The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
The specificity of “Six o’clock” seems at odds with the opening line’s time frame of a “winter evening”, and it is at odds with the poetic register that has been established. But this register, this poetic language and style, is also challenged by the imagery in the second line, which is squalid and mean rather than being in any way poetic. That the third line is so short and with a blunt end-stop, also ruins the rhythm the poem has so far managed to establish, but setting up the following line to do something particular, but all it does is lapse back into the same rhythm and poetic diction: it is an elaborate image, poetic though somber, clearly establishing the rather bleak atmosphere of the poem, and the resigned tone of the poetic voice. This is Eliot’s portrait of modern city life: desultory, fragmented, and disconnected, where there is no overall meaning binding things together, not the different aspects of the scene, and not binding the poem’s voice to the things it half-heartedly describes.
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.
Desultory is a really fitting word for this poem: it lacks purpose and enthusiasm, going from one subject to another in a half-hearted way, much as Eliot thought of modern life: a series of random events bound together by no meaningful thread. This is Eliot’s poetic style and tone reflecting theme. The images are randomly put down one after another, introduced in a conversational way “And now…” or set down as bland declaratives “The showers beat / on broken blinds and chimney-pots”, with little or no connection with the image that precedes or succeeds it. The “and” which starts off one line makes the reader realize the lack of continuity, because it seems to cling onto nothing that went before it, not developing a point or image, but simply tagged on for no apparent reason.
But it is the introduction, in the midst of all these images, of the second person pronoun in “about your feet” which will strike the reader as odd, because the person isn’t placed at all by Eliot, and seems just dropped into the scene unannounced, reinforcing the desultory manner in which the poem proceeds. This makes the poem disorientating for the reader, much as life, viewed by Eliot is disorientating, without a guiding light, informing principle, or evident direction. The “And then” which seems to connect the final line of this section with what goes before it again reinforces its very disconnectedness, as well as setting us up for something to actually happen, and all the reader is given is “the lighting of the lamps”, which is neither here nor there, certainly of little import, though it might appear, on the surface to have: is something being illuminated? No, because immediately the scene changes in the next stanza, the next morning, so the illumination is to no effect whatsoever.
Of course, we could consider the fragments we are given as well as the manner in which we are given them – that is the structure of the poem, which amounts to little more than the random juxtaposition of images – “vacant lots”, “grimy scraps”, “broken blinds”, “lonely cab horses” – what does it all add up to? A pretty bleak vision of modern city life.
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.
The opening line is more than faintly disturbing; it is perhaps the insinuation of a weak measure of personification that renders the line so. But the image brings to mind nothing like the dawn of a new day. This may well be one of Eliot’s images that pointedly don’t work, which fail to create any image for the reader, nor any effect other than a vague disquiet that haunts the poem, haunts the reader’s experience of it, and haunts Eliot’s view of the human condition. But in this instance the scene is more fully set: a morning in the modern city. Each line turns out to be a run on line, but these are so weak that they don’t drag the reader on at any speed, and the rhythm, such as it is, is barely disturbed. This is because the grammatical unit could well end at each line end, but it is only on reading the next line do we realise how it was incomplete. Should the second line have ended on “from” which begins the third line, then the run on line would have been strongly asserted and it would have carried the line and the rhythm with it. But Eliot is interested here in nothing other than glumly plodding though a bleak and meaningless scene. There is nothing to get the passions going. And the only object of the faintest line of progress that runs through this section is the “early coffee-stands”, hardly a place where meaning or significance is found, let alone stumbled upon. But there is no person here making this move, the only agent is the morning itself, who arrives at these “early coffee-stands”, which again is faintly disquieting, extending the sense of unease the reader will be feeling.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
Here it is time that is personified, which may add another subtle layer of alienation for the reader: “time resumes”, though what it resumes is anyone’s guess – again another loose thread for the reader to contend with. And what are these “masquerades”? Is what we have been shown thus far, even though it was so meager and unfulfilling for the reader, now to be seen as false? And how is “time” the active agent of those scenes? If so, is the human so utterly devoid of agency that it has been subsumed by time, and its masquerades? But then another person is introduced – “one” – which, following on from the rather weak appearance of an unspecified “you”, will only serve to further disorientate the reader. And this one – be it the implied reader or an implied other – seems to be ordered to think, or it is assumed that they must think, of a seemingly random notion of “all the hands” (not the people), not merely “raising dingy shades”, but “That are” so, in “a thousand furnished rooms”: which is a picture of the city scene no longer on a human scale, but burgeoning with anonymity, which may itself be the root cause of the inherent estrangement of the person finding himself making his way in it. It is interesting that the hands are doing the raising rather than any people because this enables Eliot to keep any certain, concrete human presence out of the poem (also facilitated by the constant and random change of person), which would serve to render it a little less cold and empty, but also because it denies the possibility of a human agent doing something, or capable of doing something or even of affecting the scene: hands raise dingy shades, not real people. People suffer this modern world, they don’t create it, act in it, or even affect it.
