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Eliot shadows: autography and style in the hollow men.

Locked up in an archive at Princeton University and sealed by order until 1 January 2020, the letters of Thomas Stearns Eliot to Emily Hale, upwards of a thousand, currently sit gathering dust. Hale was an intimate of Eliot's, who Ronald Bush ambiguously describes as "'more than a companion, less than a fiancee" (185), and as a result these letters seem to offer a whiff of scandal more than any currently available Eliot document. Likely against Eliot's wishes, Hale donated them to the library, compromising by having them sealed for fifty years. They are of such great interest that they were displayed boxed and banded in 2000 at a Princeton Library exhibit showing off its collections.

The unavailability of such documents pertaining to this pillar of twentieth-century poetry has sparked some predictable speculation. In a 1973 biography, for example, T. S. Matthews imagines Hale's response to Eliot's first marriage in terms befitting a soap-opera: "This was a rude interruption of their intimacy, but no more than an interruption" (140). At the end of Martha Cooley's 1998 novel, The Archivist, the protagonist, who is entrusted to safeguard the letters, burns them (after reading them of course). In general, the letters salaciously seem to promise Eliot's most private thoughts and feelings regarding the developing problems with his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, perhaps in relation to his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927. And although they reportedly cover a broader period of time, they seem to promise a glimpse of Eliot in his weakest moments.

With its emphasis on shadows in its final section, The Hollow Men (1925), I suggest, adumbrates what the Hale letters seem to promise, the revelation of the secret, private Eliot. Originating in extracts from The Waste Land (1922) and free from the editorial hand of Pound, The Hollow Men offers shadowy expressions of extremely personal emotions, though never in autobiographical form. For the poet who famously described poetry as an "escape from emotions" and "an escape from personality" ("Tradition" 58), however, this sort of self-revelation cannot be direct so, instead of confessing scandalous secrets, the poem reveals the private Eliot through its style. In general, style is an aspect of writing that resists definition. When we speak of style, as E.B. White writes in his famous style guide, "we leave solid ground" (66). This departure not only resonates thematically in The Hollow Men--since the lack of solid ground is exactly what frustrates the hollow men--it also characterizes Eliot's mode of personal revelation in the poem. Eliot foregrounds style by making it crucial to the central drama of the poem, and gradually a shadowy sense of who Eliot was emerges as the poem shifts away from its central figures, away from the hollow men, and toward style itself.

Published in its final form in 1925--before Eliot's conversion to Anglicanism and after the great success of The Waste Land--The Hollow Men is a profoundly personal poem without being an autobiographical one. The poem does not provide, secretly or explicitly, any new facts about Eliot's life. Rather, The Hollow Men partakes in something like "autography" as H. Porter Abbott has described it with respect to Beckett: "what autography also means in Beckett's case is an art of extreme vulnerability. Instead of an artist above his work, paring his fingernails, we have an artist seeking to approach unmediated contact" (21). Style is the preferred mode of autography for The Hollow Men, because it allows for personal revelation while satisfying Eliot's intense concern for privacy. This stylistic procedure resonates with Abbott's distinction between autography and autobiography:
   Autobiography in the sense of a memoir or life
   story is something Beckett had few illusions about,
   and the inadequacy of life stories is a theme that
   recurs throughout his oeuvre. So a better term than
   "autobiography" is "self-writing" and, better still,
   "autography," which avoids not only the implications
   of historical narrative in "bio" but also the
   semantic baggage of "self," a term as problematical
   for Beckett as the term "story." Preferable to all
   these is the coinage "autobiographical action," for
   it concentrates attention on the text, both as "self"-writing
   and as immediate action taking place as it
   is written." (x)

Abbott's reasoning for Beckett certainly applies to Eliot, the great proselytizer of impersonal poetics. His term expresses at once the compulsion toward self-expression, or self-writing," while acknowledging the hesitations before the autobiographical mode.

Figured most powerfully by the shadows in the final section, Eliot's style in The Hollow Men is retrained and quiet, but tortured by the tensions that pervade the poem's milieu. It is elliptical and ecliptic. Eliot's shadows, however, do more than simply obscure and hide and provide an enabling criterion that recalibrates the otherwise meaningless whispers of the hollow men. The poem begins just as it famously ends, not with a bang but a whimper. The spoken words of the hollow men are "meaningless" and thus weak. "We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men," they proclaim, announcing the collective chorus that voices the lines (Complete Poems and Plays 56). (1) In part an allusion to the straw bodies burned in effigy on Guy Fawkes Day in England mentioned in the poem's epigraph, this couplet seems rife with contradictions. "Stuffed" is an antonym of "hollow," but the two words function here more as synonyms. Unlike the phrase, "I am," which usually aspires to announce individual identity, the correlating pronoun-verb combination here, "We are," here denies any claims about individuality; these are empty figures. This gesture, which seems to signify the lack of identity, makes hollowness the very basis of identity, they are "the hollow men" and not just "hollow men." That they lack substance makes them somehow substantive, and the lines thus foreground and efface identity simultaneously. The hollow men try unsuccessfully to imagine the existence of a divine and a world that depends on such a figure, and accordingly, their voices fail to register in any effective manner. In the final section, the shadows redress the problem of meaning in the previous sections by making meaning dependent not on an ideal governing structure, but rather, on the smaller relationships of affinity and difference that one can only see when one abandons such foundational and prohibiting idealizations. In this sense, the poem's oft-quoted finale, "This is the way the world ends .../ Not with a bang but a whimper," treats whimpers, not as meaningless utterances that vanish in the abyss between heaven and earth, but as shadowy murmurs that have no meaning until they are considered in relation to one other (59). The key is scale. A whimper among gods is a meaningless sound: a whimper among whimpers is a language.

