Last Updated September 5, 2023.
T. S. Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" is a free verse poem which follows the speaker on a walk home between midnight and 4 a.m. In a way, the only real character in this poem is the speaker, but they refer to other actors and characters that we can talk about.
We can classify the characters into three different categories: (1) real human or animal characters who exist in the physical setting of the street, (2) personified objects who exist in the street, and (3) remembered characters of whom the speaker is reminded by images or events in the street.
The speaker is the narrator of the poem: a human on a walk out into the street.
The Woman in the Doorway
This character is a woman standing in a doorway at half-past one. She is described as having torn and dirty clothing and smiling: her eye "twists like a crooked pin." She "hesitates towards" the speaker from the light shining from the doorway. This uncertainty and characterisation indicates that she is likely a sex worker.
The cat appears eating discarded food—"rancid butter"—in the gutter at half-past two. Its tongue moves quickly, which reminds the speaker of a child they once saw snatching a toy.
Personified Objects as Characters:
The Street Lamp
The street lamp is the driver of the speaker's observations. It "sputter[s]," "mutter[s]," "sa[ys]" and "hum[s]" about other characters in the street to draw the speaker's attention to them. This personification evokes the feeling that you can get when you're walking in the street late at night; everything seems more significant by virtue of being within the limited light. Everything you can see is as if it is on a stage under a spotlight.
The street lamp also seems to have knowledge about the speaker's thoughts; it knows where the speaker lives because it "shows" the number on the front door and instructs the speaker on their bedtime routine.
Earth's moon—whom the lamp "hummed" about at half-past three—is another personified character. The moon is feminine and is described by the street lamp (using French) as a thing "not holding grudges." The moon is also characterized by the street lamp as old, using words like "feeble," "washed-out," and "dust." When the speaker thinks of the moon, they are reminded of distant memories, using phrases like "dust in crevices" and "smells in shuttered rooms."
Characters from Memory
A child is question is chasing a toy on a quay. This is a character who the speaker remembers seeing previously. The speaker is reminded of this child by the movement of the cat's tongue as it eats the butter. The child is remembered as being guarded: the speaker could not make out any emotion behind their eyes.
The speaker recalls the memory of an old crab (covered in barnacles in a pool), who grabbed at a stick that the speaker offered him. The crab is likened to the human eyes that the speaker has seen peering through window shutters at night.