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;
And then the sudden appearance of the second person pronoun – You –blasted from the opening of each of succeeding line – will further disorientate the reader. It is now the reader who is being told in no uncertain terms what it was they did, how they too are very definitely implicated in this squalid scene, lying supine (face upward) and so vulnerable, weak – “dozed” – and impassive – “waited” and “watched”. Because it is the night now who is the active agent – the night is doing the “revealing” – not you, or any other character real or imaginary. The personification again serves to add another layer of incongruity and disenchantment, it renders strange what should not be strange – here the revealing, or seeing of images, previously the rising of the sun. And then the strong run-on line which carries on the line ending with “revealing” injects a note of passion which has been so far lacking in the poem – but what passion? It would seem to be anger or bitterness. And this is reinforced by the meaning of the lines. The dissatisfaction, which has been palpable in the poem so far, now becomes something more strongly felt. The appearance of the word “soul” seems to bring us back to a poetic register – poems should concern themselves with such words – but juxtaposing it with “constituted” makes the appearance of the word strange: one would not normally talk of a soul as being constituted of anything or anyhow, it’s a solid and workaday word more to do with base matter than anything lyrical such as the soul. Is Eliot here saying that the notion of the soul is just as tawdry and decrepit as the scene we are almost prompted to picture. The “thousand sordid images” is something which recurs throughout Eliot: human existence has fragmented, collapsing into a thousand images, though in this case they are “sordid” which adds to the bitterness in the poem at this point. But again the central Eliot theme – that life has no informing principle, guiding light, or meaningful thread running through it – is presented to us as a fait-accompli.
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;
By now the reader is so thoroughly disorientated that the erratically applied personification, or pathetic fallacy – images “flickering”, the world “coming back”, light “crept”, the street “hardly understands” – merely reinforces the sense of despondency which the poem has always sought to establish. But when we are told that “You had such a vision” it seems for a moment that someone – though in this case an unidentified second person – might actually achieve something, or at least do something, be an agent rather than be subject to the meaningless contortions of this world we find ourselves in. But all this second person has a vision of is “the street”, and it is such a poor vision, despite the many images already supplied to us by the poem thus far of such a likely scene, that the street itself “hardly understands”. Again, Eliot is employing imagery which stretches the ability of the reader to make sense of, and thereby making the reader even more disenchanted with the matter or subject of the poem: this modern life stripped bare of culture, myth, significance and meaning. The strong rhyming couplet of “shutters” and “gutters” is such an odd pairing, and lends the poem such an unlikely spurt of rhythm at this point; it makes the reader wonder how the poem could be taking off anywhere at all. And indeed, such a promise is disappointed. The rhythm so soon created almost as soon peters out. And we’re left sunk in a failure to come to terms with this modern world once again.
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.