Agency and Orthodoxy

The autography of The Hollow Men is born out of, at best, ambiguity and, at worst, confusion. In the years after the publication of The Waste Land and before his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, Eliot's increasing ideological commitment to orthodox thought came in conflict with his earlier belief in the transformative ability of poetry. This ideological shift however hides a continuity in his criticism visible as early as "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) and as late as After Strange Gods (1934), in which Eliot consistently demonstrates a tendency to muddy the relationship between individual agency and orthodoxy. The Clark Lectures (1926), delivered the year after the final version of The Hollow Men was published, clearly demonstrate this tension. As Eliot became more wedded to political conservatism, his ideas about a poet's individual agency did not so much disappear as they lingered. Rather than dovetailing, Eliot's poetic and political beliefs became increasingly adversarial in this period.

In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot famously develops his notion of the individual poet's role through an analogy. Poetic impersonality, he suggests, enables the poet to become a "catalyst" or "medium" by which the "mind will digest and transmute the passions which are its material" (54). The poet is like a platinum catalyst, without which the reaction is impossible. In chemical terms, a new compound is produced; in poetic terms, a new unity results, which alters nothing less than the course of tradition itself. Among other commentators, F. R. Leavis notices how poorly this analogy holds together, precisely at the point where the poet enters the reaction. He notes that the comparison both relies on and omits the poet's creativity:
   How we get from a "liberty to enter into new
   combinations" to "the mind which creates" Eliot
   does nothing at all to explain; it is surely a long
   way--it is in fact a yawning gap in his theory or

   Nothing is done to supply the absent something
   answering to the verb 'create' (the mind which
   'creates') by the reference, a couple of sentences
   later, to the 'intensity of the artistic process, the
   pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes
   place', for Eliot does nothing to explain or suggest
   what the process is, or where the pressure could
   come from. (180)

Leavis points out that the notion of authorial creativity becomes completely supplemental to the logic of the analogy despite the fact that Eliot's entire point depends on it. Without it, the argument loses the agency that is precisely the payoff for writing impersonally. On one hand, the analogy maintains the individual creative power of the poet who is capable of changing the existing order of history through his literary production, and, on the other, it imagines that power to be not individual at all, so that it might claim universal rather than personal significance.

In After Strange Gods, Eliot imagines the poet's function much differently, but a similar problem lingers. Whereas in "Tradition," he maintains the possibility that the poet might transform culture, in the later essay, he calls for poetry to serve the demands of orthodox values, which, he describes as having an absolute value whether anyone in a given period believes them or not. Orthodoxy takes the place that tradition had earlier occupied; it becomes the point of access for a poet to universal values. The poet here aims less towards transformation, and more toward the confirmation of these orthodox values. Oddly, however, he characterizes "blasphemy" in unexpectedly favorable terms:
   blasphemy is not a matter of good form but of
   right belief; no one can possibly blaspheme in any
   sense except that in which a parrot may be said to
   curse, unless he profoundly believes in that which
   he profanes.... It is certainly my opinion that
   first-rate blasphemy is one of the rarest things in
   literature, for it requires both literary genius and
   profound faith... I am not defending blasphemy;
   I am reproaching a world in which blasphemy is
   impossible. (56)

What is important to Eliot about "first rate blasphemy" is not its subversive potential, but the manner in which it indicates a latent commitment to orthodox values. True blasphemy, he writes, is rare in his era because the era lacks true faith; evidence of blasphemy, ironically, thus becomes evidence for hope to the orthodox thinker. Eliot's logic once again has become equivocal at precisely the point at which individual agency comes into question, lost again in Leavis's "yawning gap." Blasphemy at once marks the possibility of faith as well as the blasphemer's attempt to undermine the orthodoxy to which faith might cling. Although he poses the example as hypothetical and general, Eliot's blasphemer is oddly specific, and has a distinct personality trait. Specifically, he is conflicted: as if a believer in disguise, he seems to act contrary to his own beliefs. One might venture that he is not so much a lapsed believer as he is a repressed one. Ultimately, Eliot's version of blasphemy satisfies no one since it fails to accomplish the will of either the blasphemer or the orthodox thinker entirely: one interested in real blasphemy would inevitably fail in the task, since blasphemy simply confirms the primacy of orthodox values, and one truly interested in upholding these values might certainly find better means. The moment in Eliot's text is nonetheless striking because it reveals how poetic agency lingers even as the explicit purpose of poetry, the confirmation of orthodox values, seems to require its suppression.

