Rhapsody on a Windy Night

by T. S. Eliot

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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.

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...

(This entire section contains 1180 words.)

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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.