Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Poetry Reads: Rhapsody on a Windy Night by TS Eliot

Rhapsody on a Windy Night by TS Eliot is yet another poem that describes the urban experience which is not romantic. The imagery illustrated in the poem is that of dust, old lingering smells, twisted things, and many such sights. In the first stanza, the narrator seems to me like a person who is an insomniac and his mind is disturbed. He almost wants to drive himself morose and he highlights his loneliness, alienation and eccentricity. He does not describe a midnight stroll down the lane as something dreamy and passionate. To him life is ‘fatalistic’.

TWELVE o'clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions,
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium’.

The narrator’s sense of alienation is very obvious in the following stanza. There is a tone of bitterness, angst, despair and the inability to see the positive aspect of the world and society. His memory means ‘a crowd of twisted things’ and nothing left to positively relish. His mind’s morbidity resonates with the images of a ‘broken spring’, ‘rust’ and ‘hard and curled and ready to snap’.

‘The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
A broken spring in a factory yard,
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap’.

Now it is past midnight. The imagery of the following stanza sketches lives of isolation, defeat and the incorrigible. The descriptions of the cat, the child and the crab are sketches of lives beyond redemption.

Half-past two,
The street lamp said,
"Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter,
Slips out its tongue
And devours a morsel of rancid butter."
So the hand of a child, automatic,
Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay.
I could see nothing behind that child's eye.
I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.

It’s the wee hours of the morning; however what follow are the seedy sights and smells of decadence of the night. The narrator sights a young prostitute who smiles a smile of uncertainty. The imagery of the moon has been juxtaposed to the prostitute. Then another prostitute appears; she is old for whom life has just been a life of repeated squalor, waiting and sleaze.

Half-past three,
The lamp sputtered,
The lamp muttered in the dark.

The lamp hummed:
"Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune,
She winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smoothes the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,
Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smells of dust and old Cologne,
She is alone
With all the old nocturnal smells
That cross and cross across her brain."
The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars."

In the last stanza, the persona prepares for life and walks back into reality.

The lamp said,
"Four o'clock,
Here is the number on the door.
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair,
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life."
The last twist of the knife.


(Review by Kabita Sonowal)

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