We can see such conflict more clearly in Eliot's Clark Lectures, delivered in 1926 at Cambridge University. In these lectures, he takes up an analysis of the same tradition he had earlier addressed in "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921) and privileges poetry that can fuse "sense with thought" (Varieties 58). The great hero of these lectures is Dante who "always finds the sensuous equivalent, the physical embodiment, for the realization of the most tenuous and refined intensity ... of experience" (57). Poetry here refuses the task of change and instead seeks to find poetic equivalents for already lofty abstract ideas. A great poet differs from ordinary ones, not in his capacity to change, but to increase the intensity of experience and thus endeavors to validate rather than transform a given view of the universe. Importantly, this new criterion for poetry makes Eliot's task as a twentieth-century poet immediately problematic, since he lives in a time completely different than that of his hero, one in which lofty ideas have lost their prominence. (2) If Dante is exemplary, his example becomes impossible to follow.
   I have not in any way advocated a return to the
   thirteenth century, whatever that might mean, but
   only the eternal utility, in a world of change, of any
   achievement of perfection.... The "disintegration
   of intellect" of which I speak was, so far as I can tell,
   an inevitable process. The process of knowledge
   and the process of history go on relentlessly, and
   it is always "up to" the human being to adapt
   himself to the alterations for which he is but
   partially responsible. Having achieved a unity on
   a basis which, so far as we can see, was partial and
   inaccurate, we can only go on and wait for luck to
   provide another. (222-3)

Though faced with an era that he would deem in need of transformation, one already suffering from the "disintegration of intellect," Eliot admits that the ideal thirteenth-century model of Dante is unavailable. The problems of the twentieth century are inevitable. Eliot tries to minimize this issue by foregrounding the benefits of "perfection," but cannot disencumber his logic from the problem posed by the tension between, on one hand, the exemplarity of Dante's belief system and, on the other, the constraints imposed one by one's own era, however impoverished it might be. Though he would like to write like Dante, the primacy of his own historical era insures that he cannot accomplish what he deems most fundamental about the greatness of Dante's writing.

This complex of thought stems from a mind on the fence between two different conceptions of poetry's social function. On one hand, Eliot is becoming the voice of After Strange Gods who is more concerned with the confirmation of orthodox values than with upsetting them. On the other, in order to perform this affirmation, he would need the kind of poetic ability to transform described in "Tradition;" he infers that to arrive at such a confirmation, modern society requires change, since these values are no longer the predominant ones? Eliot regards Dante as exemplary because of his ability to make "sense" confirm the orthodox values of his age, but the troubling task becomes how to recover the orthodox values that are unavailable to poet's own era. The act ceases to be one of confirmation and necessarily becomes one of transformation. Although the political commitments become clearer for Eliot in this period, the relationship of poetry to politics does not. So the backdrop for The Hollow Men that the Clark Lectures provides is not only the endorsement of "the medieval wisdom of Richard St. Victor, Aquinas, Cavalcanti, and Dante" (83), as Bush suggests, but also the conflict of demands that such an endorsement produces in Eliot's poetics. Dante is both exemplary and impossible to follow. The Hollow Men fashions this conflict into its central concern by placing the task of confirming orthodox values in the feeble voices of the hollow men and the burden of transformation on style and in shadows.

In between shadows, shadows in between

J. Hillis Miller interprets the shadows in the final section of the poem as "the paralysis that seizes men who live in a completely subjective world" and the poem as "an eloquent analysis of the vacuity of subjective idealism" ( 181 ). Like many readers of the poem, Miller identifies how the shadows negate. Shadows, after all, generally hide and obscure: evil, monsters, and shame tend to be the sort of unscrupulous residents that they attract. Miller's subsequent account of the "fleeting glimpse" of hope in the poem thus seems far-fetched:
   Eliot's hollow men understand dimly that if they
   endure the death which is to preclude rebirth they
   have some hope for salvation. Though Eliot's
   language is deliberately ambiguous, it implies that
   the sightless eyes of the hollow men may see again,
   and confront the divine eyes which are "The hope
   only / Of empty men" and will reappear as "the
   perpetual star / Multifoliate rose" of heaven itself.
   The idealists of "The Hollow Men" have stepped
   out of themselves into the barrenness of an external
   world, and the fragments of the Lord's prayer
   ("For Thine is / ... For Thine is the") which they
   mutter at the end of the poem are moving appeals
   to a God who may be infinitely distant, but who
   is independent of their minds and therefore may
   have the power to save them. (182)

Miller returns to the idea of salvation as a possibility for the hollow men. Miller can thus place the poem on a trajectory toward Eliot's later artistic efforts: "The movement of reversal and self-sacrifice begun in 'The Hollow Men' culminates with the humility of 'Ash Wednesday,' and is completed in the affirmations of the 'Four Quartets' and the plays. These affirmations are both a new means of personal salvation and a new definition of the role of poetry" (184).

