Grover Smith: On "The Hollow Men"

Although "The Hollow Men" is not a mere appendage to The Waste Land, it may most profitably be read as an extension of the same design of quest and failure. The quest has already failed once when the poem opens. The history of Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" conforms to the general pattern. Conrad may often be understood best through the study of primitive rituals of succession, initiation, and fertility. That Kurtz has been initiated into the tribe, becoming its shaman, its "rain and fine weather" maker, and that he has been ceremonially worshiped and appeased, seems an express symbol of his disastrous descent into the dark places. The gracious figure of his "Intended," from whom he has turned to immerse himself in the shadows, represents the light which Marlow, shaken by his own knowledge of the horror, is scarcely able to credit, except as either an illusion of the innocent or an ideal of the courageous. What happens actually to Kurtz happens figuratively to Marlow, who voyages into a hell so dreadful that he comes back unconvinced of any other reality. The sheer Manichaeism of the revelation only narrowly fails to overwhelm with darkness Marlow as well as Kurtz. Kurtz, after undertaking to combat darkness and devils, yields to them and is installed in the midst of them and, despite his final relative victory of self-knowledge, cannot avert his damnation. The whole design approximates that of hero myths, but it combines with curious subtlety the quest to subdue evil with a quest to restore the god overtaken by death in the guise of life. In a sense Kurtz is like the Fisher King and Marlow is like the quester, but Kurtz has been a quester too.

The main parallel between "Heart of Darkness" and "The Hollow Men" consists in the theme, implicit throughout the latter, of debasement through the rejection of good, of despair through consequent guilt. In Part II of the poem the speaker confesses the impossibility of facing "the eyes," even in dreams, in the dream kingdom of his world; and in his imagination he encounters only their symbolic counterparts--sunlight, a tree, voices in the wind. The sunlight, however, shines only on "a broken column" among the broken desert images. His inability to return and brave the eyes resembles Tiresias' state after the scene in the Hyacinth garden. In The Waste Land the lost eyes are those of the protagonist himself; here they are the upbraiding eyes of one incarnating his lost redemption: the speaker takes refuge in apathy; he desires to think of himself only as a scarecrow. He shrinks from everything but concealment among the other hollow men and wears, with them,

Such deliberate disguises

Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves

In a field.

What he cannot contemplate is the reproach of

                ... that final meeting 

In the twilight kingdom,

when at length he may meet the eyes in the real world of the dead.

The scarecrow symbol (like Hawthorne's "Feathertop") is appropriate to designate not only the ineptness and spiritual flaccidity of the speaker but, like the "tattered coat upon a stick" in Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" (1927), his inability to attain love. If one turns back to The Golden Bough and to some of the most ancient as well as most persistent rituals of pagan Europe, it is the straw man who seems to have functioned in certain of the fire festivals as a sacrificial representative of the vegetation spirit or as a scapegoat ridding his folk of accumulated ill-chance. The commemoration of the fifth of November itself reflects the custom of burning in effigy the bearer of local guilt; the accident of the season--for Guy Fawkes Day shortly follows All Souls'--may have suggested kindling traditional autumn fires for the modern culprit. A connection between the straw man and the Fisher King will be easily apparent, for Eliot's hollow men re-enact the distress of the mutilated Tiresias.

