, stiff and white. The skeleton may be compared to a broken spring lying in the backyard of a factory covered with rust which clings to the iron, in which there is no strength left. The spring is hard and twisted and likely to break easily - (The ice-cream stick, the skeleton, the broken spring are symbols of the decadence and hollowness of modern society.).

L. 35-45. The time is half past two at the night. The street lamp makes a sound when shaken by the wind. The street lamp seems to say "look at the cat which sits flat in the gutter". She takes out her tongue and swallows a lump of rotten butter. The action of the cat may be compared to the smartness of the child whose hands automatically came out and stole a toy that was lying near the sea-side. I could not see anything great in the child's eye. I have seen people—in search of sex—trying to peep through the doors of closed rooms which are well lit. Their eyes are fixed on the doors like the pincers of an old crab found in a pool, who caught the end of a stick which I kept before him. (The image of the cat swallowing butter suggests the criminal and greedy nature of the modern man. The image of the child stealing a toy shows that life in the modern world is rotten and spoiled from very childhood. The image of a man peeping through the door is the symbol of the ugly and lustful men of the twentieth century.)

L. 46-68. The time now is half past three in the night. The street lamp whispered in the darkness. The street lamp sang a song. "Look at the moon. She is like an old prostitute, who winks with a weak eye and as she smiles, her wrinkles can be seen. She smoothens the hair of the grass— perhaps to have a soft bed for her sexual purposes. The moon is an old woman who has forgotten her past glory. Like the moon, the prostitute's face is full of small-pox marks. With her hand, she tears a paper rose which though made of pulp, contains the fragrance of Eau de-Cologne. She is alone and her body smells of the odors of female make-up. She recalls the memories of her past." These memories refer to previous events and incidents which pertain to sexual orgies in the midst of dry plants, surrounded by dust lying in comers, and the smells of chestnuts lying in the streets and the odors of female bodies in closed rooms and the cigarettes lying in the corridors and the smells of cocktail in the pub or restaurant. (All these images suggest the decadence and sexual perversion of the modern man).

L. 69-78. The lamp in the street said to the young man: "It is now four o'clock. Here is the number on the door of your house. Recall your memory. You have the key to the door with you." The light of the lamp showed the steps of the stair case. So, I went up. The bed lay open as if to welcome me. There was my toothbrush hanging against the wall. I put my shoes at the door and went to sleep. This is the time when people generally get up for their daily routine. Life is like the blade of a knife.

Critical Analysis

      Mental confusion of the night rambler: As the night rambler walks through the streets of the city, he feels drowsy on account of the wine that he has drunk. Moreover, his mental faculties have been exhausted on account of the activities during the day. A succession of memories passes through his mind which echoes the rottenness and squalor of the city. His memories and fancies come and go at random. But they help to furnish a nauseating and repulsive picture of modern city. There is a kind of disordinariness, both in the Setting and also outside the disintegrated state of the mind. The words Whispering lunar incantation suggest a memory of whispering about crimes and sexual perversity. "The beating of the lamp" like the fatalistic drum, is highly metaphysical because the sound of the street lamp is in no way as important as the beating of the drums announcing war or death. There is a similarity between the inner setting and external setting. The fragments of the memory of the night-walker receive a jolt like the one that a madman gives to a dead plant, thinking it to be alive.

      Sex for sale: When it is half-past one, the night-wanderer comes across a prostitute standing at her door-step making signs to him. He observes that her dress is torn and stained as the result of her previous sex-relationship. She, however, beckons him for a sexual contract. Her eye twist is like a crooked pin. The crooked ways of the women represent the crooked nature of the urban life. The critic, Stephen Spender, is of the opinion that 'woman', a human being has been reduced to a 'thing that is a crooked pin in the twentieth-century commercial civilization. The critic feels that Eliot has interpreted the contemporary commercial civilization in an ironical manner by means of the symbol of the 'crooked pin.' Thus the 'pin' stands for the whole commercial civilization. The woman is suggestive of the corruption, of the sordid degradation, of the contemporary world. This world is further elaborated by the poet at a vast scale in The Waste Land.

      Twisted civilization: The memory of the twisted pin brings to the mind of the night-walker, images of sexual, twisted things. He remembers the twisted stick from which ice-cream has been licked and thereafter thrown on the beach. He also recalls the dry and twisted bones sucked up by dogs and cats. He also recalls the twisted broken spring, full of rust and dust thrown into the factory backyard. All these images suggest the decadence and disintegration of the modern civilization.

      Horrible Corruption: At half-past-two in the night, the night rambler sees horrible things. Firstly, he observes a cat sitting in the gutter and swallowing rotten butter. The cat stands for the modern man ready to grab anything for his advantage. Secondly, he sees a child stealing a toy, near the dock. Thirdly, he sees a man peeping into rooms lighted from inside. Perhaps, he is in search of sex life. This man is like an old crab, who catches the end of the stick. The modern man may be compared to a crab, lusty and rapacious, ready to feather his own nest.

