David Spurr

David Spurr: On "The Hollow Men"

The Hollow Men (published 1925) portrays a poetic consciousness in which intense nostalgia for a state of Edenic purity conflicts with the paradoxical search for a more enduring form of order through acts of denial and alienation. To the common observation that The Hollow Men expresses the depths of Eliot's despair, one must add that the poet in a sense chooses despair as the only acceptable alternative to the inauthentic existence of the unthinking inhabitants of the waste land. Eliot himself saw this kind of metaphysical despair as more intellectual than emotional. He says of Pascal, a "Christian thinker" with whom be clearly identifies:

His despair, his disillusion, are ... no illustration of personal weakness; they are perfectly objective, because they are essential moments in the progress of the intellectual soul; and for the type of Pascal they are the analogue of the drought, the dark night, which is an essential stage in the progress of the Christian mystic.

Principles of intellectual order control the despair of The Hollow Men as well, in the way the poem consciously evaluates experience in abstract terms, distinguishes between antithetical states of being, and establishes, both in form and subject matter, the archetype of the Negative Way as an alternative to disorder as well as to the illusory order of visionary experience. The following pages examine formal and thematic elements of the poem as representing the progress of Eliot's own "intellectual soul," and then show this progress as frustrated by the poet's attraction to a visionary imagery.

The Hollow Men replaces the richly chaotic style of The Waste Land with an austerity of expression that prepares for the contemplative mode of Ash-Wednesday. In what Bergonzi has called "a virtual surrender to the silence," the formal strategy of The Hollow Men, like its thematic content, seems designed to demonstrate how effectively the shadow of the inarticulate falls between the conception and the creation of an artistic work. Formal aspects of the poem imitate the characteristics of the hollow men it portrays. For example, their desire to "avoid speech" finds a counterpart in the poem's general paucity of utterance: the technique of constant repetition and negation--"The eyes are not here / There are no eyes here"--manages to employ only about 180 different words in a work 420 words long. The "Paralysed force, gesture without motion" applies not only to the men themselves but also to the poem as a whole, which exhibits little narrative progression in the conventional sense and eschews verbs of direct action.

As the hollow men grope together, form prayers to broken stone, and whisper meaninglessly, so the poem itself gropes toward a conclusion only to end in hollow abstraction, broken prayer, and the meaningless circularity of a child's rhyme. The conscious reduction of poetic expression to a bare minimum does away with metaphor and simile and produces a final section of the poem almost completely devoid of modifiers. The poem avoids capitulation to the silence of the inarticulate by relying on a highly structured syntax that tends to order experience in terms of binary opposition: "Shape without form, shade without colour," or "Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act."

The quality of a poetic style marked by verbal austerity and relentless negation forms a structural counterpart to a thematic strategy that repudiates the validity of human experience at every level. In this respect the poem expands upon the theme of denial explored as part of the individual's search for meaning in The Waste Land. In modern existential terms as well as those of traditional Christianity, the Negative Way leads ultimately to an encounter with nothingness which, paradoxically, can inspire the individual with faith in God. Kierkegaard seeks to explain this paradox by showing that dread [aengste], the simultaneous fear and intense awareness of nothingness, opens up the possibility of faith in an infinite beyond human life by "laying bare all finite aims and discovering their deceptions," by revealing the "deadendedness" of life itself: "When the discoveries of possibility are honestly administered, possibility will then disclose all finitudes and idealize them in the form of infinity in the individual who is overwhelmed by dread, until in turn be is victorious by the anticipation of faith." The via negativa brings the individual to a terminal point marking the boundary between the finite and the infinite.

The Hollow Men explores this boundary situation in its images of finality or extremity and in a thematic structure comprising two different states of being. The poem's speaker anticipates with dread "that final meeting"; the men grope together "In this last of meeting places"; the final section, in its generalized abstraction of all that has gone before, tells us that "This is the way the world ends." The Dantescan image of the lost souls "Gathered on this beach of the tumid river" belongs to a boundary motif that recurs throughout Eliot's poetry: Prufrock escapes from the world of skirts and teacups to the world of visionary imagination via a "walk upon the beach." The protagonist of The Waste Land sits down and weeps "By the waters of Leman," then upon the shore "with the arid plain behind me." The sea of The Dry Salvages "is the land's edge also." The persona of The Hollow Men has arrived, intellectually and imagistically, at the outer limit of one world only to find that its ''deliberate disguises" conceal a finite lack of possibility: between the potency and existence "Falls the Shadow."

