Analysis

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Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1180

“Rhapsody on a Windy Night” by T. S. Eliot includes a lot more witchcraft symbolism than most readers realize. Most scholars read the poem to be about the futility of life from a Modernist perspective. For example, they understand the dark imagery and fragmented structure to represent a futile existence, where society is fragmented and individuals are isolated and doomed to a meaningless existence. This perspective is common in Modernist writings. But an investigation of witchcraft and pagan symbolism in the poem adds a new, interesting caveat to this interpretation.

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First, there is the symbolism of time. 12am is also known in literature as The Witching Hour. Between 12am and 4am, the veil between physical reality and the supernatural world is supposedly the most “thin” according to some pagan factions, and many authors have made use of this idea in their famous works. For example, in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, David is born at 12 and has a “veil” or sac over his face, which historically has been read as a sign the child born has prophetic or supernatural gifts. The poem takes place between 12 and 4am, when the hours in which contact with the supernatural realm is most possible (with ghosts, demons, goddesses, etc.). The hour is thought by some to be the best time for pagan or witchcraft rituals to be performed. There are many different types of paganism and witchcraft, and it really does depend upon era and moment in history how and when rituals are performed, but practices commonly associated with different types of witchcraft in literary history include incantations, animal or human sacrifice, taboo sexual acts, and other rituals.

These hours, as presented in the poem, may be read as a figurative representation of the hours of inspiration. Many writers find their inspiration at night, or in the hours spent wandering along physical and psychological landscapes. Modernists like Eliot were known to use images encountered in real life for poetry. Some used the images without trying to attach deeper meaning to them, attempting capture the moment (the Imagists). Others used the images to paint their psychological landscapes for the reader, exposing the connotative meaning behind the visuals. The fact that the man wandering is guided by light—symbols of illumination—at night, and that the lights talk to him, further reinforces this reading that the poem is about finding inspiration in a dark world.

As the man wanders, he sees a black cat, which is commonly understood as a symbol of bad luck in witchcraft, and which could also be a reference to shape-shifting. (Just think of the cat in Sabrina, the T.V. show, or the shapeshifting professor McGonagal in Harry Potter.) The cat could represent the bad luck associated with a pessimistic view of reality. The wanderer also witnesses a child who reaches “automatic” to take a toy. The word “automatic” implies some form of witchcraft (for example, automatic writing or Voodoo). Some Modernist forms of writing, like stream-of-consciousness writing, are very similar to automatic writing, but the "channel" is thought by such writers to be a connection to the subconscious mind instead of a supernatural entity. The child does not seem to have any control over his picking up the toy; he seems controlled, just as in automatic writing, when words written are channeled by some entity other than the person holding the pen. The child is like a zombie or a demon—soulless and spiritless: “I have seen nothing behind that child’s eye.” This view suits a Modernist writer, who commonly would not believe in the eternal soul. It could also just be reinforcing a clear-headed state while writing.

The man taking the walk also sees a woman standing in a doorway:

The street lamp said, "Regard that woman

Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door

Which opens on her like a grin.

You see the border of her dress

Is torn and stained with sand,

And you see the corner of her eye

Twists like a crooked pin."

This woman is most often read as a prostitute because of the hour she is standing in the doorway, smiling at the stranger—probably offering her services. The torn, stained dress represents she has experienced dirtiness and violence often associated with prostitution. She could represent a cynical view of authorship, where a writer is tempted to "sell out", or cater to the masses to earn a fortune. She could also represent the violence and debase aspects of human nature which found their way into Modernist writing, serving as subject matter and inspiration. Interestingly, many Modernist visual artists did literally use prostitutes for inspiration and subject matter. However, the detail of the woman's eye "twisted like a crooked pin" seems to have a double reference. Not only could it be lines from age and weariness, but it could also be a reference to the Egyptian symbol of the Eye of Ra. The Eye of Ra is thought to be an extension of the sun god Ra, but the female version, and is associated with violence and control. Perhaps the dark aspects of the world are exerting too much influence over the writer's poems and stories.

From the start of the poem, the moon (the moon goddess has been associated with fertility and sexuality in several cultures, including ancient Rome in the version of Diana) exerts control. The streets themselves are “held in a lunar synthesis.” Synthesis implies connection, which is another way of saying all streets lead to the moon. The street lamps “beat like a fatalistic drum,” which invokes ideas about drums used in pagan rituals. Memory is also fading, and “divisions and precisions”—or order—is “dissolving” because someone (the moon?) has spoken an incantation, a chanted spell or curse. Chaos, forgetfulness, and madness are thought to be results of witchcraft curses, even by some who take the religion seriously today. Control is also evidenced in the use of the geranium symbol, a witchcraft symbol tied to ancient Egypt, that is used by modern witches to cast love spells. The madman in the first stanza is under the power of a female, just as the streets are under the power of the moon goddess, just as the man wandering seems to be directed by the light towards the prostitute. Perhaps, these are all symbols that the poet is under the control of his muse as he writes this fragmented poem, full of the images his pen is guided to record.