      Modern interpretation of the man: According to the romantic tradition, moon is an embodiment of beauty and charm. However, in the modern towns, nobody cares about the moon. The moon is regarded as an old degraded woman, winking with the feeble eye and smiling into corners which suggest ugliness and senility. The pimples and small-poxed surface of the moon are extremely disgusting. She holds an artificial paper roll and tears it into pieces to smell eau-de-Cologne which it contains. It reminds one of the powders and perfumes used by women at night for their sexual relationships. These smells remind the night-wanderer of the other smells of city, namely, smells of the dry geraniums, dust in crevices, female smell, cigarette smell and cocktail smell. All these indicate the decadence and corruption of the modern city life.

      Life akin to Knife: At four o'clock the night-wanderer reaches his home. He remembers the number painted on the door of his house. He unlocks the door, switches on light and ascends the stairs. He enters the room and goes to bed. It is just the time when other people wake up and prepare themselves for the day's routine. However, for him day-life is like the twist of the knife, something horrible and brutal. He is disgusted with the modern life of hectic activity and would like to sleep and to forget his worries. Thus, the poet feels that the night-walker is disgusted with the life of activity. He would like to withdraw himself from it by sleeping the whole day.

      Title: The word "Rhapsody" means enthusiastic, extravagant, and high-flown composition as also an emotional, and irregular pace of music. The poem, as the title indicates, contains the thoughts and memories, rather disconnected of a young man in search of night life. The sequence of the lines like:

Half past three,

The lamp sputtered,

The lamp muttered in the dark.

      indicates its melody. The poem contains an account of the random and disordered impressions, memories and thoughts of a man in search of fun and sex.

Line-by-Line Explanation

L. 1. Twelve o'clock: This indicates the time when the young man goes through the city in search of pleasure.

L. 2. Reaches: The extremes or the ends.

L. 3. Lunar synthesis: The combination of the streets covered with the moonlight at midnight.

L. 4. Whispering lunar incantations: The streets seem to whisper some magic formula.

L. 5. Dissolve the floors of memory: At this midnight hour memory itself disintegrates and can produce only disjointed impressions.

L. 6. And all its clear relation: The connection of one event with the other or the squence of events cannot be distinctly recalled by memory.

L. 7. Its division and precisions: The divisions of an event or the precise time and place are all jumbled together. It appears that the man was drunk and is unable to recall the impressions in the order in which the events occurred.

L. 9. Beats like a fatalistic drum: It appears that the street lamps are swayed by the wind and they produce some kind of sound. The sound of the wind-swept lamps is exaggerated and compared to the beating of a drum. In ancient times the beating of the drums was the sign of declaration of war or a man's death. The very light of the street lamp which is an everyday phenomenon has been given a fatalistic significance.

L. 10. And through the spaces of the dark: The young man walks through places where there is no light, and as such he is unable to connect one street with another.

L. 11. Midnight shakes the memory: His memory has gone topsyturvy perhaps due to two reasons. Firstly, he is drunk and secondly, on account of the strange and weird environment surrounding him.

L. 12. As a madman shakes a dead geranium: The situation of the young man is like that of a lunatic. Just as a lunatic will shake a dead plant thinking that it is fresh and alive, in the same way the young man does not know what he is about.

L. 13. Half-past one: As the young man proceeds through the streets he notes the time, it is now half-past one.

L. 14. sputtered: Vomitted.

L. 15. Muttered: Whispered in low times.

L. 16. Regard: Watch or observe; that woman refers to the prostitute.

1.17. Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door: She hesitates to invite him.

L. 18. Which opens: The door which throws light on her face and the smile on the face is a kind of sign that she is ready for sex.

L. 19 & 20. You see-with sand: Her dress has been torn by her previous lover and it has become dirty with dust and sand.

L. 21 & 22. and you....crooked pin: With her eye she makes sign to her customer indicating her willingness. The twisting of her eye ball is compared to a twisted pin or a semi-circular action of a pin. The twist of her eye-corner is an invitation to her customer. Eliot mentions the case of Prufrock who felt the cruel glance of a woman like a sharp pin, which fixed him in a wall.

L. 23. The memory throws up high and dry: The flood-gate of the memory of the young man is opened and it reveals quite a number of things.

L. 24. A crowd of twisted things: A lump of twisted and broken things is thrown up by his memory.

L. 125. A twisted branch upon the beach: This refers to the ice-cream stick, almost like a lollipop sold on beaches to holiday-makers. The stick is licked clean, twisted and thrown upon the beach.

L. 26. Eaten smooth and polished: The ice-cream stick is eaten clean and the very last bit of cream is polished off or licked by the tongue.

L. 27. As if the world gave up: The impressions thrown up by memory, disclose the inmost secret of the corrupt city life.

