Method and Meaning in the Poetry of T.S. Eliot


Take, for example, this section from Rhapsody on a Windy Night :

Half-past one,
The street-lamp sputtered,
The street-lamp muttered,
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.'

(Eliot, Collected)

In just the first three lines, he achieves effects surpassing the attempts of
the authors of epics. First, an image. A flickering street lamp at half past
one. This carries with it a suitcase full of associations: the uncertain
exhaustion of the hours after midnight, the emptiness of a sleeping city, the
eerieness of a solitary and sporadic light before dawn. On top of that, he
creates a hypnotic rhythm, reinforced by the repetition of the noun, the
rhyming verbs, the recurring "t" sound.
What the street lamp "mutters" is another sharp scene. A woman "hesitates
toward you." Here is Eliot making English answer his will. "Hesitates" is an
intransitive verb, an unusual and suggestive one. The idea of a person being
hesitated at makes perfect intuitive sense, though, dissected semantically, it
makes none at all. And then the door "opens on her like a grin", a
juxtaposition so strange that it can't quite be translated, and so evocative
that it causes goosebumps, nonetheless. The woman's dress is "stained with
sand" which is not a fluid, and her eye is "twisted like a crooked pin". Both
of these would be hard to interpret on a literal level, but by relaxing to the
impressions of grime, of crookedness and sharpness, the reader feels the
intended alien shudder.

This is a remarkable achievement for a few lines of what is considered a minor
piece, but it is not the only trick Eliot has up his sleeve.