Last Updated 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:
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.
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 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.
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?
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.