But God is not merely distant in this poem; God is radically absent even as an idealization. Justified by the allusion to Dante, Miller supplements the "Multifoliate rose" with his own description, "of heaven itself," but such an implication is precisely the hope that the poem works so hard to cancel. When the hollow men look to the stars for evidence of divinity and the hope of salvation, they see only more emptiness in places that resemble their own too much to offer any solace. The poem is too committed to demarcating a ground for meaning that the absent divine figure cannot provide. Eliot makes clear that the hollow men have no agency, and hence are incapable of self-sacrifice. It is central to the poem's project to render such a place as heaven as either inaccessible and inconceivable or proximate, and thus unable to live up to any promise of transcendence.

Elisabeth Schneider privileges confusion itself as central to the poem. She calls attention to the ways in which the poem fails to cohere: "But problems arise from the recurring "words and their associations"--"eyes," "death," "kingdom," "a fading star," and words having to do with drought--which dominate the poem" (102). She goes on to list the varieties and permutations of these terms that abound in the poem before explaining her line of reasoning:
   I list these not in mockery but to indicate the perplexity
   of the house-dog, who will not go to sleep
   because he has had a sniff of meaning, because,
   in fact, the poem is enclosed within the very precise
   "meanings" of the drumbeat beginning and
   end. In between, however, the "meanings and
   associations" of the words become increasingly
   indeterminate, equations left insoluble by the presence
   of too many variables; and the result is not
   so much "suggestive" in the Symbolist sense as it
   is amorphous. (102)

The increasing indeterminacy of meaning, for Schneider, results in a poem that shows its seams. She goes on to admit that she "cannot escape the impression of its having been put together primarily out of thrift, as an ingenious means of preserving and making something out of short lyrics which never quite crystallized as lyrics and yet were too attractive to discard entirely" (106). The trick of the first four sections, however, is to present the thoughts and dreams of the hollow men as if they made sense or were governed by logic and, in so doing, demonstrate the opposite to be true. Their thoughts are all expressed simply and seem to build on one another as if simple steps to solving a larger complex problem. Rather than offering "meaning," they indeed only offer a "sniff" as Schneider complains.

The final version of The Hollow Men, published in November 1925, begins with a description of the hollow men and the sad state of affairs that causes their suffering. The status of voice in the poem puts the reader in a problematic relationship to the very words on the page, asking the reader to understand their declarations while paradoxically marking them as unintelligible: "Our dried voices, when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass / Or rats' feet over broken glass / In our dry cellar" (56). Accordingly, the short-lived re-emergence of the first-person singular in the second section is coupled with its own subsequent erasure: "Eyes I dare not meet in dreams"; "Let me be no nearer"; and "Let me also wear / Such deliberate disguises.... Behaving as the wind behaves / No nearer" (57). In these excerpts, the entrance of the negative after each verb cancels the first-person's attempts to assert and wish. The speech of the hollow men thus comes in voices whose ability to communicate vanishes; fleeting assertions of self give way quickly to retractions.

Just as the poem undermines the ability of the individual voice to announce and define itself, the poem also undercuts the reliability of any clear organization of place. Specifically, the poem's effort to make geographic delineations gradually gives way to geographic confusions. This drama begins with a meditation on the relationship between "us" and "Those who have crossed," in which the latter are separated from the former by space:
   Those who have crossed
   With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
   Remember us--if at all--not as lost
   Violent souls, but only
   As the hollow men
   The stuffed men. (56)

The stanza suggests two sets of distinctions, between "Those who have crossed ..." and "us" and between "lost violent souls" and "the hollow men." By declaring that "Those who have crossed / With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom / Remember us," the poem seems to authorize the memory of "Those who have crossed" in determining the value of "us." It reads as a gesture of humility that defers to the superior judgment of those that occupy a better place. But the closer one looks, the more this authorization becomes appropriately hollow. In addition, the sense of the verb, "remember," wavers between two very different options either suggesting a simple statement of fact (it is true that "Those who have crossed" remember us) or, alternately, an imperative desire, asking to be remembered in a certain manner (please do not remember us as violent souls, but as hollow men).

Although the poem begins to imagine an idealized heaven by mapping the place of the hollow men with respect to a series of "other" kingdoms, these geographic distinctions gradually gave way to indeterminacy.
   Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
   In death's dream kingdom
   These do not appear:
   There, the eyes are
   Sunlight on a broken column
   There, is a tree swinging
   And voices are
   In the wind's singing
   More distant and more solemn
   Than a fading star. (57)

