Imagery Depicted Through T.S. Elliot

’s Essay, Research Paper

Imagery Depicted Through T.S. Elliot’s

The imagery depicted in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” evokes a sense of desolate hopelessness and lends to Eliot’s generally cynical view of civilization during this period in history. A reaction of deep and profound disappointment in mankind around him is made evident in this stark work, first published in 1925. In this short piece, Eliot enumerates several deep faults he finds in his fellowman, including hypocrisy, apathy and indifference, and leaves the reader with a feeling of overwhelming emptiness.

An important feature of this poem is the fact that the narration of the poem is in first person. This establishes Eliot’s and the readers relationship to the images and ideas presented. When the poem begins “We are the hollow men” rather than “They are …” or “You are…” the reader is immediately included somehow in this description, along with Eliot himself. This type of narration creates a sense of common “hollowness” and by the end of the poem, therefore, a sense of common responsibility and guilt. Early in the poem, Eliot creates a world of desolation. The idea of dryness is emphasized by the repetition of the word “dry” in the first stanza, where we read of “dried voices,” “dry grass” and “dry cellar.” When he mentions the sound of “rats feet over broken glass” he succinctly and subtly prods at our anxieties about urban disease and decay, showing us a sort of fleeting snapshot, almost subliminally planted, and raising in us an instantaneous reaction of revulsion.

Eliot then mentions the dead, calling them “Those who have crossed…to death’s other kingdom.” These people are made real by Eliot’s repeated mention of their eyes. He refers to them first as making their crossing into death with “direct eyes,” meaning that they faced and succumbed to death, unable to turn away. Also he states they have “eyes I dare not meet in dreams,” indicating that this narrator fears addressing death, either his own or those who have “crossed.” Later in the poem, in part IV, Eliot returns to the eyes imagery with “The eyes are not here/There are no eyes here.” The absence of eyes, here, indicates Eliot’s condemnation of indifference among those still living to the fate of the dead. Further into section IV he presents “The hope only/Of empty men” as being when and if “The eyes reappear/ As the perpetual star.” Here Eliot calls for an opening of eyes and cessation of apathy and indifference to these deaths.

The idea of being afraid to face death and feeling guilt over the deaths of others contributes to the full explanation of what Eliot means by “hollow men.” Besides being afraid to face the eyes of the dead, just as the criminal cannot face the eyes of his victim, this narrator also expresses a desire to hide from death itself. When he wishes to “also wear/Such deliberate disguises/Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves/In a field/Behaving as the wind behaves,” we realize that the hollowness is a disguise to fool death into going elsewhere. This particular section of the poem juxtaposes images of rats and crows, animals associated not only with death, but also with the scarecrow and it’s crossed support staves. The subtextual image of the scarecrow, or hollow man, in the field with crossed staves can be seen also as an evocation of our image of Christ suffering on the cross. This reference reveals Eliot’s finger pointing to the hypocrisy of men who consider themselves followers of Christ doing nothing to relieve suffering of men in their own time and place. Section V of the poem begins with a variation of a children’s rhyme, “Here we go round the mulberry bush” which replaces the mulberry with the cactus called a prickly pear. This strange song comes somehow as a relief from the desolate tone of the poem previously. The presence of the cactus instead of the familiar mulberry keeps the reader in Eliot’s world of desolation, while bringing to mind the fact that innocent children still live and play in that world, and that someone must take responsibility for the world they are born into.

In the next short stanzas Eliot spells out the true meaning of responsibility and accountability. When he depicts a “Shadow” falling between the intention and the outcome, he is stating that having some kind of abstract good intentions does not excuse anyone from being held accountable from a bad outcome. The bits of the Lord’s Prayer which creep in serve here as a reminder to Christians that their God will not accept any excuses for sin. The phrase “Life is very long” when used as a counterpoint to the Prayer seems to be the voice of mankind, the hollow men, trying to make some excuse along the lines of “but it’s so hard to be good all the time.” This reinforces the idea of the shadow falling between intentions and outcome, revealing that a large amount of time passing can obscure the intentions of men.



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