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The Unity of Postmodern and Ancient Ideas in T.S. Eliot’s “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”

Yuxi Lin

I am currently a prospective English and Economics major. I love literature, especially the works of T. S. Eliot. They have endurance–every reading rewards me with a different experience or a new discovery. Yuxi’s work was produced in Professor Suzanne Churchill’s English 220: Literary Analysis course.

“Eliot and his contemporaries recognized the performativity of gender as a source of ontological stability of the self long before it became a touchstone of post-structuralist theorizing,” writes Cyrena Pondrom in “T.S. Eliot” The Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land.”1 By analyzing the language of The Waste Land, Pondrom shows that Eliot anticipates the idea of gender performativity, which theorizes that gender is defined by social constructs and perceived gender expectations.2 Another of Eliot’s poems, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” employs gender performativity as well. The poem suggests that the male narrator is weak, for he cannot suppress painful memories about women. Yet, Eliot allows the narrator to subvert his failed masculinity into a sign of constancy by juxtaposing himself against the female moon, a classic symbol of inconstancy and fickleness. A close analysis of “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” shows that Eliot draws on both past and modern literary concepts, for he not only anticipates the postmodern idea of gender performativity, but also alludes to the classic archetype of female inconstancy.

By relying on the preconceived behaviors of men and women, Eliot implies the gender of the narrator of the poem. Although the poem never explicitly reveals his gender directly, the narrator is presumably male because most women (besides prostitutes) do not wander the streets alone at night. Moreover, the phrase “the tooth-brush hangs on the wall” in the second to the last stanza indicates that the narrator lives alone, which would be rare for women in Eliot’s time.3 Pondrom points out a similar gender in The Waste Land, “not once does Eliot use the masculine pronoun to refer to the narrator. . .This narrative produces what it presupposes; we presume the narrator in the poem is male because he ‘acts’ male. Thus, with the collaboration of the reader, the narrator performs a failed masculinity.”4

The narrator of “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” too, performs a failed act of masculinity. Although according to Victorian social expectations, men are rational creatures of the mind, the narrator of the poem holds no control over the tide of memories that assault him after midnight. In her essay, Pondrom argues that the male character in the first part of The Waste Land fails to fulfill “the expectation of masculine dominance in literal physical and erotic connection.”5 Correspondingly, the narrator of “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” feels emasculated by his inability to forget. In the third stanza, the imageries of a branch and a broken spring imply his impotence, reinforced by the repetition of the adjective “twisted.

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.

Both the twisted, skeletal branch and the broken, rusty spring are phallic symbols that depict the narrator’s impotence. They convey the ease with which they can be broken as well as a sense of brittleness, as if they are “ready to snap.”6 His masculinity has been “eaten smooth” and left abandoned, like a branch tossed upon the shore, or a useless spring in a desolate factory yard. Meanwhile, the source of his vulnerability can be found in the preceding stanza.

In the second stanza of the poem, the narrator encounters a woman, presumably a prostitute, who unleashes the memories he tries to repress:

The street-lamp said, “Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward 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 word “twist” in the last line reappears in the next stanza in the form of the twisted branch and the broken spring, which connect the image of the woman with the narrator’s impotence. With the guise of the street-lamp as the speaker, the narrator projects his disapproval of the woman through an inanimate source. Her Flaneur2-150x150 The Unity of Postmodern and Ancient Ideas in T.S. Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"torn, stained dress implies physical impurity, and the diction of “twisted like a crooked pin” suggests a certain danger and malice in her. The pin metaphorically stabs the narrator, causing him pain by awakening torturous memories. The woman reminds him of his emasculated status. In turn, the narrator regards women with resentment. The two major female figures in the poem are the prostitute and the moon. He uses both to emphasize the fickleness of female love, for the prostitute is promiscuous, and the moon is the archetype of inconstancy.

The narrator attributes his weakness to the virtue of constancy by juxtaposing himself to the moon. In contrast to the tormented narrator, the moon is untroubled. The line “La lune ne garde aucune rancune,” means that the moon does not hold any resentment.7 Indeed, she seems playful and coy:

She winks a feeble eye,                                                                                                        She smiles into corners,                                                                                                     She smoothes the hair of the grass.