Grammatical subjects in these lines sit in uncomfortable relationships to their predicates. The first of these subjects, "Eyes," suffers two lines of qualification before meeting its resolution, "do not appear," but not before reiteration by "These." The firm promise of the colon after the phrase, "These do not appear," in the third line above is broken because the lines before and after it fail to resolve into grammatical or spatial clarity. Other indicators of place, the strong mentions of "There" in the fourth and sixth lines, made emphatic by the caesura that follows each, ultimately fracture the sentences that they pretend to modify. The first threatens to hide the sentence's actual grammatical subject ("the eyes") in a subordinate clause. The second nearly flows through the comma that prevents "There, is a tree swinging" (nearly a question) from becoming "There is a tree swinging" (a clear descriptive statement). The stanza reads as if it were a pantheon of nouns competing for the role of antecedents for the pronouns, "There" and "These.' More importantly, the attempt to clarify location in these lines meets with a troubled fate. The second and seventh lines ("In death's dream kingdom" and "In the wind's singing") unsuccessfully attempt to specify the place of action (or lack thereof). It is unclear in the first two lines of the section where the speaker dares not meet the "Eyes." Is "in dreams" synonymous with "in death's dream kingdom"? Do all dreams take place there or not? Similarly, it is uncertain whether the speaker wishes to use the phrase, "in the wind singing," as an apposition or to complete the predicate. The stanzas leave behind a fundamental confusion uncured by conspicuously absent punctuation. (4) Eliot's geography thus proliferates by way of chaotic cartography.

We also witness this drama of imprecision in the manipulation of demonstrative pronouns (here, there, these, those, this). Markers usually employed to delineate and organize space are instead used to obfuscate.
   This is the dead land
   This is cactus land
   Here the stone images
   Are raised, here they receive
   The supplication of a dead man's hand
   Under the twinkle of a fading star.

   It is like this
   In death's other kingdom.... (57)

The differences between "death's other kingdom" and "the dead land" and between this land and the "other" one break down under scrutiny. The various uses of the deictic, "this," fail miserably to indicate distinctiveness. In fact, all the markers of place in this passage serve to complicate rather than clarify just where "this dead," "cactus" land might be located with respect to "death's other kingdom," especially since the latter seems not altogether different from "this land": "It is like this / In death's other kingdom." Since the poem poses difference not between life and death, but this dead land and death's other kingdom, the burden of differentiation falls not on the adjective "dead," but on the nouns "land" and "kingdom." Here, adjectives fail to mark difference, and nouns must take up the slack. And that which seemed most central to the characterization of each place, death, becomes a shared trait and not a point of distinction.

Whatever the difference between these places, it must be marked in terms of an incremental logic instead of an oppositional one. Otherness becomes no longer a matter of difference, but of affinity, which in turn troubles any hope for the hollow men. The first stanza above depicts an act of religious appeal: "the stone images /Are raised, here they receive / The supplication of a dead man's hand / Under the twinkle of a fading star." But, hope for transcendence is squashed: this last entreaty by an abject figure located at a monumental distance from a vanishing star falls on deaf ears. Furthermore, the second stanza, set in "death's other kingdom," offers an equally empty scene as the alternative: "Waking alone / At the hour when we are / Trembling with tenderness / Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone." This "other" place offers no promise that one might expect from a location that is offered as the opposite of a "dead land." It fails as an idealization. God has not only abandoned the hollow men. but heaven as well.

The other kingdoms in the poem represent not places of wholeness in which one finds what one once lacked, but places that have too much in common with the land occupied by the hollow men to offer them any compelling imaginary promise. They become places understood within the system imposed by the poem and not as idealized other places outside this system. This progression culminates in the fourth section. By this point, we have lost track of any organizing logic for place, and words like "here" and "there" exacerbate rather than curb this trend.
   The eyes are not here
   There are no eyes here
   In this valley of dying stars
   In this hollow valley
   This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms (58)

By placing an undue burden on the accompanying adjectives to mark difference (adjectives whose failure to perform this task we have already witnessed), the descriptions of distinct locations with the same nouns ("stars" and "kingdoms" are associated with both here and there) fail to clarify any criteria for difference. We come to doubt the finality of this "last of meeting places" because we have long ago tossed away our maps. In the final stanza above, we arrive at the site where Miller saw hope. Indeed, the equivocation, "unless," after the stated problem, "sightless," seems to validate Miller's optimism. But if the problem were sightlessness, then one would hope that the reappearance of "the eyes" might bring vision, sight, and indeed insight. The reappearance of the eyes, however, does not exactly promise the experience of seeing; rather, the eyes emerge as themselves an objective sight to behold, "As the perpetual star / Multifoliate rose." The promise here is not of transcendent vision, but of witnessing the objectified image of seeing itself, which is very much at home in the system of objects the poem establishes. These at last eyes fail to bring any insight.

Schneider's frustrated reader thus has a legitimate complaint, but ultimately her bafflement arises from too close an identification with the hope for transcendence that the poem implodes. The "other" idealized places in the poem lose their potential value as sites of religious transcendence or salvation, since one fails not only to locate them, but also to imagine them at all. The distinction, between "here" and "there," collapses in this drama of failed deictics. All that remains from this progressively indeterminate exploration of spatial coordinates is an imperative to refuse such categories as structures for thought. There is no heaven here or anywhere and neither is there salvation because the difference between "here" and "there" itself breaks down. Instead, the universe expands into undifferentiated space, inhabited by souls doomed in different degrees.

