Poem: ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ by T.S. Eliot

While it is common knowledge that the enormously popular musical CATS was based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, it’s less common for people to actually go and read the poetry.

Should they do so, however, they’ll find some lovely poems that reflect the poet’s observations of life as well as the delightful poems about cats that Eliot wrote for children.

This poem was the inspiration for the song ‘Memory‘, the most popular song from the musical, which has been a commercial hit for a number of singers.

The poem has a musical quality of its own, evoking images of city streets in the dead of night and the things that occur while the world is asleep. The imagery is somewhat disjointed, with childhood images interspersed in the street scenery- much like a dream sequence that doesn’t always make sense, or perhaps that phase of tiredness when one drifts off into thoughts and memories and then recovers with a start to observe what is around them with keen perception that belies their prior haze. At the end of the poem, the observer returns home and is urged to sleep: the reminder of the need to prepare for the day ahead is ‘the last twist of the knife’, a concept to which any insomniac will readily relate.

Unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber’s song, this poem is more about realism than romance, demonstrating Eliot’s trademark style of poetry in which he tended to dismiss emotion and focus on impersonal observations and descriptions. 

Rhapsody on a Windy Night

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.

Half-past one,
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said, “Regard that woman
Who hesitates towards you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin.”

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.

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.

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.

The lamp said,
“Four o’clock,
Here is the number on the door.
Memory!
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair,
Mount.
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.

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