Robert Crawford: On "The Hollow Men"

The epigraph, "A penny for the Old Guy," stresses that Eliot's poem relates to ceremonial effigies. Here, as in The Waste Land, Heart of Darkness is important. "Mistah Kurtz--he dead" emphasizes a connection between savage ritual and Eliot's crossed staves. To obtain power by embracing darkness, Kurtz deified himself in line with primitive belief; ironically, Eliot's speaker dresses in relics of forgotten ritual out of a sense of total impotence, wishing to avoid a horrid dusk: "Not that final meeting / In the twilight kingdom." It is landscape like Dowson's, "Hollow Lands" where, in "the twilight of the year", "dead people with pale hands / Beckon" by a "weary river", "where pale stars shine" where, at passion's enactment, "There fell thy shadow." But the poem's world, lit by the half-light of inaction, was a transmutation of Eliot's own suffering. Vivienne, who had felt The Waste Land to be a part of herself, saw 'The Hollow Men' as a fitting follow-on, and related it to her own nightmares. But, as before, the personal world and that of late nineteenth-century poetry are sieved through anthropological ideas, emotion distributed among unsettled voices, narrative, optative, and choral. The poem is typographically complex. The first section's 'Kingdom' may not be section three's 'kingdom'. Certainly 'death's other kingdom' (my italics) suggests that the speakers' inane life is only another form of death. So, for Sweeney Agonistes 'Death or life or life or death / Death is life and life is death.' Cornford had quoted the Euripidean question, 'who knows if to be living be not death? Through anthropology Eliot resuscitates the idea of the living dead, so common in late romantic poetry, where Death-in-Life is the eternal king. Eliot's Hollow Men share their hopelessness with the inhabitants of the City of Dreadful Night.

[. . . .]

The poem concerns degradation of language and ritual, failings of word and Word. Eliot's witty 1918 truncation of an Arnoldian phrase prefigures the Hollow Men's predicament; Clive Bell, 'lingering between two worlds, one dead', has the vice of inane mediocrity, incapable of 'icy inviolability, or violent fury'. His being 'the Matthew Arnold of his time' again connects, through the scarecrow image, with the Hollow Men who, like so many of Eliot's literary adversaries, are afflicted with a stuffed language, emptily 'poetic', the degradation of great poetry--

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

After the starkly factual 'Headpiece filled with straw' comes that most absurdly poetic word of all, indicating the speaker's weakness. Such childish poeticizing is reinforced, in directing us to the level of the infant, by the 'penny for the Old Guy' epigraph, by the dressing up as a scarecrow, and by the nursery rhyme, 'Twinkle twinkle little star', which inescapably underlies the line 'Under the twinkle of a fading star'. This use of nursery rhyme looks back to The Waste Land with its 'London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down' and anticipates another explicit nursery rhyme which, in slightly distorted form, opens section V of 'The Hollow Men'. Other forms of words instilled into the young are also present. The Lord's Prayer is quoted in the repeated fragment ‘For Thine is the Kingdom' but the earlier uses of the word kingdom, particularly when it has a capital 'K', must already have prompted questions about allusion to this fundamental Christian rite, and about how it relates to those `prayers to broken stone’. It is hard to avoid thinking that the hope of 'Thy Kingdom come' finds its opposite in

Let me be no nearer

In death's dream kingdom

which becomes an anti-Lord's Prayer, addressed to an unnamed hearer who may be the god of a universe of barrenness and death. 'The Hollow Men', not 'The Hippopotamus', is Eliot's most blasphemous poem.

Ideas of childishness, linguistic degeneration, and confusion support the central theme of the degradation of essential ritual. The barely glimpsed possibility of Christian hope plunges to crazy childishness.

Here we go round the prickly pear 

Prickly pear prickly pear

Here we go round the prickly pear

At five o'clock in the morning.

'Ritual,' Eliot wrote in 1923, 'consisting of a set of repeated movements, is essentially a dance.’ He called The Sacred Dance 'an excellent study of primitive religious dances', and read how these were performed round sacred trees, but also 'how often with the decay of old faiths the serious rites and pageants ... have degenerated into the sports of children'. It was ten years since Eliot had been interested in Ecstasy and Dance Hypnosis among the American Indians, and had read in King about the lively 'moonlight dances' of Bushmen. These would resurface, bereft of fun, in the childish dance of 'The Hollow Men', as later, much more lightly in the Jellicle Cats’ `Reserving their terpsichorean powers / To dance by the light of the jellicle Moon.'

Though anthropological theories of religious degeneration were becoming outdated, Eliot was familiar with the version propounded by, for instance, Andrew Lang in his Making of Religion. Tylor, about whose theories Eliot had been sceptical, was particularly strong on connecting the mental processes of savages with those of children, connections emphasized by Cornford, Frazer, Oesterley, Webb, Wundt, and others. Cornford's book on some of the greatest Greek drama had as its frontispiece a Punch and Judy show. Eliot was fascinated by the idea which Cornford had put forward 'in "The Origin of Attic Comedy", [that] this [medicine-man ] Doctor may be identical with the Doctor who is called in to assist Punch after he has been thrown by his horse'.

Though primitive man may be something of a mystic, the distant voices and fading star in Eliot's poem show no 'prelogical mentality' from a golden age of childlike innocence. The distant fading signals a run-down age of degenerate belief. That it had paradisal origins is a simplistic assumption. His criticism of Oesterley's work makes it clear that for Eliot a ritual's origins may be as meaningless as is its present form. He attacks Oesterley for falling into 'the common trap of interpretation' by formulating intelligible reasons for the dancing of a primitive. Eliot asserts that it is perfectly possible to claim 'that primitive man acted in a certain way and then found a reason for it'.

The last section of 'The Hollow Men' in particular places its rituals in a crazy emptiness. The verve of the nursery rhyme spins us round in a sinister way, since it is disturbing to see the familiar 'mulberry bush' of the children's rhyme replaced with the arid 'prickly pear', making the rhyme like some distorted survival of a primitive chant. Eliot's substitution makes this seem an infertility dance. As an American plant, 'prickly pear' also connects with his own childhood in a society whose religious values seemed atrophied.

Section V's voices are the most complex. First comes the choral nursery rhyme, linked typographically with the italicized passages placed against the right-hand margin to differentiate them from the rest of the text. These appear to be parts of the Lord's Prayer, but are confused by the addition of the complaint in the same typographical form, 'Life is very long,’ appropriately enough from the more primitive world of An Outcast of the Islands. A third voice, represented by normal type and placed in the conventional part of the page, is itself like another ritual, a fact emphasized by the incantatory effect of semantic and lexical patterning in the repeated, only slightly varied form,

Between the    a

And the           b

Between the    c

And the          d

Falls the Shadow

This tripartite distinction, easy to uphold on the grounds of typography, is complicated, however, by the fact that fragments of the italicized Lord's Prayer passage find themselves brought in from the right-hand margin to form part of the body of the text when, further truncated, they make up the liturgical stutter of

For Thine is

Life is

For Thine is the

before a final all-embracing italicized section, looking back in its typography, placing, and, most importantly, its rhythm, recalls the opening nursery rhyme chorus, but gives it a universal voice which seems to include all that we have heard before in what is now a ritual chant ending with an appropriately childlike sound,

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.

This combination of various voices, including the choric, makes the fifth section distinctly dramatic in its fragmentation, and, clearly deriving from the techniques employed in The Waste Land, also paves the way for the fragmentary drama ofSweeney Agonistes.

From The Savage and the City in the Work of T.S. Eliot. Clarendon Press, 1987. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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