The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.