In addition, the first four sections of the poem perform the failure of individual agency by severing the hollow men from any context in which their thoughts or voices might have meaning while persistently offering the hope that they might succeed. As we witnessed in the opening section, their speech produces content only in the suggestions of eidetic images: "Our voices, when / We whisper together / Are quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass / Or rats' feet over broken glass / In our dry cellar." In these quick lines, however, the similes link meaninglessness with a surprising excess. The sound of whispers opens onto the perceptions of an eye capable of attending to small, seemingly irrelevant details. The Hollow Men is filled with velleities, which it locates in eidetic images, as if the careful effort to locate the place of things (wind in dry grass, rats' feet over broken glass in a dry cellar) might serve as a small solace for the crisis of signification that pervades the poem. These eidetic images complicate the meaninglessness of the hollow voices by gesturing, however slightly, toward an all but invisible content. So while semantic signification fails, the similes that describe this failure leave images that mark the velleities that linger in voices otherwise devoid of volition. The substance, which the hollow men lack when trying to announce their subjective identities, becomes associated with miniscule objects that supplement their meaningless whispers.

Although these whispers give way to whimpers in the poem's final section, the most prominent figures in this finale are the shadows. Taking his cue from Eliot's allusion to Shakespeare's Brutus, Hugh Kenner describes the shadow in terms similar to Miller's. He suggests that the Shadow's fall consistently cuts and impedes like an executioner's ax (an image he invokes just previous to the following excerpt). It thereby ends any aspiration to enact a plan, as in the case of Guy Fawkes, or, as for Brutus, it causes suffering "between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion." (5)
   Brutus undertook, and carried through, an action
   not unlike Guy Fawkes', and on principles equally
   high; though an action less abstract; bearing a knife
   is a more personal crime than lighting a fuse beneath
   victims one cannot see. The "dream" for Brutus
   was an interim stage, to be passed through. The
   Shadow that fell for Fawkes took the form of sudden
   scruple among certain of his co-conspirators.
   He was detected and hanged. The Shadow for the
   Hollow Men falls apparently in the faculty of the
   will itself, impeding themselves alone; no one will
   know, in the absence of a produced "reality," that
   there ever was an "idea." They may lead, presumably,
   blameless lives. But they are neither worse
   than Brutus, or Fawkes, nor better. (192-3)

For the hollow men, according to Kenner, the falling Shadow threatens to cut short the will, filling in the interim stage between the conception of the idea and its execution. Gathering a good deal of momentum from the twin stories of failed or painful insurrections, Kenner identifies the Shadow as a force that negates or at very least hinders. This seems a reasonable conclusion given that this section follows such a thorough dramatization of the failure that pervades the lives of the hollow men.

A. David Moody and Ronald Bush share the view that the shadows in the poem's final section represent a figure of obfuscation, of ambiguity itself. Moody writes, "The Shadow is, of course, indefinable" (126), while Bush claims that it "would be a mistake to push the moods to any conclusion other than the ambivalence expressed in the ambiguity of 'Shadow'" (101). Both are right to foreground the final section and its troubling shadows as crucial, since they dramatically break from the thematics worked though in the first four sections, replacing a consideration of the hollow men with a puzzling taxonomy of vague concepts that seems divorced from the previous, more direct, elaboration of voice and place. While the earlier sections attend to the pathetic condition of enfeebled would-be subjects, the final section concerns itself with abstractions in a more distant manner. On the other hand, this last section also acts as the culmination of the poem because of the finality claimed by its grandly authoritative tone, most notably in the final lines, "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but with a whimper." The finality of tone, its position as the final section, and its seeming unwillingness to lead the reader beyond ambiguity thus produces an odd friction, promising, but refusing, to clarify and finalize the development of the first four stanzas.

The first four sections attempt to accord human thought as figured by the hollow men with orthodox belief, but the available structures ultimately fold in on themselves. The failure of the many binary differences in these sections also means the impossibility of salvation because an ideal place like heaven and a divine figure become unimaginable. The only intelligibility that remains after the collapse of such idealizations is the affinity between increasingly proliferating places. The final section, and the last to be added to the poem for publication in its final form, however, removes the quest for meaning from any religious context and re-orients it toward a vision of poetic language, in which velleities become intelligible, not by according individual voice any additional meaning, but by shifting the criteria of meaning itself. Whereas the first four sections offer a sniff of meaning that ultimately disappoints, the final section tries to move subtly toward clarity. If the world of the hollow men fails to deliver on its promises, the final section attempts to make redress.

In both form and theme, this final section foregrounds the middle, the space in between fragments and ideas. As for its form, it begins and ends with a modified version of the children's song, taking the lines, "Here we go round the mulberry bush" and "This is the way we clap our hands," and changing them into "Here we go round the prickly pear" and "This is the way the world ends." Obviously, the children's song becomes burdened here with more adult images and themes. Four stanzas fall in between this frame, the first three about the shadow's fall. In between each of these four stanzas, the poem offers two allusions. The fragment from the Lord's Prayer, "For Thine is the Kingdom," appears twice, between the first and second of the four and between the third and fourth. Finally, Eliot places an allusion to Joseph Conrad's An Outcast of the Islands (1896), "Life is very long," in the very center of this final section of the poem with exactly fifteen lines before and after it. One can imagine how Eliot might have thought of his poem and identified with the novel's protagonist when reading sentences like the following: "He struggled with the sense of certain defeat--lost his footing--fell back into the darkness. With a faint cry and an upward throw of his arms he gave up as a tired swimmer gives up: because the swamped craft is gone from under his feet; because the night is dark and the shore is far--because death is better than strife" (80-1).

