The Hollow Men Essay, Research Paper
This is a paper I wrote on the Hollow Men by T. S. Eliot for an english class of mine a few months ago. I am currently enrolled at The Uni. of So. Cal. Hope you enjoy:
Eliot starts his poem “The Hollow Men” with a quote from Joseph Conrad?s novel the Heart of Darkness. The line “Mistah Kurtz-he dead” refers to a Mr. Kurtz who was a European trader who had gone in the “the heart of darkness” by traveling into the central African jungle, with European standards of life and conduct. Because he has no moral or spiritual strength to sustain him, he was soon turned into a barbarian. He differs, however, from Eliot?s “hollow men” as he is not paralyzed as they are , but on his death catches a glimpse of the nature of his actions when he claims “The horror! the Horror!” Kurtz is thus one of the “lost /Violent souls” mentioned in lines 15-16. Eliot next continues with “A penny for the Old Guy”. This is a reference to the cry of English children soliciting money for fireworks to commemorate Guy Fawkes day, November 5; which commemorates the “gunpowder plot” of 1605 in which Guy Fawkes and other conspirators planned to blow up both houses of Parliament. On this day, which commemorates the failure of the explosion, the likes of Fawkes are burned in effigy and mock explosions using fireworks are produced. The relation of this custom to the poem suggests another inference: as the children make a game of make believe out of Guy Fawkes , so do we make a game out of religion. The first lines bring the title and theme into a critical relationship. We are like the “Old Guy”, effigies stuffed with straw. It may also be noticed that the first and last part of the poem indicate a church service, and the ritual service throughout. This is indicated in the passages “Leaning together…whisper together”, and the voices “quiet and meaningless” as the service drones on. The erstwhile worshippers disappear in a blur of shape, shade gesture, to which normality is attached. Then the crucial orientation is developed, towards “death?s other Kingdom.” We know that we are in the Kingdom of death, not as “violent souls” but as empty effigies, “filled with straw”, of this religious service.
Part two defines the hollow men in relation to the reality with those “direct eyes have met”. “Direct eyes” symbolizing those who represent something positive (direct). Fortunately, the eyes he dare not meet even in dreams do not appear in “death?s dream kingdom.” They are only reflected through broken light and shadows, all is perceived indirectly. He would not be any nearer, any more direct, in this twilight kingdom. He fears the ultimate vision.
Part three defines the representation of death?s kingdom in relationship to the worship of the hollow men. A dead, arid land, like it?s people, it raises stone images of the spiritual, which are implored by the dead. And again the “fading star” establishes a sense of remoteness from reality. The image of frustrated love which follows is a moment of anguished illumination suspended between the two kingdoms of death. Lips that would adore, pray instead to a broken image. The “broken stone” unites the “stone images” and the broken column,” which bent the sunlight.
Part four explores this impulse in relation to the land, which now darkens progressively as the valley of the shadow of death. Now there are not even hints of the eyes (of the positive), and the “fading” becomes the “dying” star. In action the hollow men now “grope together / And avoid speech”, gathered on the banks of the swollen river which must be crossed to get to “death?s other kingdom”. The contrast with part I is clear. Without any eyes at all they are without any vision, unless “the eyes” return as the “perpetual”, not a fading or dying star. But for empty men this is only a hope. As the star becomes a rose, so the rose becomes the rose windows of the church; the rose as an image of the church and multifoliate. Which is a reference to Dante?s Divine Comedy, where the multifoliate rose is a symbol of paradise, in which the saints are the petals of the rose.
But Part Five develops the reality, not the hope of the empty men; the cactus not the rose. The nursery level make believe mocks the hope of empty men. In desire they “go round the prickly pear” but are frustrated by the prickles. The poem now develops the frustration of impulse. At various levels, and in various aspects of life, there falls the frustrating shadow of fear, the essential shadow of this land. Yet the shadow is more than fear: it concentrates the valley of shadow into a shape of horror, almost a personification of its negative character. The passage from the Lord?s Prayer relates the Shadow to religion, with irony in the attribution. Next the response about the length of life relates it to the burden of life. Lastly the Lord?s Prayer again relates the Shadow to the Kingdom that is so hard. This repetition follows the conflict of the series that produces life itself, frustrating the essence from descent to being. This is the essential irony of their impaired lives. The end comes by way of ironic completion as the nursery rhyme again takes up its repetitive round, and terminates with the line that characterizes the evasive excuse. They are the whimpers of fear with which the hollow men end, neither the bang of Guy Fawkes day nor the “lost violent soul.” In part Five the frustration of reality is described by the abstractions introduced in Part I; life is frustrated at every level, and this accounts for the nature of the land and the character of its people. By placing 2-4 in a casual relation to this condition, the poem develops an irony which results in the “whimper”. But the most devastating irony is formal: the extension of game ritual in liturgical form.
This could be said of the circumstances surrounding the writing of The Hollow Men, even if the ?illumination? simply highlighted a very dark time in Eliot?s life. The overriding image of humankind as ?hollow men? is powerful and depressing. In the context of a spiritual journey I would liken it to a ?wilderness experience?. Like the children of Israel who came out of Egypt, Eliot seems to be without direction or hope. While the ?hollow men? are not totally empty, even their stuffing is dead grass: ?Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!? and they are lifeless: ?Shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion.? Life is meaningless and Death seems to be the master of both life and death: ?death?s other kingdom? I like the strength of the poetry here. Eliot juxtaposes strong ideas together, e.g. ?paralysed force? in such a way that they appear to cancel each other out, leaving an emptiness. Throughout the five sections of the poem, Eliot uses many words and expressions that reinforce an atmosphere of emptiness and decay: ?cactus..stone images..fading star.broken stone.dying star.hollow valley.broken jaw..lost kingdom?, etc. In Eliot?s world nothing seems whole, nothing seems to move or function, all is lost or being lost. I can sense his absolute despair when he writes: ?There are no eyes here in this valley of dying stars? where ?we grope together on this beach of the tumid river.? Here, he is sightless, unable to move forward with any understanding or insight. I think that Eliot feels trapped by his circumstances, which appear like a sinister swollen river, threatening to overwhelm him. There are similarities here with the experiences of the Psalmist in the Old Testament, who often felt trapped, surround by threatening enemies: e.g. ? O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; Many are saying of me, there is no help for him in God. Psalm 3 Eliot?s The Hollow Men finishes with some of his most quoted lines: ?This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.? Here Eliot seems to be at an all time low. He is sad and cynical about life and his spiritual journeying could well have ended here.