While this poem follows the formal definition of the word “Rhapsody” as one irregular, jumbled piece, it is the opposite of the tonal definition, meaning ecstatic. “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” twists the romantic expectation of poetry to create a despairing view of life in the modern city.
The first stanza sets the poem in a city at midnight. As the speaker walks down a street, he experiences his perceptions and memory coalesce into a magical whole, held together by moonlight. He falls under a spell cast by the time of night, the moon, and the rhythm of light produced by street lamps. Memory is figured as a dead flower, being shaken by a madman—a sad image intimating that there was nothing living there to begin with.
In the second stanza, time continues to move linearly, but with a gap. Paradoxically, time has also slipped into the speaker’s memory, as the tense changes to past. A street lamp comes to life, directing the gaze of the speaker, illuminating and narrating images of the life of the city. It points out a woman whose gaze meets the speaker with ambiguous intentions. In examining the details of her twisted appearance, the streetlamp reveals that her dress is “stained with sand” which sets up the poem for the next stanza.
Prompted by his encounter with the woman, the speaker associates memories of other “twisted things” in the third stanza: a branch on the beach and a broken spring in a factory yard. This stanza is a meditation on memory, which, like the sea, “throws up high and dry” sense impressions, after consuming and breaking them. The speaker’s mental state becomes increasingly tense and unstable.
The street lamp directs the speaker to notice a cat in the gutter, who devours rancid butter, representing the debasement needed to survive in the modern city. Like the cat, a child surreptitiously and automatically follows his or her desire for a toy. The speaker tries to connect with the child, but encounters only emptiness. The poem then moves back to the beach, where the man remembers an experience with a crab who gripped a stick he offered him.
In the fifth stanza, the poem returns to the speaker walking down the street, an hour later. The lamp directs him to regard the moon. The moon is personified as an old, sick woman who has lost her memory and relationships. She represents the connection between the natural world and human nature, which has decayed. The speaker remembers the geraniums, shaken by the madman in the first stanza, and the smells of the sensuous, everyday, debased life in the city. In the final stanza the speaker arrives at home. The lamp continues to direct him on how to conduct his evening routine. In a rhyme of “life” and “knife,” the rhythm of sleeping and living is revealed to be a meaningless, monotonous death.
The word “Rhapsody” in the title is dense with meaning. It comes from an ancient Greek word which refers to a poem suitable for recitation all at one time. So you can imagine Eliot reading this out loud in one rush. It also means a jumble, which describes both the odd collection of images in the poem, and the irregular length of lines and stanzas, and scattered rhymes. A rhapsody is also the name of a musical composition that is one extended movement, with irregular form and an improvisatory character. The reference to a “Windy Night” adds to the feeling of unpredictability. Eliot was fond of naming his poems after musical forms; other examples include “Preludes” and “Four Quartets.” Probably the most familiar meaning of the word rhapsody is an ecstatic expression of feeling, an enthusiastic frenzy. While this poem follows the formal definitions of the word, it is in fact the opposite of ecstatic: it explores themes of isolation, decay, and despair. So the title is ironic–it sets the reader up for a romantic revery and delivers the opposite, using a romantic form to express the decline of the modern age.
The first stanza immediately establishes a time: twelve o’clock. Midnight is the beginning of the “witching hour,” a time of night associated with supernatural events in folklore. The poem explores the mood of the moment for six lines before the speaker appears, walking down the street past street lamps. The street, a metaphor for the world, is “held” together by moonlight, whose magic spells synthesize the speaker’s perceptions and memory into an imprecise, undivided, irrational whole. In a simile, the speaker associates the street lamps with drums beating, which means that they have a rhythm; they are either flickering or simply creating an alternation of light and dark as he passes. The adjective “fatalistic” relates to the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable. The speaker is under a magic spell created by the time of night, the moon, and the rhythm of the lamps, in which he loses his rational mind and his free will. In another simile, he relates what the night is doing to his memory, “shaking” it, disorienting it, to a madman shaking a “dead geranium.” He is describing lunacy, or temporary insanity brought on by changes in the moon. The absurd image of a lunatic shaking a dead flower enacts how far the speaker’s imagination has gone into fanciful associations. In relating his memory to a dead flower, he implies that it had lost its life before it was reconfigured by his imagination. The occasional and random rhymes of incantations/relations, divisions/precisions, drum/geranium add to the disoriented and disorderly magic of the first stanza.
Time continues to move in a linear fashion. It is now an hour and a half later. Curiously, time has also slipped backward from the present into the past tense, becoming a memory related by the speaker in some unknown future. In the story of this stanza, the speaker is still out on the street. His relationship with the world has intensified, as his imagination moves beyond the “as if” of similes, to the realm of personification. The street lamps come to life, make noises, and talk to him, directing his gaze. The logic of this follows the poetic techniques of Imagism, a movement founded by Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound. The street lamp provides light, illuminating the darkness and allowing the speaker to see a series of vignettes. The lamp, both detached and omniscient, narrates what the man sees. The first image it reveals is of a woman. She is likely a prostitute. She moves towards the man, but hesitates: her relationship to him is transactional and somewhat unwilling. The simile comparing the door opening to a “grin” is grotesque and sexual, suggesting an inappropriately garish open mouth. The lamp points out details of the man’s perception of the woman, all with negative connotations. Her dress, meant to be attractive, is “torn and stained with sand.” This sand indicates that the woman has been outside of the city, active enough to tear her dress on the beach. This transports her in a surreal fashion to an entirely different landscape. Her eye “twists like a crooked pin” suggesting that she is not what she appears, and is also sharp, and able to cause pain.
