This is a very complex poem with a lot going on so I’m going to try to just focus on what jumped out at me at first.
The paraphrase this poem (if that’s ever really possible), this is about lower-class working people, and especially one woman, probably a prostitute. We get the drudgery of modern life in a city, the sad end of reality, the lost dreams and faded hopes of millions.
The first stanza evokes a dingy, smelly tenement house. People are cooking meat in their rooms (just as they sort of stew in their little hovels), and we smell, in fact almost taste the stale cigarettes (“burnt-out ends of smoky days”). And though we know there are people everywhere, we only get the traces of them, their trash, their smells. The only life we get is a “lonely cab-horse” who seems nervous, as if it’s being surrounded and can’t escape – we know it’s probably harnessed to something since it’s for a cab service.
His “lighting of the lamps” is interesting because even though we are physically turning on the lights, it feels as if things are darker now.
Section II continues the remnants of human activity, as well as the horse with the saw dust streets since that was used to take care of all the smelly horse poop. I wasn’t confident I knew what he meant by “masquerades”, but I imagined that everything going on was like a show, a fake activity, like going through the motions of life. The word is well used since we don’t get any faces and everyone is masked by the things they leave behind.
III shifts to our first real character (sorry, horse), but it’s still not a happy image. The blanket is “tossed” – a violent word. Who wakes up and tosses their blanket unless they are already mad? And then we get the word “sordid” as it pertains to the images (life experiences) that make up this person’s life. We already start to intuit this is a woman and that she is probably a prostitute. Even the word soul evokes soil, as in soiled, like the stains on the bed. We later get a rhyme between “shutters” (shudders), and “gutters” (in the gutter – and this word feels very physical = gut, our guts, meat, our physical being bereft of a soul).
We do finally learn this is a woman because she’s taking the curlers out of her hair. But her physical position is unusual because what does it look like if someone grasps the soles of their feet (soul, sole) with the palms of their hands? It’s a contorted image, but it also feels like a bastardization of a buddha sitting, like praying all gone wrong.
IV: And I think the praying image is reinforced when he he “His”, capital “H” (typically religious for Jesus, or God), but it could also be a long-lost love? It’s ambiguous to me who this is. We get another reference to feet (I count 6 references, including the horse stomping, and the word trampled) which is very much an image of people moving but also there’s a Christ-like allusion of Jesus washing the feet of the poor. Everyone here is poor and in need of redemption, these are literally the meek who shall inherit the Earth.
There’s so much more here, but the final image of her mouth and how he creates an image of her broken teeth with that of women gathering coal or broken logs (and “vacant lots” would be her missing teeth. The only face we see is an ugly one, but her laughter is unsettling, as if she is conducting all this. As if the only life force here is one of evil, or malevolence.
This is another one of my favorites! I could write about this poem all night!!