And then to be placed so fully into a scene to have that scene be so bleak and hopeless, as this scene seems to be. But it does seem that the second person, whomever it might be, is now firmly established as an agent within the world or narrative of the poem, though an agent who can but clasp “the yellow soles of feet / In the palms of both soiled hands” doesn’t hold out much promise, and serves merely to further entrench the poem’s gloom and despair. The solid details of the “bed’s edge” and the “curled.. papers from your hair” lend the scene a solidity which hadn’t until this point been asserted, so we finally have an image which we can imagine, but what an image it is. The strong rhyme of “where” and “hair” lend the poem at this point, despite the disruption of the strong run-on line, a rhythm which might underscore a more poetic and lyrical tone, but the image contrasts with this strongly, making this yet another discordant note in a series of such notes which make up the poem.
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 now we have some third person “His”, who might be anybody at all, continuing the disorientating effect of random switches of person. The metaphor of a “soul stretched tight across the skies” is similarly disorientating, raising an unanswerable question: what could it possibly mean? Another of Eliot’s imponderables, a figurative devices that draws attention to itself but serves no obvious purpose; but the words must affect the tone of the poem, making it more melancholy, as well as raising the tension slightly, adding to the ominous effect of so many other vaguely gloomy and downbeat words and phrases. This is again the poetic diction which the poem plays with but never fully settles on, falling into conversational language or non-poetic expressions such as “four and five and six o’clock”, which, forming an strong but alternate rhyme, seems to mock what is poetic and lyrical rather than reinforce it. so the effect is slightly bathetic, with the result that the serious poetic tone, which manages to be somber and grand, is punctured by the final line with its happy rhyme, thereby rendering what has gone before it as overblown and pretentious. Its as though the “he” of the poem, managing to feel sorry for himself, feeling his plight as at once sad and heroic, is shown up for a fool and laughed at. We are not, Eliot is seems to be saying, even entitled to think ourselves tragic: we are petty and miserable and merely sad.
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.
The image of the “short square fingers stuffing pipes” seems to come out of nowhere, not being in accordance with any of the images we have so far been presented with, at least those that we could make sense of. And the quotidian detail of the “evening newspapers” further detracts from anything poetic and beautiful that might have been constructed previously. But against the utter ordinariness of the everyday details of life, Eliot throws another startling image at us, set up by the effective caesura after newspapers, and the very strong run-on line, and then the odd half rhyme of “eyes” and “certainties”, the effect is that we feel once more cast into the horror which the poem has so far skirted around. But then, what does this figurative flourish even mean? Nothing that untoward anyway. Again, we are treated to the unsettling effect of a peculiarly applied pathetic fallacy in the “conscience of a blackened street”, which is “Impatient to assume the world” and we back where we began, lost amongst Eliot’s threatening images which never quite mean anything, but always threaten something terrible. This is the vague but alarming disquiet that modern man is lumbered with. We are lost and always about to stumble across something terrible. This is an awfully bleak view of modern man.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Another person, this time the first appearance of a first person, but at least he is “moved”, but only by fancies which themselves are “curled around these images” and which “cling” – another unnerving application of the pathetic fallacy. The next two lines, which end on an ominous rhyme of “thing” and “cling”, a rhyme that is particularly harsh, as much as it is troubling, introduce an idea which never clearly forms in the reader’s mind, but which might well serve to sum up the whole poem and Eliot’s overall vision as performed for us here. The repetition of “infinitely” suggests the pain of working these things out as much as any pain there might be in the existence which the poem is describing – that pain inherent in our existence.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
The final lines, which rob the poem of any rhythm as well as cohesion of meaning, leave us bereft: yet another image, this time quite a concrete one, is dropped on us as though from nowhere. Another spin of the second person so that we are given a final disorientating poke, before we too collapse on the only options left to us “laugh”, and bitterly it would seem, or continue to eke out such an existence as we have been doing: how is the state of modern man at all similar to “ancient women / Gathering fuel in vacant lots”? Leaving us this as the final image, it would seem that Eliot is convinced that in the ruins of culture and civilization which we find ourselves in (in c1920), we may as well not bother to seek meaning, because there is none left.