T.S. Eliot is regarded as an extremely important modernist writer. He inaugurated a range of narrative and stylistic techniques which exercised a considerable influence over modernism in literature. This article explores the poem ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, from Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, concentrating primarily on the concept of time and how it figures in the poem.
Time is undeniably associated with notions of present and past, and it plays a significant role in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, hereafter in this article referred to as ‘Rhapsody’. The modernist interest in time could be argued to be partially determined by earlier scientific discoveries. The concept of time itself had been in the throes of change since the sixteenth century. However the plethora of scientific explorations and discoveries in the nineteenth century seemed to herald a new age in science. While Eliot was engaged in writing the Prufrock poems, advances in theoretical physics, such as Einstein’s formulation of the Special Theory of Relativity, were transforming the understanding of time as a physical measure. However, in regards to Eliot’s own interests in time, it was the French philosopher Henri Bergson who exerted the most immediate influence.
While he was still residing in America, a young Eliot made extensive visits to Europe where he attended lectures given by Bergson. The philosopher’s theories on time and his attempts at defining the nature of past, present, and future manifest themselves in several of the Prufrock poems, especially ‘Rhapsody’, which is usually regarded as reworking some of Bergson’s ideas; therefore an understanding of them is useful when evaluating Eliot’s own attitudes to the present. Most of Bergson is extremely difficult to comprehend so it is beneficial to attempt a summary of his ideas before analysing how they are represented in Eliot’s poetry. In his Creative Evolution (1907) and Matter and Memory (1896) – two works Eliot was familiar with while composing the Prufrock poems – Bergson set out to define the nature of time and consciousness as experienced by human beings. He arrived at an idea he called ‘le duree’, meaning ‘duration’, a metaphysical construct which considers evolution and consciousness to be underlain by a constant flow of moments that cannot be measured by clock time. In Creative Evolution, Bergson proposed the notion that an individual’s natural state is change, asserting that all feelings and ideas are undergoing constant change.
Bergson thought that an individual’s memory forms a large part of this process, with past memories constantly resurfacing in a person’s consciousness. It is this perpetual resurfacing of the past that plays a central role in ‘Rhapsody’, where, while wandering around a desolate environment, the protagonist experiences a variety of seemingly fragmented memories. In Matter and Memory Bergson endeavoured to evaluate the nature of consciousness and its inextricable association with time. This was accomplished by attempting to define the relationship between past, present and future. Bergson considered the true essence of time is its transitory nature. This presents a problem in identifying the exact point that could be considered ‘the present’. Bergson concedes that what we identify as the present is formed by sensations deriving from the past and actions directed towards the future, and it is this inherent duality that informs much of the content of ‘Rhapsody’.
The poem is located in an urban environment, a setting characteristic of much modernist poetry. As with the other Prufrock poems, a defining feature of ‘Rhapsody’ is Eliot’s perfection of a highly original and distinctly modern poetic voice. It is important to acknowledge that this poet persona is not intended to represent T.S. Eliot himself, but is instead a fictional construction that brings together the formal and thematic qualities of the poem. This particular poetic consciousness belongs to an alienated individual who recounts their experiences while wandering around a desolate city after midnight. The use of the word ‘rhapsody’ in the poem’s title is somewhat ironic, in that we normally associate this word with ‘enthusiasm’ or ‘extravagance’; the observations and recollections that the poet persona experiences appear more to do with degradation and futility, and the prevailing tone is generally bleak and depressing.
The poet persona in ‘Rhapsody’ is typified by a lack of control, predominantly illustrated by the seeming random appearance of memories. This pervasive sense of involuntariness acts in part as a poetic expression of Bergson’s theories. Bergson’s notion of the body acting as a conduit for a range of sensations deriving from a person’s past experience is evinced in the lines ‘The memory throws up high and dry / A crowd of twisted things’. In choosing to say ‘the memory’ instead of ‘my memory’, adds to the divided quality of the protagonist, as if he were composed of separated parts rather than being whole.
The reader gathers that the protagonist of ‘Rhapsody’ has little to no control over this incessant flow of resurfacing memories. Eliot illustrates this unpredictably of memory in several lines but perhaps most notably in the bizarre image of ‘a madman shakes a dead geranium’. The geraniums become a symbol for the involuntariness of the poet persona’s memory in the later lines ‘The reminiscence comes / Of sunless dry geraniums’.
The street lamps the poet persona encounters play a key role in the poem. They are personified – a device that contributes to the protagonist’s fragmented and dissociated nature – in the second stanza, with the lines ‘The street-lamp sputtered / The street-lamp muttered / The street-lamp said’. Eliot accomplishes this disjointed effect by having the poet persona’s perceptions depicted as observations from the street-lamps. For example, in the second stanza the protagonist is instructed by the street lamp to observe a woman, while in the fourth and fifth stanzas they are directed to look at a cat, and then the moon, respectively. These urban sightings are deliberately seedy and depressing: the woman is clearly a prostitute; the cat is described as slipping out its tongue to devour ‘a morsel of rancid butter’ – an act the reader assumes to be a subtle reflection on the protagonist’s own futile existence; while the moon is delineated in the most unflattering, anti-romantic hue: ‘A washed-out smallpox cracks her face’. These images and those from the protagonist’s memory are juxtaposed with the inexorable march of clock time, illustrated by the stark fact that most of the stanzas begin by informing the reader of the actual time.
The concept of time plays an important role in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’. As this article has illustrated, the notion of the present is multifaceted, when Eliot’s interpretation of the theories of Henri Bergson is taken into account.