Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

Elliott's poem is a difficult juxtaposition of images. However, there are several themes that emerge. Here are five:

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Madness

Written while Elliott was living in Paris in 1911, the speaker of the poem wanders the streets alone in the hours between 12 and 4 am. The visions the poet sees, the mad-man shaking a dead geranium, or the hallucinogenic drum beat of the street lamps, suggest that the poet is in a heightened mental state, or is experiencing some form of dementia.

Memory

Much of the middle section of the poem seems to involve various memories that are triggered by things the poet sees on the street. A good example of this is the image of the cat that "Slips out its tongue / And devours a morsel of rancid butter." This motion of the cat's tongue is connected to the parallel motion of the child's hand, which also "slipped out" to pocket a toy, beginning a section in which the poet recalls a visit to the shore.

The City

The poem is, of course, an extended description of Paris at night, and the city is described as if it itself were alive (the street lamps speak throughout the poem, for instance). The people the poet sees see not to live in the city, but be a part of it.

Codes

The poem explicitly challenges the reader to decode its meaning. There is a sense that the specificity of the images in the poem indicates a purpose or meaning that the reader must struggle to grasp. Why, for instance, does Elliott mention geraniums specifically? What is the "key" to the poet's own address that his memory holds?

Dreams

While not strictly recounting a dream, the poem seems to require being read like a dream. To that end, there are certain central signifiers, like the use of the word "twist" that dominate the middle of the poem (the poet's memory brings forth a "crowd of twisted things," included the "twisted branch," the "broken spring," and the twisting images of the cat and the child). The temptation is to want to assign a symbolic meaning to these twists, although the poem resists such interpretations.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Although “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” appears to be organized according to the hours of night, the sequence of impressions in the poem is dictated by psychological connections more than by chronology. The influence of the French philosopher Henri Bergson is evident when the speaker lets his memory synthesize unconsciously and spontaneously (rather than analyze rationally or logically) and when he seems repelled by the idea of blind reflex actions—the kind of automatic and empty motions that unite the cat licking rancid butter, the child with vacant eyes grabbing a toy, the crab gripping a stick, eyes peering through shutters, a woman twisting a paper rose, and his own mechanical preparations for bed.

This creative process of the memory, however, leads to nothing hopeful for the speaker, as the futile action of shaking a dead geranium implies. All the images that are so imaginatively synthesized are twisted or distorted in some way. Some are literally twisted concrete objects—a branch, a broken spring, a torn hem, and a crooked pin—while other objects take on unusual properties or configurations—street lamps beat like drums and speak, sand stains a dress, an eye “twists like a crooked pin,” and a cat “flattens itself in the gutter.” Some involve twisting motions or sensations, including the smells that “cross and cross across her brain.” Still others are distorted by deterioration—the rusted spring has lost its strength, the butter is rancid, and the moon is a woman with infirmities ranging from feeble eyesight and a face cracked with smallpox to a loss of memory. His experience of new kinds of associations with these “twisted things,” along with the vacant eyes, the stale smells, and the confinement of “shuttered rooms,” only makes the speaker more horrified at the sterility and decay of everyday life by the end of the poem.

Many of these images show the influence of the French Symbolist poets of the late nineteenth century, especially Jules Laforgue, from whom Eliot borrowed the geranium and lunar images, the idea expressed in the line of French, and the poem’s cynical attitude. As Gertrude Patterson observed in T. S. Eliot: Poems in the Making (1971), this is one of the early poems that deal with a single emotion rather than multiple, conflicting feelings; Eliot’s attraction to the slums resulted in the expression of “consistent disgust at the life of the city.” “The last twist of the knife” is the speaker’s realization that sleep can only prepare him for an existence more empty and monotonous than the observations and memories he has experienced in the streets.

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