Further references to witchcraft include the ocean, a pagan symbol of rebirth, and the “skeleton/stiff and white” that the ocean has released. This is an obvious reference to pagan ritual sacrifice to the goddess of fertility. In some cultures (ancient Greek culture for example), ritual death of innocent babies born to temple prostitutes was thought to call down blessings upon adult worshipers, including fertility blessings. Perhaps, the Modernist poet is saying that what has been birthed is something akin to death. The last line of the poem, which suggests suicide before dawn, certainly reinforces this meaning.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518

“Rhapsody on a Windy Night” is a lyric poem in free verse. It is divided into six stanzas that vary in length from nine to twenty-three lines each, with a separate closing line at the end of the poem. In one way, the title seems to reflect the poem’s form, since in music a rhapsody is an irregular, unstructured piece. The poem at first appears to be an uncontrolled jumble of oddly juxtaposed images in lines and stanzas of irregular length, with no consistent rhyme scheme but with scattered rhymes, repetitions, and variations throughout. “Preludes” and Four Quartets (1943) are other poems showing T. S. Eliot’s interest in using musical forms.

From another perspective, the title is ironic, since the label “rhapsody” suggests a mood of enthusiasm or frenzy that the poem does not convey. A situation that could be romantic—a midnight stroll in the lamplight and moonlight—is actually dominated by images of sterility, decay, isolation, and despair. Moreover, the only sign of the wind is found in the two lines stating that the street lamps “sputtered,” although the wind is emphasized in the title and is an important image associated with decay and spiritual emptiness in other poems, such as “Preludes” and “Gerontion.”

“Rhapsody on a Windy Night” is written in the first person, but the reader learns less about the speaker as a distinct personality than he or she does in Eliot’s other early monologues, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” On his nocturnal walk, this speaker does not express his thoughts or emotions directly or effusively, as one would expect in a “rhapsody.” As he passes a succession of street lamps, moving in and out of their pools of light, he seems controlled by their commands to consider the sordid images in the streets and the distorted images thrown up by his memory. In the last stanza, he obeys mechanically as the lamp, illuminating the entrance to his apartment, orders him to return to his daily routine and prepare for bed.

The speaker’s strange nocturnal visions are unified by some fairly consistent patterns, as the first or second line of each stanza (except the third) marks the time from midnight to four in the morning, and each stanza (except the first and third) quotes the lamps that direct his observations. He notices and remembers a woman with a torn and stained dress lingering in a doorway; the moon appearing as a similar aging, diseased woman; a cat licking up butter; eyes peering through shutters; dry geraniums; and stale smells of chestnuts, females in closed rooms, cigarettes, and cocktail bars. Although the memory interjects other images that seem out of place—such as driftwood, a useless rusted spring, a child grabbing a toy on a quay, and an old crab gripping a stick—the images all are united through the dominant characteristic of twisting or distortion. This “crowd of twisted things” culminates in the speaker’s final sensation as he is compelled, at the poem’s end, to return to everyday life—“The last twist of the knife.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

Eliot believed that poetry must be difficult in order to reflect the complexity of modern civilization. He also believed that the poet’s first concern should be his language. He wrote that “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” (The Sacred Wood, 1920). A poem such as “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” therefore, does not explain feelings or thoughts in any general, conventional way. Readers must work to discover the complex patterns of meaning, sound, and structure underlying the stream of bizarre and banal images that make up the poem.

Metaphors and other figures of speech provide one method for connecting disparate images. The first two stanzas contain the most complex figures of speech, as abstract ideas about the nature of memory give way to the concrete objects that dominate the poem. The memory has floors that can be “dissolved” under the influence of midnight and moonlight, preventing it from dividing perceptions logically or precisely. Time and memory become concrete when the midnight spell on the memory is compared to a madman shaking a dead geranium. As rational memory is destroyed and nonrational forces take control, strange combinations of images are shaken from the depths of the memory.

Other similes connect different sensory experiences. Light and sound are combined when each street lamp “Beats like a fatalistic drum,” reinforcing the incantatory rhythm of the poem and anticipating the speaker’s realization of his own entrapment in a futile existence. Then the personification of the street lamps, with their ability to order the speaker to observe what they describe throughout the poem, gives him a detached, impersonal perspective that reflects Eliot’s determination to break away from the lyrical subjectivity of nineteenth century Romanticism. The speaker receives impressions from the objects lighted in the street and his memory responds with free associations, comparing (in stanza 2) an open door to a grin and the corner of an eye to a crooked pin.

The rest of the poem consists of more fragmentary juxtapositions of images, with fewer explicit connections provided by similes, but with other poetic and linguistic devices helping to make connections. Eliot rejected the label vers libre (free verse) when it implied absence of pattern, rhyme, or meter. Although there seems to be something undisciplined or unexpected in the way lines and sentences are developed in this poem (suggesting subconscious or involuntary utterances), there is a complex interplay of syntactic patterns, semantically related words, internal rhymes, intermittent end rhymes, alliteration, and other sound patterns linking the woman in stanza 2, the woman in the moon in stanza 5, the particularly fragmented details of the branch and broken spring in stanza 3, and the glimpses of human and animal actions in stanza 4.

By stanzas 5 and 6, the romantic idea of incantations is replaced by a monotonous effect in these patterns and repetitions. The parallel lists of dry and stale images, the short imperatives, and the rhymes and alliteration that create ironic links in “Cologne” and “alone”; “Mount,” “Memory,” and “key”; and, finally, “life” and “knife” emphasize the limitations of memory and the mundane, isolated lives of individuals.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 134

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999.

Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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