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T. S. Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"
T. S. Eliot
The wildly famous show tune "Memory" by Andrew Lloyd Webber was inspired by T. S. Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" and "Preludes." This article analyzes the former.
The speaker of T. S. Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” goes for a four-hour walk at midnight in the city. The poem consists of 78 lines contained in eight versagraphs. Rime is sporadic as is rhythm, and the theme is mocking desecration of the city coupled with drunken fantasy.
First Versagraph: "Twelve o'clock"
In the first versagraph, the speaker reports that it is “Twelve o’clock.” He dramatizes his walk through the streets, describing what he sees: “Along the reaches of the street / Held in a lunar synthesis.” The “lunar synthesis” is the important backdrop for the streetscape.
The moon is “Whispering lunar incantations” that “Dissolve the floors of memory.” The speaker is finding his ability to remember where he is a bit difficult; the reader might suspect that the speaker is considerably inebriated.
The drunken portrayal of the street lamps offers further evidence that the speaker is possibly so drunk that his thoughts and memories are misaligned: “Every street lamp that I pass / Beats like a fatalistic drum.” It’s no doubt the speaker’s head that is beating like the “fatalistic drum.” Then the speaker offers the hilarious image: “And through the spaces of the dark / Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium.” The intoxicated speaker’s memory is being shaken by midnight, and it is like a “madman” shaking a “dead geranium.”
Second Versagraph: "Half-past one"
By the second versagraph, the speaker has been walking for an hour and half. The reader is treated to one of the sporadic rimes that pop up occasionally: “The street lamp sputtered, / The street lamp muttered.”
The speaker encounters another person out walking, and the street lamp tells him to look at her. She’s likely a prostitute whose “dress / Is torn and stained with sand.” The speaker’s mind again is strangely interpreting things as he sees “the corner of her eye / Twists like a crooked pin." But then it’s the street lamp that says all this, so one cannot place all the blame on the speaker for reporting such gibberish.
Third Versagraph: "The memory throws up high and dry
The third versagraph merely reports that his memory is throwing “up high and dry / A crowd of twisted things” and then cites examples of twisted things, such as “a twisted branch upon the beach.” This line alerts the reader that the speaker is walking in a coastal city.
Fourth Versagraph: "Half-past two"
It’s now “Half-past two”; the street lamp is talking again: "Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter, / Slips out its tongue / And devours a morsel of rancid butter." The image of a cat eating rancid butter is set in another sporadic rime. Then the speaker reports seeing a street urchin, and a crab that grabs a stick.
Fifth Versagraph: "Half-past three"
It’s half-past three, time for another sporadic rime: “The lamp sputtered, / The lamp muttered in the dark.”
Sixth Versagraph: "The lamp hummed"
The street lamp now speaks French, as it describes the moon, telling the speaker that “La lune ne garde aucune rancune”: the moon never holds a grudge. The moon lights the corners of memory, and even though the “moon has lost her memory,” the speaker remembers grotesque smells he has experienced.
Seventh and Eight Versagraphs: "The lamp said" and "The last twist of the knife"
It’s now four o’clock and the speaker has arrived at a flat. He sees the number and remembers that it is his. He has the key, which becomes a knife, as he finishes his dramatic reportage with a flourish, which actually appears in the eighth versagraph: “The last twist of the knife,” which rimes with the preceding line, “Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.”
Reading of Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes