24 October, 2009

Donald Childs on T.S. Eliot's "Rhapsody on a Windy Night"

Prefacing his article with an argument for “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”'s temporal antecedence to Eliot's rejection of Bergsonism, Childs performs a cogent close reading of “Rhapsody” in terms of Bergson's thought. The moon and the street lamp—the two light sources of the poem—both prompt the speaker to meditation, affecting his memory, but the influence of the former is importantly opposed to that of the latter. The lamp illuminates certain objects with a clear but circumscribed light, and its effect is to stir up what Bergson calls the practical memory (479)— memory limited and defined by the intellect's association of the past with a specific object of present experience. The moon, however, dissolves the street lamp's string of associations and as the lamp dies down the night's images are understood in terms of a medley of disparate experiences: this is the influence of Bergson's "pure memory" (479), memory understood in terms of its entire indeterminate content. The end of the poem Childs reads as a painful return of the practical intellect after a near-mystical approach to apprehension of the whole, an apprehension which, he notes, will be the consistent object of Eliot's quest for the ideal.

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