A Critical Appreciation Of The Hollow Men T S Eliot
A Look Inside “The Hollow Men” Eliot, a master of the written craft, carefully thought out each aspect of his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men.” Many differences in interpretation exist for Eliot’s complex poetry. One issue never debated is the extensive range of things to consider in his TS Eliot’s writing. Because TS Eliot often intertwined his writing by having one piece relate to another “The Hollow Men” is sometimes considered a mere appendage to The Waste Land. “The Hollow Men,” however, proves to have many offerings for a reader in and among itself. The epigraph contains two pertinent references (http). First, “Mistah Kurtz – he dead” is an allusion to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In his novella, Conrad portrays the empty nature of men. Mistah Kurtz is a character that lacks a soul, thus, a true “Hollow Man.” In the second quotation the epigraph alludes to England’s November 5 tradition of Guy Fawkes Day. In 1605, Guy Fawkes unsuccessfully tried to blow up the parliament building. Eliot’s quote “A penny for the old guy” is called out by children on this holiday who are attempting to buy fireworks in order to blow up straw figures of Fawkes. Within the first stanza Eliot establishes the speaker, setting, theme and begins a rhythmic pattern that will hold true for four of the five sections of the poem. The speaker in the poem is not human, or at least prefers to be thought of as a scarecrow over a “…lost / Violent soul…” (lines 15-16). The powerful comparison between the worthlessness of “rats’ feet over broken glass…” (line 9) to their “dry voices” (line 5) illustrates how meaningless they (the Hollow Men) truly are. Two lines detached from the first stanza contain a series of paradoxes which further the idea of meaninglessness, “Shape without form, shade without color, / Paralyzed force, gesture without motion” (11-12). Although difficult to discern exactly what is going on and where in the poem, the reader easily perceives the overall feeling of the hopelessness in just the opening lines, “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men”(lines 1-2) establish a grim feeling of emptiness. Images like “This is the dead land / This is cactus land…Under the twinkle of a fading star” (lines 39-44) create a bleak, dry, desert land setting. The theme of the poem parallels those of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Smith). The degradation of ritual (religious or otherwise) and the emptiness or reduction of human to childish behavior is parallel concepts in both pieces. Part I of the poem describes the insignificance of the “hollow men.” Part I gives the vague setting and shows the request of the hollow men to be viewed as empty; “Remember us…not as lost / Violent souls [which Kurtz and Fawkes both were], but only / As the hollow men” (lines 15-18). It also introduces two motifs, that of eyes and kingdom. “Those who have crossed / With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom” (line 13-14) is an allusion to Dante’s Paradiso (Bowler). Kingdom with a capitalized K may refer to Heaven (although all references to a “kingdom” do not), and those with “direct eyes” are allowed to go there and become blessed. “Eyes” in the poem refer to those of Charon in Dante’s Inferno (Williamson, 157). With the line, “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams” (line 19) the speaker states that the “eyes” are a source of fear. Playing a connective role in the poem, the first two lines in the first four sections have a specific rhythm. Section I’s, “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men” (lines 1-2) is like II’s “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams / In death’s dream kingdom”(19-20), Part III’s “This is the dead land / This is the cactus land” (39-40) and IV’s “The eyes are not here / There are no eyes here.” This language serves as a rhythmic refrain tying each section together while setting off the last. The use of literary devices in “The Hollow Men” is seemingly endless. Rhyme also plays and important role. In I, like all of the other parts (except the fifth) the final line of the stanza rhymes with one of the previous lines. For example the scheme in the first stanza is AABCABDCCB. Although the last line could have ended with the two C’s, it reverted back to a familiar rhyme ending. This tactic gives the feeling of familiarity and completion at the end of each stanza. Possibly the most powerful literary device used in “The Hollow Men” is repetition. The poem contains not only the