Rhapsody on a Windy Night

Rhapsody on a Windy Night Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Time and Light (motifs)

Clock time is marked at the beginning of each stanza, and relates to the unnatural urban light of the street lamps. At the same time, there is a competing eternal time realm represented by beginning the poem at midnight, the witching hour. This invokes a contrasting motif of natural time and light, which is made explicit later in the image of the moon—a source of light that is natural, and yet opposed to true light of day.

The street (motif)

The street represents the world of the city: the built environment, a place where people are always rushing to get somewhere else. This is a common motif in Eliot’s poetry. See the poem "Preludes," for example.

The Moon (Allegory)

At the beginning of the poem, the moon is described in such a way that it seems to holds together the world, performing a "lunar synthesis" that transforms the speaker’s perceptions and memory into an imprecise, undivided, irrational whole. In a quotation from French, we learn that “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. 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 speaker’s nocturnal encounters have revealed that as 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.

Threshold (motif)

Thresholds—including doors, shutters, facades—represent the frustrated desire for human connection. In the stanza where the speaker encounters the woman, the simile comparing the door opening to a “grin” is grotesque and sexual, suggesting an inappropriately garish open mouth. When he encounters the child, the speaker associates the “nothing behind that child’s eye” with “eyes in the street/Trying to peer through lighted shutters.” In the end, the speaker reaches his own front door—the last step in a monotonous lonely routine.

dead geranium (symbol)

The dead geranium symbolizes memory, which has already died, but is shaken in an absurd, futile gesture by a madman—an attempt to bring it back to life, perhaps. The speaker's memory is thus trying to revive a sense of wholeness or connection through his memories, but realizes that this effort is absurd.

paper rose (symbol)

The paper rose is a flimsy stand-in for a romantic symbol of love, "twisted" as the poem twists old tropes.

The gutter (symbol)

The gutter represents the degradation of modern city life. The gutter is also referenced in Eliot’s poem "Preludes," where instead of a cat, there are sparrows in the gutter.

Branch (symbol)

Usually, a branch is a symbol of life. But this branch, which was once living, is now dead, “stiff and white”: consumed and collected by memory.

Spring (symbol)

A symbol of something which was once useful. Memory has taken something that 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 destabilized.