T.S's Eliot's Rhapsody on a Windy Night and its Expression of the Expressionless
Isolation and degradation. Both are themes employed widely by poet T.S. Eliot throughout his works with 1922's Waste Land (published coincidentally with another magnum opus of Modernist expressionism: James Joyce's Ulysses) being the quintessential expression of mankind's dystopian, uncommunicative and ultimately quarantined future. Rhapsody on a Windy Night is the five-year-preceding spawn-child of that humanity, less grand yet certainly as potent. It is mankind represented, with a lack of rhyme or rhythm, at the peak of its isolation; degraded and self-incapacitated but with one prevailing motif expressing the world that was lost. That motif, or rather character (so elegantly depicted in that Eliot-derived musical Cats) is Memory. Like Eliot's characters that arrive and stay just long enough to deliver their brilliant images of lack and deterioration, Memory flashes in and out of the reader's consciousness like it does the walker's to remind the reader, with as blunt and disgusting diction as possible, that the world the reader is seeing is also the world that has passed into memory. There is, disturbingly, a very small distinction between the past and present. Eliot's world, as expressed by character and image, is thereby a world that does not contrast with the what was with the what is, but rather compares the what was always with the what always will be.
The use of character in Rhapsody is Eliot's strongest asset, surpassing even the stunning imagery. This is somewhat ironic when one considers that the actions the characters partake of are passive and weak, almost disembodied, and desperately lacking vitality: the woman of stanza two "hestit[ing] toward you in the light of the door" (17) but never actually moving; the action itself being undertaken instead by the eye that "twists like a crooked pin" (22) in contemptuous regard of the aimless walker and his attempt at interaction. Here there is no invocation of Memory, so the reader can assume that, with no contrast between the past and the present, degradation is going unrepresented and is supplanted rather by the themes of isolation and the inability of communication. Inability is enfleshed through character: through the woman who hesitates forward in the opened light of the cracked door: through the walker who cannot so much as bring himself to hesitate. It is of interest also to note the woman's dress "torn and stained with sand" (20) almost as if she herself has suffered the barren desert of the Waste Land and has emerged dehumanized and stripped of life. These characters are sustained under separate personages as Rhapsody progresses, however there are alterations in their characters, as exampled by the child of stanza four where there is action: "slipping" and "pocketing" (39) that is nevertheless automatic, almost reflexive; an innate survival instinct more than a conscious expression. The exemplification rests in the subsequent line: "I could see nothing behind that child's eye." The symbolism here is quite obvious if one takes into account the Biblical notion that eyes are considered the windows to the soul, and Eliot's child is thereby rendered a monstrosity, a zombie, a soulless demon. What is, however, of more interest it the use of contrast between the child and the street in the following claim that the walker has seen "eyes in the street" (41); the suggestion being that the street is imbued with more vigor and humanity than the human; a terrible ideal in itself, one made even worse if the child is read as a symbol of man's future. However, Eliot cuts short the interaction with the child to promote a different, yet possibly more disturbing exchange; that between the crab and the walker. "An old crab with barnacles on his back," writes Eliot "gripped the end of the stick which I held him" (44-45). This statement itself is anticlimactic, and yet in comparison to the rest of the interactions between Eliot's characters, it is unbelievably momentous because it is the only physicality shown between characters throughout the poem, moreover, it is the physicality between a shriveled and dilapidated creature and the man separated by a stick's length. The crab, contrasting the child, is a representation of the extreme past, one that could only prelude Memory as referenced by the crab's depiction of "barnacles on his back," (presumably from long years of aging and neglect), and the interaction that is capable of as the woman and child are not. In sad observation, the Moon hovers mournfully "smil[ing] into corners" (53), a compassionate and understanding embodiment of that whispered phrase: "La Lune ne garde aucune rancune" (51)1. She is Eliot's tragic heroine; a nocturnal maternal overseer of humanity personified, ungiven to the popular self-isolation of all other of Rhapsody's characters, and instead tragically affixed in isolation away from what one might call the cruelty of the world. This is the humanity that readers have been searching for in desperation, and yet it is a hopeless infinity away. Here is the reoccurrence, too, of Memory with the negativity of its character momentarily transposed as bespoken in the famous line: "the moon has lost her memory" (55), an appropriate surmise when considering that from the moon's standpoint, there is not contrast between past and present, therefore, there is no lost memory because there never was a memory. What there is is a reminiscence, one of "sunless dry geraniums/ dust in crevices/ chestnuts in the streets/ female smells/ cigarettes/ cocktail smells" (63-68); all of them presumably frowsty smells wafting up to tell the moon that what was is in fact, what still is, with even a reoccurrence of the same dead geranium shaken by the madman of line twelve.