Like the prostitute from an earlier stanza, the female moon invites the attention of the narrator. She can be carefree because, as Eliot reveals, “[T]he moon has lost her memory.”8 Yet, the narrator condemns her, for she seems shallow and frivilous, and her forgetfulness is a sign of unfaithfulness. The narrator describes the moon further:

Her hand twists a paper rose,                                                                                             That smells of dust and eau de Cologne,                                                                            She is alone                                                                                                                            With all the old nocturnal smells                                                                                         That cross and cross across her brain.

Although “[s]he is alone” with only a paper rose from long ago that now “smells of dust,” the moon does not seem too troubled by her solitary state.9 Her gesture of twisting a paper rose suggests nonchalance, unlike the narrator’s anxious pacing of  the streets until early morning. The diction of “twists” in relation to the dispassionate moon, moreover, juxtaposes with its use in the previous stanzas to emphasize the narrator’s torment. That single word unites the latter part of the poem with the previous stanzas, contrasting the thoughts of the character against that of the moon, which seem trivial in comparison. She perceives only “the old nocturnal smells,” whereas the narrator experiences much more than mere sensations.10 She only has smells that “cross and cross across her brain,” and the repetition of “cross” illustrates the boredom and slowness of such a brain.

With the symbol of the moon, Eliot alludes to literary works before his time. Its wax and wane is famously equated to inconstancy in Shakespeare’s plays. In Romeo and Juliet, for instance, Romeo wants to swear his love to Juliet by the moon, but she stops him and says, “O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,/That monthly changes in her circle orb,/Lest that they love prove likewise variable”11 The moon as an emblem of change reappears in Measure for Measure. In the scene in which the disguised Duke Vincentio visits Claudio in prison, the Duke tells him that death would unburden him of unhappiness and says, “Thou art not certain,/For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,/After the Moone”12 Duke Vincentio compares Claudio’s uncertain expressions with the moon’s various phases, relying on the audience’s knowledge of the moon’s changeability. Another important character of the moon is the close association with the feminine. According to Dianne Sadoff, the phases of the moon represent the monthly fertility cycle of women in classical mythology. She writes: “The goddess of love, Aphrodite, represents the bright moon, while Hectate, goddess of sorcery and witchcraft, represents the dark moon. . .By extension from the phases and their relation to the menstrual cycle, man associates the moon with fickleness, lunacy, and inspiration.13 The symbol of the moon as a representation of instability, especially in relation to women, had been established long before Eliot’s time. He hearkens back to it in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” using it to reinforce the narrator’s disdain and sense of superiority toward women for their fickleness.

Not only did Eliot apply the modern concept of gender performativity, as Pondrom suggests, he also alludes to the classic archetype of female inconstancy. Pondrom writes, “The Waste Land is about the failure to achieve union. . .and the fragmentation is its ultimate condition.”14 Likewise, the narrator of “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” fails to forge an emotional connection with anyone he encounters. Despite the fragmentation of the character in the poem, the poem itself unites the diverse literary concepts from different time periods. By combining ideas from the past and present, Eliot creates the poetic unity that he praises in “The Metaphysical Poets,” a unity in which seemingly distinct ideas and experiences “are always forming new wholes.”15

Bibliography

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. ed. Jeremy Hylton. Cambridge: MIT Press. http://shakespeare.mit.edu. (accessed April 12, 2010).

Pondrom, Cyrena N. “T. S. Eliot: The Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land.” Modernism/Modernity. 12, no. 3 (2005): 425-441.

Sadoff, Dianne. “Mythopoeia, the Moon, and Contemporary Women’s Poetry.” The Massachusetts Review. 19, no. 1 (1978): 93-110.

 

  1. Cyrena Pondrom, “T.S. Eliot: The Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land,” Modernism/Modernity 12, no. 3 (2005): 425. []
  2. Pondrom, “T.S. Eliot,” 425. []
  3. Eliot, The Waste Land, New York: Modern Library, 2002: 16. []
  4. Pondrom, “T. S. Eliot,” 429. []
  5. Pondrom, “T. S. Eliot,” 428. []
  6. Eliot, The Waste Land, 14. []
  7. Eliot, The Waste Land, 15. []
  8. Eliot, The Waste Land, 15. []
  9. Eliot, The Waste Land, 15. []
  10. Eliot, The Waste Land, 15. []
  11. II.ii.109-11. []
  12. III.i. 23-25. []
  13. Dianne Sadoff, “Mythopoeia, the Moon, and Contemporary Women’s Poetry,” The Massachusetts Review, 19, no. 1 (1978): 97. []
  14. Pondrom, “T. S. Eliot,” 427. []
  15. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 231. []
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