repetition of rhyme, rhythm, and images, but also of actual words. In fact, the 420-word work only has 180 different words (Spurr). The repetition is seen throughout the poem and sometimes even within the same line “behaving as the wind behaves” (line 35). Repetition not only serves to reinforce the meaning, and also to connect the sections. Part II opens with image repetition and the use of alliteration “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams / In death’s dream kingdom / These do not appear” (19-20). In relating his fear of “the eyes” the speaker prefers to be emotionless. He would like to think of himself as a scarecrow “Let me also wear / Such deliberate disguises…In a field / Behaving as the wind behaves” (lines 31-35). The scarecrow may apply to the ineptness of the speaker, to the ritual of Guy Fawkes Day, and other pagan rituals (Smith). Throughout time straw men have functioned as sacrificial spirits or scapegoats riding their people of accumulated sin. This speaker’s willing reduction to a soulless object pertains to Conrad’s theme. Part III presents a dreary image along with a familiar rhythm in the lines “This is the dead land / This is the cactus land” (line 39-40) along with the lifeless setting. The final line of the first stanza “…twinkle of a fading star” (line 28) has two functions (Crawford). First, because it is not “fading,” it implies the remoteness of the dead cactus land. Second, it suggests the nursery rhyme “Twinkle twinkle little star.” This alludes to the theme of childlike behavior and preludes the upcoming nursery rhyme. Part IV contains the familiar images of eyes, stars, and kingdoms. Within this section are the darkest most desolate images of the setting. These include “valley of dying stars…” and “…broken jaw of our lost kingdoms” (lines 54-55). Even the hollow men must “…grope together / And avoid speech” (58-59). There is a slight relief in the despondent ness of the poem. However in this section is no longer fading or dying but is “perpetual.” The “perpetual star,” an allusion to the Holy Virgin and the “Multifoliate rose” are symbols of religious hope (Smith). However, this hope is quickly dashed in the Part V. The fifth part of the poem is the anomaly. It develops reality, not the hope of the hollow men (Williamson, 159). It begins with a stunning adaptation of a familiar nursery rhyme replacing “mulberry bush” with “prickly pear.” The cactus instead of the rose and the nursery level make-believe makes fun of the men’s hope. This change causes ideas of childishness, linguistic degeneration and confusion to occur (Crawford). The next three stanzas are composed in a rhythmic formula. Almost like a boxing routine the phrases make a rhythmic one, two, one two, and then, “Falls the Shadow” equals 3. Between the (1) And the (2) Between the (1) And the (2) Falls the Shadow (3, or the punch). The “Shadow” is a kind of gray nothingness representative of the fear and emptiness in the hollow men and in humankind. Finally, to add to the confusion, pieces of the Lord’s Prayer appear. As if the reader is supposed to fill in the blanks, the prayer is written, For Thine is Life is For Thine is the (lines 91-93). The final lines are a powerful childlike chant, 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 (lines 95-98). “The Hollow Men,” rich in allusions ends a hollow abstraction. This ending seems fitting because it mirrors the hollow men, who themselves have reached the edge of the “tumid river” and are whispering (thus the whimper) broken prayer (Spurr). The last and most powerful line is, perhaps, a daring prediction of the fate of the world and human kind. Eliot presents a dreary picture of his generation and of mankind. The poem can be construed to mean a variety of things, however, the one inevitable factor is the inescapable existence of emptiness in the poem. However, it contains a brief glimpse of hope in the “perpetual star” thus, man may have a chance to achieve a brighter future.
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.
The somewhat macabre concluding stanza echoes the “mulberry bush” song from earlier, this time with an even darker tone. Again the reader is confronted with the image of children, their playfulness and hopefulness, juxtaposed with the image of the death of not only men but of the entire world. Here Eliot plainly states a grim warning or perhaps prophecy about the path he sees his world taking. He sees it all coming to an end not in some apocalyptic catastrophe, as in the Bible, but through mankind allowing himself to slowly decay and degrade to the point of oblivion.