’s “The Hollow Men” Essay, Research Paper
T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri of New England
descent, on Sept. 26, 1888. He entered Harvard University in 1906, completed
his courses in three years and earned a master’s degree the next year. After a
year at the Sorbonne in Paris, he returned to Harvard. Further study led him to
Merton College, Oxford, and he decided to stay in England. He worked first as a
teacher and then in Lloyd’s Bank until 1925. Then he joined the London
publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer, becoming director when the firm became Faber
and Faber in 1929. Eliot won the Nobel prize for literature in 1948 and other
major literary awards.
Eliot saw an exhausted poetic mode being employed, that contained no
verbal excitement or original craftsmanship, by the Georgian poets who were
active when he settled in London. He sought to make poetry more subtle, more
suggestive, and at the same time more precise. He learned the necessity of
clear and precise images, and he learned too, to fear romantic softness and to
regard the poetic medium rather than the poet’s personality as the important
factor. Eliot saw in the French symbolists how image could be both absolutely
precise in what it referred to physically and at the same time endlessly
suggestive in the meanings it set up because of its relationship to other images.
Eliot’s real novelty was his deliberate elimination of all merely connective
and transitional passages, his building up of the total pattern of meaning
through the immediate comparison of images without overt explanation of what
they are doing, together with his use of indirect references to other works of
literature (some at times quite obscure).
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 G-d 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.