L. 28. The secret of its skeleton: The skeleton refers to the rottenness and decadence of modern civilization. Just as ice-cream and lollipops appear sweet and attractive, in the same way modern life is superficially attractive. Just as the stick is thrown away after licking the cream in the same way the skeleton of modern civilization when exposed shows its inner rottenness and filth.

L. 29. Stiff and white: It refers to the skeleton, the bones of which are most uninviting.

L. 30. A broken spring: Modern civilization is compared to a broken spring which is useless.

L. 31 & 32. Rust that....ready to snap: Modern civilization is rusty like the broken spring, which has lost its flexibility and strength and breaks into pieces in no time. The dirty city life lacks strength and vitality because it has no moral backbone.

L. 33 & 34. Half past two....the street-lamp said: The poet mentions the time of the night and describes the scene in the street.

L. 35. Remark: Observe, look.

L, 35-37. "Remark the....rancid butter." The image of a cat sitting in the gutter, tongue stretched out in search of foods, and finally devouring a piece of rotten butter is extremely unpleasant.

L. 39. Quay: dock.

L. 38-40. To the hand....child's eye: The next image is that of a child, who automatically threw his hand out to grab a toy which was running along the dock. The child's eye, indicated nothing but his helpless condition. Modern civilization is compared to a child running after a toy mechanically. There is no gleam of joy in his eye.

L. 41-42. I have seen....lighted shutters: There are people who during their night prowls try to peep into well-lit houses of prostitutes to see what is happening therein.

1.43. Crab: A kind of ten-footed sea species, which is cooked and eaten as a great delicacy.

L. 44. Barnacles: Pincers.

L. 45. Gripped: Caught or grabbed.

L. 43-45. And a crab....I held him: The poet compares the lustful eyes clinging to the shutters of a lighted room of a prostitute to an old crab in a pool which caught the end of the stick which he held out to him.

L. 46. Half-past three: The poet mentions the things which happen at this hour of the night.

L. 47. Sputtered: Made noise on account of the blowing of the wind.

L. 48. Muttered: Whispered.

L. 49. Hummed: Sang a tune.

L. 47-49. These lines furnish the melody which supply the title of the poem. These lines are an example of "Rhapsody".

L. 50. Regard: Look at; consider.

L. 51. La lune ne garde aucune rancune: The moon harbors no ill-feeling.

L. 52-54. she winks....of the grass: The moon generally called a lady is like an old prostitute who winks with a weak eye and who produces depressions in her cheeks when she smiles. The prostitute also smoothens the ends of the grass on which she lies for sexual purposes.

L. 55. The moon has lost her memory: The prostitute who is compared to the moon is old and has lost her memory.

L. 56. A washed-out small-box cracks her face: She has washed her ugly face which is disfigured by marks of smallpox.

L. 57-58. Her hand....eau de Cologne: The prostitute tears into pieces an artificial rose made of paper. This paper is made out of some dust particles and contains the fragrance of eau-de-Cologne.

L. 60. Nocturnal: Nightly, smells: Perfumes which she uses to hide her bodily odor and to excite the passion of her lovers.

L. 61. What cross and cross across her brain: These smells she can recall in her brain.

L. 62. Reminiscence: Memory.

L. 63. Geraniums: Plants.

L. 64. Crevices: Corners.

L. 65. Chestnuts: Chestnuts which had been eaten in the streets.

L. 66. Female smells: Smell of female body. Shuttered rooms: closed rooms.

L. 68. Cocktail: Mixture of different wines, bars: Pubs or restaurants.

L. 69 70. The lamp said, 'Four o'clock: Indicates the time when the lover returns home.

L. 72. Memory: Automatically remembers that this is his house and he must open the door.

L. 74. Ring: Circle of light.

L. 75. Mount: Go up the stairs.

L, 76. Bed is open: Bed is ready to receive him.

L. 77. Put your shoes at the door: Generally the bed rooms are carpeted. Therefore, the shoes are kept near the door.

L. 77. Preparefor life: This is the time when usually people get up and make preparations for the day's work. It is rather incongruous that this man prepares for life by sleeping throughout the day. His life begins at night. He is disgusted with the life of activity and hence withdraws from it by sleeping the whole day.

L. 78. The last twist of the knife: Life is horrible to him like the twist of a sharp blade of the knife. Life is disgusting and killing and therefore he must keep away from it. The painful blow of the knife to his memory has revealed to him the miserable experiences of life. He wishes to forget it and enjoy peace and calm by sleeping throughout the day.

      Conclusion: The poem is written after the manner of the French Symbolists like Laforgue, who followed a particular technique. They packed together a number of disjointed and random images so as to give an overall picture of ugly and corrupt life of a modern city. T.S. Eliot has tried to follow their example but he has added something which is peculiar to his own. Thus Rhapsody on a Windy Night is his own addition which makes the poem significant, rhythmic and musical composition. The poem, according to Maxwell, "is a conscious attempt to do in English what the Symbolists had done in French - to mirror a mood by a selection of images which have in common subservience to that mood, and hence act as symbols for it."

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