From Conflicts in Consciousness: T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

David Spurr: On "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

This five-line interlude ending on "the floors of silent seas" forms an encapsulated version of the remainder of the poem, in which the frustrated effort to establish purposive discourse leads once again to withdrawal downward and inward to a silent world of instinctual being. A return to images of distension and distracting sensuality provokes a final impulse toward violent imposition of the will--"to force the moment to its crisis"--which ends, like previous thoughts of disturbing the universe, in ruthless self-mockery. The image of decapitation parodies the theme of disconnected being and provides for at least a negative definition of the self: "I am no prophet."

By this point the tense has quietly shifted from present to past, and the speaker offers a series of prolonged interrogatives on the consequences of action not taken. While its grammatical context ("And would it have been worth it") reduces it to the contemplation of "what might have been"; the language and imagery of this passage enact with renewed intensity the recurring drama of mental conflict:

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it towards some overwhelming question,

To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all."

The infinitives in this passage--to have bitten, to have squeezed, to roll--conform to the poem's widespread use of transitive verbs of direct action in expressing the speaker's violent impulse to combat the forces of disorder: to murder and create, to disturb the universe, to spit out all the butt-ends, to force the moment.

The poem's linguistic and thematic strategy consistently opposes active verbs to the passive voice which causes things to be spread out, etherized, smoothed, and stretched. It sets these infinitives against present participles, which are constantly muttering, sprawling, rubbing, scuttling, and settling. Finally, it opposes these transitive verbs to intransitive verbs which lie, linger, malinger, lean, curl, trail, wrap, slip, and sleep. A relative lack of modifiers and the absence of plural forms further distinguishes the passage cited above. By contrast the language of disordered experience, of imprecision and aimlessness, abounds in modifiers and plurals: restless nights, one-night cheap hotels, visions and revisions, the sunsets and the dooryards, and the sprinkled streets.

The structure of the imagery at this point in the poem corresponds to the thematic role played by linguistic form. To have "bitten off" the matter, in addition to its hint of blunt force, would constitute a positive reaction against endlessly idle talk; squeezing the universe into a ball would counteract the world's tendency to fall apart and to spread itself out like yellow fog; finally, the act of rolling it toward some overwhelming question at least imparts direction to the movement of the universe, even if the actual destination, like the question, remains unclear. The idea of proclaiming oneself a prophet "come back to tell you all" implies a power of linguistic discourse equal in magnitude to the physical act of squeezing the universe into a ball. Once more the idea of language joins with images of purpose, only this time in such hyperbolic fashion that the ultimate failure of discourse strikes one as inevitable: "That is not what I meant at all."

The speaker's failure to master language--"It is impossible to say just what I mean!"--leads in this case not to a statement on the inadequacy of words themselves, but rather reflects upon the speaker's own impotence. In a poem so obsessed with problems of speech and definition, to have failed with words is to have lost the war on the inarticulate: the speaker as heroic Lazarus or Prince Hamlet is suddenly reduced to the stature of an attendant lord, "Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse." The old man with rolled-up trouser bottoms has shrunk from his former size. Paradoxically, this diminution of the outer self--the part of the mind concerned with imposing order on experience--brings about a corresponding expansion of the inner self.

In the same essay where Eliot locates the beginnings of a poem in an unknown, dark "psychic material" that is put into form by the conscious mind, he allows for a secondary resurgence of the unconscious that arises from the very process of poetic composition: "the frame, once chosen, within which the author has elected to work, may itself evoke other psychic material; and then, lines of poetry may come into being, not from the original impulse, but from a secondary stimulation of the unconscious mind." The mental forces at work in Eliot's description of the poetic process serve as an analogy to the conflicts besetting the speaker in Prufrock. The speaker is a failed poet in terms of his inability to "murder" existing structures in order to "create" anew; be finds it impossible to say what be wants to say. In the "secondary stimulation of the unconscious mind" that occurs at this point, he partly abandons and partly resolves the struggle of form and matter; the integration of the psyche remains at best incomplete.

From Conflicts in Consciousness: T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.