The figurative straw dummies of the poem suffer both physically and spiritually. How they themselves have erred, the poem does not demonstrate. It is plain enough, however, that they are all but damned; and not for nothing is there an allusion here, as in "The Burial of the Dead," to the third canto of the Inferno, where those, who "lived without blame, and without praise," are doomed to abide at Acheron without crossing into hell. But it is meaningful that the hollow men are not bound to such a torment as theirs: to follow the whirling ensign, goaded by hornets and wasps. Instead they are like the throng awaiting (with "pennies for the Old 'Guy'") the barge of Charon to ferry them across to their everlasting sorrow in the depths. The eyes, terrible and unrelenting, even resemble the glowing coals of Charon's eyes, as described in both the Aeneid and the Commedia, or the streaming eyes of the demon in Kipling's "At the End of the Passage." But the very possibility of descending, of not being forced to remain on the hither shore, paradoxically signifies hope. Miraculously, the eyes that may reappear beyond the river portend salvation. As commentators have recognized, they are comparable to the eyes of Beatrice in the Purgatorio (XXX-XXXI). For the pattern of descent and ascent implies that having plunged into hell, the hollow men may find paradise. Part IV of the poem establishes a geography: the scarecrows, loitering beside "the tumid river" (a fixture also of "Heart of Darkness"), are trapped in Ezekiel's valley of bones, where, as in the "circular desert" of The Family Reunion, their suffering seems futile. Theirs is the "dream kingdom" where the eyes are but a memory. They must invade the "other kingdom," the "twilight kingdom" of actual death, which, after further purgatorial trial, may vouchsafe to them, through the eyes of pain and joy, a way upward, even to the "multifoliate rose" of the final cantos of the Paradiso, to "the perpetual star," a symbol of the Holy Virgin. The way up and the way down are the same; the landscape is not Dantean except in so far as its moral and emotional processes match the allegory of the Commedia. And here, apparent hell is potential, though unrealized, purgatory.

In "Heart of Darkness" as in the Commedia, the feminine symbol, a prototype of the eyes in "The Hollow Men," charts the quester's pilgrimage into the region of pain; Kurtz's descent is irretraceable. But Dante's leads finally upward to his vision, beyond the eyes, beyond even the celestial spheres. And "The Hollow Men" has a similar pattern; moreover, as Genevieve W. Foster has shown in her Jungian analysis, the eyes, the rose, and the star are equivalent to the ''Grail" of The Waste Land. So, too, is the tree, recurring in Coriolan and "New Hampshire," and, through the children in the leaves, in "Burnt Norton" also. (Here it ironically reminds one of Kurtz, "a tree swayed by the wind.") "The Hollow Men" would re-express the affirmative way by abjuring lust, the false center, the "prickly pear" of Part V, circled in a whirling or whirlpool motion, and by declaring the speaker's hope for the eyes. (In the negative way, the abandonment of lust would have to be ratified by renunciation of the affirmative symbol and by evacuation of desire.) But attainment of the vision, according to "The Hollow Men," is remote indeed. The agony of "Lips that would kiss," the unalleviated "anguish of the marrow / The ague of the skeleton," lacerates the heart with proximate desire.

The first four lines of Part V parody "The Mulberry Bush," substituting for the fertility symbol connoting love (as in the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe) an image purely phallic. And echoing the chant of the May games, "Here we go gathering nuts in May . . . At five o'clock in the morning," with its reminiscence of the Maypole dance and the "country copulatives," they underscore the sexual nature of the plight with which the poem deals. In this terminal section, one is back, so to speak, in the marriage chamber of Eliot's "Ode," where sex has gone wrong. And in spite of the plain statement that the hollow men must remain "sightless" unless the rose reappears, love, along with powers of creation and repentance, is still sought in the world of nightmare.

With every effort to make the potential become actual a "Shadow" interferes. This, whatever its private value, has in the poem no clear conceptual reference. It implies Prufrockian inertia incapable of connecting imagination and reality, a defect of kinesis, in part a volitional weakness and in part an external constraint. Deathlike, it hinders even the attempt at prayer through which the speaker might come into the "Kingdom" of pure actuality beyond. Eliot's threefold grouping of contrasts between prospect and fulfilment comprehends three failures. The oppositions of potentiality and actuality are not the Aristotelian or Thomistic ones; they blur as the enumeration passes from "potency" and "existence" to "essence" and "descent," but each constitutes an antithesis compatible with Aristotelian dialectic. Even "motion," normally actual, can fit into the potential category through its special meaning of "initial impulse," by which it contrasts with "act:" Each of the three groups (by ambiguities) recapitulates the preceding, until by accumulation all three groups combine in the third, just as, according to Aristotle, the soul includes in its highest powers those of the inferior species. Perhaps the first group chiefly connotes sex; the second, sex and creation; the last, sex, creation, and salvation.

From T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.

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Title Grover Smith: On "The Hollow Men" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Grover Smith Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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