The memory of the woman with the sand-stained dress and twisted mouth in the last four lines of the second stanza causes the speaker to recall memories of other “twisted things” in the third stanza: a branch on the beach and a broken spring. Each of these can be read as metaphors for the woman, or as entirely fanciful associations. His imagination has left the street to linger on the beach and then in a factory yard. The repetition of the word “twisted” suggests that something originally straight—the rational, or the natural—has become. Both the branch and the spring have been weathered by the processes of memory. The implied analogy here is that memory is like the sea, which “throws up high and dry” these sense impressions, but also transforms them. “High and dry” can also mean abandoned in a difficult position. There is a pathos here. The verb “Eaten” sounds predatory, while “polished” sounds like something a collector would do. This branch, which was once living, is now dead, “stiff and white,” consumed and collected by memory. Memory reduces an object to its essence, the “secret of its skeleton.” A “factory yard” is a place which was once productive. Memory has taken something that once worked, broken it, and made it useless and old, covered in rust. The brittleness of the spring “ready to snap” adds a tension to the poem, suggesting that the mental state of the speaker has become unstable.
The fourth stanza brings the poem back to the street, with another progression in time. An hour has elapsed. The speaker continues to narrate in the past tense, the realm of memory, while the personified street lamp speaks in the present tense. The speaker remembers what the street lamp said to him at half-past two in the morning. The street lamp directs him to notice a cat in the gutter. This location represents the debasement of living beings in modern urban life. That the cat “devours...rancid butter” implies that he is starving, and willing to eat something rotten. It symbolizes the struggle for survival in cities. The man then encounters a child, who in synecdoches is represented by his or her hand and eye—emphasizing aspects signifying desire and need, and suggesting a lack of wholeness. The child’s hand, like the cat’s tongue, “slipped out” in a stealthy fashion, desiring the toy the way that the cat desired the butter. The speaker tries to make a human connection with the child, but, looking him or her in the eye, finds only emptiness. This, along with the term “automatic” to describe the child’s hand, suggests that the child is an automaton, a soulless collection of impulses. This signals a hopelessness both in the present and for future generations, represented by the child. Then the speaker reflects upon that memory, associating the “nothing behind that child’s eye” with “eyes in the street/Trying to peer through lighted shutters.” Both are moments of frustrated desire for connection. The second image returns to symbols established early in the poem: the street, lights, and thresholds. The speaker then moves the poem back to the beach of the second and third stanzas to consider an “old crab with barnacles on his back.” This, like the objects in the third stanza, could have been thrown up by the sea of memory. The speaker offered the crab a stick, in hope of connection, and the crab “gripped” it. The word “held” is repeated from the first stanza, when the street is “held in lunar synthesis.” One question to ponder is: Is the grip of the crab an automatic impulse, or a genuine connection between beings? Is this a poignant moment, in contrast to the lack of connection with the child, or a terribly sad one, in that he can connect with an old crab at the beach better than any human he encounters in the city?
Once again, linear time has moved forward by an hour. In an echo of the second stanza, the lamp “sputtered” and “muttered”—a return the incantations of rhythm and rhyme. It also reminds us that the speaker is still walking down the street. Now one light—the man-made, personified street lamp—urges the speaker to regard another: the moon. This also brings the poem back to the motif in the first stanza, and the context for this night of lunacy. The quotation is in French, a nod to the French symbolist poets Eliot admired, and translates to: “The moon bears no grudge.” The moon is personified as an old, weak, sick woman who has “lost her memory.” In losing her memory, she has lost her history, meaning, and identity too, as the romantic symbol of innocence and love. She is kindly, but lost, as she “smiles into corners” and “smooths the hair of the grass.” The craters of the moon are figured as pox marks. The moon here represents the connection between human culture and the natural world, which has decayed. The lines “Her hand twists a paper rose,/That smells of dust and old Cologne,” brings back the word “twist” from stanzas 2 and 3. The paper rose is another hollowing out of a romantic symbol. It’s a fake rose, being twisted as the poem twists old tropes. It smells old and dead. This appears to be the vestiges of a romance that has passed, something that the moon holds onto after she has lost her memory of it. The fact that Cologne is capitalized makes it refer not only to an odor (i.e., an eau de cologne, a perfume), but to the city in Germany, which may be a historical reference. The image of the moon reminds the speaker of the geraniums, shook by the madman in the first stanza. He then remembers a series of ordinary visceral smells of the city: food, sex, nicotine, and alcohol, which also represent debasement.
In this final stanza the speaker arrives at home, finally, at 4 AM. The street lamp continues to speak to him, up until he reaches his front door, and then directs him to the next lamp on the stair, and finally tells him exactly how to conduct his evening routine. He has no will. There is a subtle, frustrated sexual connotation in the direction to “Mount” and the statement that the “bed is open.” He has escaped the sordid images that the lamps have illuminated for him on his walk, but he is far from the hope of “lunar synthesis” at the beginning of the poem. His nocturnal encounters have revealed that the moon has lost her memory, there is no connection to the transcendent to be found anymore, and the city at night is filled with mere vice. The only alternative to this disappointed search for meaning is the monotonous day to day routine of preparing for “life.” He goes to sleep, the “last twist of the knife,” which ironically rhymes with life, but means the opposite: it’s a painful death. This phrase repeats the word “twist” once again to change the meaning of sleep from the common trope of a respite into a malevolent murderer.