At the very center of this final section then, Eliot places an odd autographical moment. In Conrad, the words are spoken to a man named Willems by a seaman named Lingard who is Willems's mentor. Willems has just been caught stealing from his employer and cast out of his house by his wife. Not at all a sympathetic character, he has despised his wife for years and in fact beat her. Sensing that Lingard cares too much about the feelings of his wife, Willems initiates the following exchange, from which Eliot's line derives.
      "Your compassion is all for my wife, Captain
   Lingard," said Willems moodily. "Do you think I
   am so very happy?"
      "No! No!" said Lingard, heartily. "Not a word
   more shall pass my lips. I had to speak my mind
   once, seeing that I knew you from a child, so to
   speak. And now I shall forget; but you are young
   yet. Life is very long," he went on, with unconscious
   sadness; "let this be a lesson to you." (42)

The line that Eliot borrows from Conrad is meant to comfort an outcast; that life is very long gives Willems more chances perhaps to make better choices. Place in the very middle of the final section, the allusion references Eliot's own marital problems, but only in an obscurity manner. The line from Conrad is far from memorable and does not explicitly mention anything to do with troubled marriages. So as we witnessed earlier in the poem, the concerns of the individual are both asserted and retracted in this allusion.

The section in fact is a series of allusions, and, much of it borrowed, little if any of the language here seems to derive from a central poetic persona. Despite this fact, the section is not simply a cold rehearsal of allusions. Rather, it stages the very same conflicted thinking witnessed in the Clark Lectures, epitomized here by the tension between the Lord's Prayer fragment and the reference to Conrad: the concern for the individual competes with reverence for God. The intelligence of the section is thus not found in profundity of statement; from this standpoint, the poem is not even original. Rather, the tone and affective register of this section are effects of style. The strategies of arrangement and collage and the manner in which the poem assembles the borrowed fragments combine to represent a personal struggle. The language here simultaneously reveals and obscures. It cites other contexts by way of allusions, but treats them ambivalently, shedding innocence from the children's song and reverence from the Lord's Prayer fragment.

Style in this poem claims the same position as the shadows, the place in between. And if the hollow men fail to speak in a meaningful way because their reliance on divine governance fails, then the shadows re-conceive semantics itself. The relationship of affinity that confused the previous efforts to clarify geography here opens in language sites of possibility, interstitial spaces in between words and ideas, which might make sense of otherwise meaningless utterances.
   For Thine is
   Life is
   For Thine is the (59)

Notice the competing contexts in this penultimate stanza, which are presented as parallel sentence fragments: between an orthodox context, "For Thine is," and a more ambiguous context, "Life is." Though presented in similar gnomic patterns, these fragments have opposing implications. The first, "For Thine is" functions as a deliberate elision and refusal, omitting the obvious nouns from the Lord's Prayer that name and confirm divine authority, "the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory Forever." The choice to leave out the second half of the sentence seems tantamount to blasphemy. The elision of the description "very long" from Conrad's sentence, in contrast, does not significantly change the force of the statement. The force of the former is obvious, calling attention to the enormity of what has been cut, while that of the latter is more ambiguous.

Instead of a failed idealization of heaven and earth, this section describes an idealized vision of language mapped out in space. The oppositions between which the Shadow falls, follow the course of all oppositions in this poem: first, because the Shadow's fall marks the space in between the poles, not as empty, but as markable space. Secondly, the odd range of criteria that determines these poles makes us wonder if they are oppositions at all. One could conceive of "idea" and "reality" as antonyms, but "motion" and "act" seem somewhat synonymous or at least different degrees of the same action. "Conception" and "creation" perhaps mark different chronological points in a process. "Desire" and "spasm," along with the pair of "potency" and "existence," seem opposites in some senses and similar in others. "Essence" and "descent" seem paired for their phonetic kinship as much as any other. Ultimately, these pairings cannot share the same criteria for difference; each term within each pair has alternative connotations sufficient to unsettle any categorical account of how the couplings work in general.

The idealized space of language described in this final section is thus not represented as a place of unity or fusion. It does not eradicate difference, but rather, arranges relationships of difference such that the reader experiences difference not categorically, but separately. What emerges out of these relationships is an invitation to imagine language not as a representation of its own failure, but as a struggle that demands engagement. Inscribed in this idealization of language is thus an imperative to redress the problem of meaning by adding a third point of reference, the fall of the shadow, to the binary logic that proved so faulty in the poem's earlier sections. The failure of the opposition becomes a faith in triangulation as a way to recover meaning in language. This imperative shifts the question of meaning away from an orthodox context, "For Thine is," to livable experience, "Life is." It re-directs the mental energy from the effort that the first four sections put into an understanding of a self-imploding conception of heaven and earth to an attempt to build meaning, not through a mastery of language, but through the experience of language's ambiguities.