Contrast and character aside, Eliot's gross and sordid and blunt imagery is notable in establishing not only mood and tone of his world, but also in enlivening the characters. Rhapsody's intermittent phantom, Memory, is an acute example; a symbol of the causeless past "shak[en] [by Midnight] as a madman shakes a dead geranium" (12). There is a frenzy to be found in Eliot's diction; frenzy, desperation, fury and confusion all directed towards the deceased plant with no more life to yield. So does Memory become the dead plant yielding its nonexistent vitality to an infuriated and irrational midnight; the lifespan of Eliot's causeless world giving nothing despite all attempts from a distraught humanity. For more of Memory's 'nonexistent vitality' the reader can trace the world characterized by Memory to stanza three where it appears as worn-away vomit "thrown up high and dry...eaten smooth and polished" (23-26); a disgustingly wretched yet pertinent image of just how dilapidated the world is. What appears equally wretched and repulsive is the image of the cat in stanza four which "flattens itself in the gutter/ Slips out its tongue/ And devours a morsel of rancid butter" (35-37). Certainly a far cry from 1939's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, the cat must be viewed as a creature outrageously fat, supine in its disgusting girth, vulturously picking out the rotted scraps from the decayed city. This is moral decay of the comically ironic sort: the bane of rodents now an infestation itself. Eliot does not, perhaps, intend for the image to be anything more than a scene invoking the rooting through of rubbish, and even this base interpretation conjures a feeling of a sickening and perverse decadence. What strikes with most emphasis however, is Eliot's imagery in regard to the Moon; the ageless matriarchal and tragic heroine with "a washed-out smallpox crack[ing] her face...twist[ing] a paper rose/ that smells of dust and eau de Cologne" (56-58). It is this image more so than her physical lonesomeness that is the true tragedy of the Moon character; horribly disfigured she is isolated in her scarring yet still cannot help but tenderly "wink a feeble eye" (52), a product of her compassion, as she melancholily fingers a facsimile rose that still smells of life. One cannot help but contrast this image with the the madman's dead geranium, and the smell of eau de Cologne with the "old nocturnal smells" (60) that the Moon reminiscences upon: "female smells" (66), "cigarettes" (67), et cetera. In the end, it is the Moon's isolation more than that of any of the other characters that Eliot chooses to accentuate, and it is the image of the smallpox and the thought-about smells rather than that of physical separation to which he diverts his focus. And a pair of contrasts thusly awaits the reader: the Moon versus the peripatetic perceiver and the rest of society; naturally-bestowed isolation versus self-imposed isolation; the tragedy of reminiscing death versus a lack of memory.
Eliot's Rhapsody on a Windy Night is a work of profound tragedy, suffering, and dilapidation. It is perhaps for this reason that Andrew Lloyd Weber chose it as a template for his mournful solo Memory which laments on the cruelty of aging, and the comparison between what was and what now is. However, there is no lamentable narrator or even a profound contrast between the past and the present in Eliot's poem. Society is bleak, dispassionately regarded, filled with soulless, lifeless characters who impose their own exile through their inabilities of communication under the scrutiny of the phantom of Memory who overhangs ominously like a ghastly shadow, or like the unseen censor of Edgar Allen Poe's Raven that drives to insanity. However, the Moon character is the singular exception, a martyr of spirit, washed in disease and clinging desperately to an image of life. Yet as dispassionately as the world is viewed, the reader feels disgust, pity, remorse, and hatred all through what Eliot creates through his sickeningly bleak, albeit beautiful, images. Certainly atmosphere and tone are wonderfully maintained, yet the imagery solidifies Eliot's characters and allows them to more easily adhere to the society that he has created. Rhapsody on a Windy Night is a poem that defines itself through its contrast: past and present; forgetfulness and memory; disgust and pity. It thereby comes as no surprise then that Rhapsody is beautiful as well as sickening; remorseless and remorseful; an exclamation of utter hopelessness and one of tenacious hope. Readers might emerge in depression, confronted by the ideas that life is characterized by "the last twist of the knife" (78), yet this is untrue. Eliot depicts life as what one makes it. Extreme exile must be chosen because when superimposed one may still maintain hope, as portrayed by the Moon and the woman or the walker. Like the Waste Land's theme of water, hope is something that will not be given, and yet it is promised. Eliot merely asks his reader to find that hope. The contrary is a washed-out society where like the cat in the gutter, humanity scratches the surface of the stones for any morsel of hope worth devouring.
1 "The moon holds no grudges whatsoever."