The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
I have been struggling with a couple of T.S.Eliot’s poems over the recent months, and this poem came to mind after reading Leon’s post last week, as it builds upon the sense of solitude conveyed in Muriel Spark’s “Standing in the field”.
This poem is a series of little portraits or scenes, if you will, of the speaker’s observations at different moments of the day (during the 1910s). The first section depicts a rainy, windswept evening that seems to have that dreary feel of the day’s end, especially with the imagery of strewn newspapers as leftover, unwanted rubbish. The monotonous rain beating down works together with the rhymes ‘passageways – days’, ‘wraps – scraps’ ‘lots –pots’, ‘stamps – lamps’ where the repetitive ‘s’ endings adds a sense of dullness and weariness.
The second section carries with it some of the ‘mood’ of the first. Instead of celebrating a beautiful morning as a start of new day, the morning opens up to the remains of yesterday. “Of faint, stale, smell of beer”. The stresses in this line lend a heaviness to the day’s beginning, just as use of synecdoche in “muddy feet” suggest a kind of unwilling trudging off to work (hence, needing coffee). The raising of shades then is not look forward to, but something done almost mechanically, as if the morning were a promise of not something wonderful, but the start of the day’s burden.
Tossing and turning in bed from the dark early hours of the morning to sunrise, the speaker in the third section looks out the window, litted dimly by the street lamps. What he sees are “sordid images” of the places and things his life is ‘constituted’ by during the day. In this respect, this section is perhaps a kind of extension of the earlier section (II) about the start of the day, except that it is directly more personal here. The ‘you’ that the speaker addresses is not the reader, rather it is his very own self, as he sits in a huddled figure, pensively letting his thoughts wonder/wander.
The forth section turns to the period between late afternoon to evening, when the sun’s rays is “stretched tightly across the skies” and gradually grows dimmer, leaving “[t]he conscience of a blackened street”. At this close of the day (as well as the poem), the speaker is probably left by himself, and he is captured by a sense of the tedium/ tediousness of life, of the day’s beginning and end that seem to signify little – life that is a prelude (irony of the title) only to emptiness. The deeply melancholic and yet profoundly moving phrase “infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing”, though a fancy of the speaker, seems to express a belief and desire for something more meaningful than the alienation and futility that he feels. But, the speaker then sharply turns away from this thought and gives a bitter, cynical laugh, declaring that life and the world around him is nothing more than like old women gathering broken pieces of driftwood for fire.
What strikes you about speaker of this poem?
What is suggested by the final image of the old women collecting firewood?
If the final two stanzas were not part of this poem, would you have read it differently? (less melancholic, perhaps?)