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An Analysis of ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ From TS Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations
TS Eliot is considered a very important modernist writer. He inaugurated a range of narrative and stylistic techniques that had a considerable influence on modernism in literature. This article explores Eliot’s poem ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ Prufrock and other observationsFocusing primarily on the concept of time and how it is depicted in poetry.
Time is undeniably linked to the concept of present and past, and it plays an important role in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, referred to as ‘Rhapsody’ later in this article. The modernist interest of the period can be argued to be partially determined by earlier scientific discoveries. From the sixteenth century the concept of time itself was on the verge of change. However, a flurry of scientific discoveries and discoveries in the 19th century ushered in a new era in science. While Eliot was engaged in writing the Prufrock poem, 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 relation to Eliot’s own interests in time, the most immediate influence was the French philosopher Henri Bergson.
While he was staying in America, a young Eliot made an extensive tour of Europe where he attended lectures given by Bergson. The philosopher’s theory of time and his attempts to define the nature of the past, present and future manifests itself in several of Prufrock’s poems, notably the ‘Rhapsody’, which is generally regarded as a reconstruction of some of Bergson’s ideas; It is therefore useful to understand them when evaluating Eliot’s own approach to the present. Much of Bergson is extremely difficult to understand so it is useful to attempt a summary of his ideas before analyzing how they are presented in Eliot’s poem. in him Creative evolution (1907) and Matter and Memory (1896)—two works Eliot was familiar with while composing the Prufrock poem—Bergson began to define the nature of time and consciousness experienced by humans. He arrived at a concept he called ‘le duri’, meaning ‘duration’, a metaphysical construct that considered evolution and consciousness to be underlined by a constant flow of moments that could not be measured by clock time. inside Creative evolutionBergson proposed the idea that a person’s natural state is changeable, claiming that all feelings and ideas are constantly undergoing change.
Bergson thought that a person’s memory formed a large part of this process, with past memories constantly resurfacing in the person’s consciousness. It is this perpetual resurgence of the past that plays a central role in ‘Rhapsody’, where, while wandering around the deserted landscape, the protagonist experiences various seemingly fragmented memories. inside Matter and Memory Bergson tried to assess the nature of consciousness and its inseparable connection with time. This was accomplished by trying to define the relationship between the past, present and future. Bergson considers the true essence of time to be its fleeting nature. This presents a problem in identifying the exact point that can be considered ‘present’. Bergson recognizes that what we identify as the present is made up of sensations arising 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 set in an urban setting, characteristic of many modernist poems. As with other Prufrock poems, a defining feature of ‘Rhapsody’ is Eliot’s fulfillment of a highly original and distinctly modern poetic voice. It is important to recognize that this poet persona is not intended to represent TS Eliot, but rather is a fictional construction that combines the formal and thematic qualities of the poem. This particular poetic spirit belongs to a recluse, who describes his experiences while wandering around a deserted town after midnight. The use of the word ‘rhapsody’ in the title of the poem is somewhat ironic given that we usually associate the word with ‘passion’ or ‘excess’; The observations and reminiscences of the poet persona seem to be more concerned with decadence and vanity, and the prevailing tone is generally bleak and depressing.
In ‘Rhapsody’ the poet personality is typified by a lack of control, mainly illustrated by the seemingly random appearance of memories. This pervasive sense of involuntary serves as a poetic expression of Bergson’s theory. Bergson’s idea of the body acting as a conduit for a range of sensations arising from a person’s past experiences is evidenced in the lines ‘Memory is high and dry / A multitude of twisted things’. Choosing to say ‘memory’ instead of ‘my memory’ adds to the fragmented quality of the protagonist, as if he is made up of separate parts rather than a whole.
The reader gathers that the protagonist of ‘Rhapsody’ has no control over this incessant flow of memories. Eliot depicts this unexpectedly in several lines of memory but perhaps most notably in the grotesque image of ‘a madman shakes a dead geranium’. The geraniums become a symbol of the involuntary memory of the poet persona in the next line ‘Memory comes / Of the sunless dry geranium’.
The street lamp plays a key role in the poem, confronting the poet personality. They are personified – a device that contributes to the protagonist’s fragmented and isolated nature – in the second stanza, ‘The street lamp knocked / The street lamp murmured / The street lamp said’. Eliot accomplishes this dissociative effect by depicting the poet’s perceptions of personality as observations from a street lamp. For example, the second stanza instructs the protagonist to observe a woman by a street lamp, while the fourth and fifth stanzas instruct them to observe a cat and then the moon respectively. These urban scenes are deliberately seedy and depressing: the woman is clearly a prostitute; The cat is described as sticking out its tongue to eat ‘a piece of rancid butter’ – an act which the reader assumes is a subtle reflection of the protagonist’s own futile existence; while the moon is depicted in the most unflattering, anti-romantic guise: ‘a washed-out pox bursts her face’. These images and the protagonist’s memories of them are juxtaposed with the inexorable march of clock time, illustrated by the fact that most 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 illustrates, the concept of the present is multifaceted, when Eliot’s interpretation of Henri Bergson’s theories is taken into account.
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