In the beginning of the poem, the speaker says that “Every street lamp that I pass/Beats like a fatalistic drum.” This theme of fate, of lack of will, continues as the man’s gaze is directed by the artificial light of the street lamps. He sees a series of other beings who are also deprived of their soul in the context of the urban environment: the woman, cat, and child. At the end of the poem, the street light tells him how to go about his routine to go to sleep and “prepare for life”—which turns out to be a death. The fatalistic light of the street lamps is contrasted with the lunar light of the moon. The latter, personified as a woman, holds out the promise of transcendence, but has grown feeble and lost her memory and connection with human culture.
In the first stanza, the speaker compares what the night is doing to his memory to a madman shaking a “dead geranium.” This means that his memory, like the dead geranium, had already lost its life before it was reconfigured ("shaken") by his imagination. The poem plays with our understanding of what memory is by changing from the present to the past tense between stanzas 1 and 2. The memory of the woman with the sand-stained dress and twisted mouth in the last four lines of stanza 2 causes the speaker to associate memories of other “twisted things” in stanza 3. 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.” Memory has taken something that once worked, broken it, and made it useless and old, covered in rust. 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.
The memory of the woman with the twisted mouth in the last four lines of stanza 2 causes the speaker to recall memories of other “twisted things” in stanza 3: 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. The speaker's imagination has left the street to linger on the beach and then in a factory yard. The repetition of the word “twisted” suggests an origin in something straight—the rational, or the natural—that has been distorted. Both the branch and the spring have been weathered by the processes of memory. 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 hollowed-out romantic symbol. It’s a fake rose, being twisted as the poem twists old tropes. 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.
Rhapsody on a Windy Night Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Rhapsody on a Windy Night is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.