The shadows thus perform a similar effect as the gnomons from the poem's first section: "Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion" (56). Although these lines tempt us to read them as simple negations, they also give rise to a series of related questions: how might one possibly conceive shape without form?; what is shade without color?; what sort of energy can a "paralysed force" muster? In so doing, they ask us first to find difference in what seems a pair of synonyms and then to imagine a third term that might result. Instead of occlusions, we see eclipses. These shadows not only function to obscure, but more importantly, to indicate. The shadows both refuse the accepted meanings of the words they fall between, as the negations did in the earlier section, and point to velleities that escape the common meaning while invoking them at the same time. Just as the subtractions of the earlier section invited the reader to imagine what the remainder might mean after such an ostensibly complete subtraction, the shadows in this section ask the reader to seek meaning through alternate criteria. The shadows defamiliarize our expectations with regard to language and then ask us to think about meaning through the relationships between words that have suddenly become peculiar. The shadows literally fall, as if they were figures of weight. Unlike the voices of the hollow men, which seemed light by comparison, "As wind in dry grass / Or rats' feet over broken glass," these shadows have a decisive gravity. As we have seen, God is absent from the landscape of the hollow men. The same is true in this final section. The fragment of the Lord's Prayer, "For Thine Is," refuses divine power. The implied question behind such a prayer then becomes, what is prayer when not addressed to God?

The answer that this poem provides is that prayer without God is poetry. The only description associated with God in this stanza is "The Kingdom," a term which the poem has already over-determined and rendered meaningless. The semantics of this final section claim for poetry a mobility of thought impossible to conceive in terms of orthodoxy. It substitutes a failed religious hope with a faith in language, not by a reliance on an external God to offer transcendence, but through the construction of a belief system that replaces God as a means for understanding the universe, which maintains the weight of the system it replaces; what led to impossibility and futility earlier for the hollow men here become virtues. The Hollow Men refuses to make the religious leap of faith and insists on dwelling within the shadows, so much so that it replaces religious faith with a faith in ambiguity and doubt. This tension is even more significant because the ideological commitments under attack derive from Eliot's own beliefs. The dramatized conflict pits a mind against itself. The poem is so powerful because it demonstrates the conflict in Eliot between conservative political beliefs on one hand, and a separate belief in the power of poetry on the other. In this poem, the two struggle for prominence, but however personally committed to orthodox values Eliot might have been, he simply could not write an orthodox poem at this point in his career, not even disguised in the regalia of orthodox blasphemy.

The ecliptic style of this poem reveals the personal emotions that many expect to find in the Hale letters. Even if Eliot did labor in his writing to escape personality, in The Hollow Men, we see how personally these evasions end up registering. I think that it is no coincidence that Eliot chose from Conrad words of comfort offered to a man who has just been cast out by a wife that he had come to despise. The most forceful representation of suffering in the poem, however, does not come through a buried allusion, but rather, through the tension between the radical failure of the hollow men in the first four sections and the passive aggressive assertion of style in the finale. Whimpers for Eliot in this poem carry the force of bangs. Whimpers in the end are not retreats. This is what Eliot offers up for public consumption, his distaste for publicity notwithstanding, in his deepest and darkest shadows.


Abbott, H. Porter. Beckett Writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Asher, Kenneth. "Poetry and Politics in T. S. Eliot's Clark Lectures." Yeats Eliot Review 15.1 (1997): 18-23.

Bush, Ronald. T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Conrad, Joseph. An Outcast of the Islands. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, 1926.

Cooley, Martha. The Archivist. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998.

Eliot, T. S. After Strange Gods; A Primer of Modern Heresy. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934.

--. The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1952.

--. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922, Ed. Valerie Eliot. Vol. 1. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1988.

--. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The Sacred Wood." Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methuen, 1920.

--. The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry: The Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1920, and the Turnbull Lectures at the Johns Hopkins University, 1933. Ed. Ronald Schuchard. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1959.

Leavis, F. R. "T. S. Eliot as Critic." Anna Karenina and Other Essays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.

Matthews, T. S. Great Tom: Notes Toward the Definition of T. S. Eliot. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

Miller, J. Hillis. Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Moody, A. David. Thomas Stearns Eliot, Poet. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Elisabeth Schneider. T. S. Eliot: The Pattern in the Carpet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Strunk, William, Jr. and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1979.




(1.) All quotations from The Hollow Men come from this volume and will hereafter be parenthetically cited with page number only.

(2.) Early on in the lecture series, Eliot had confessed more than an academic interest in the study of the metaphysical tradition: "My attitude is that a craftsman who has attempted for eighteen years to make English verses, studying the work of dead artisans who have made better verses. The interest of a craftsman is centered in the present and immediate future: he studies the literature of the past in order to learn how he should write in the present and the immediate future; and no matter how profound and disinterested his studies, they will always so to speak come out at the finger tips, and find their completion in the action of the chisel, the brush or the typewriter" (44).

(3.) See Ashen "What the Clark lectures provide is evidence of the transition from classicism to orthodoxy, though as I have tried to indicate this is really just an adjustment of a constant set of values rather than a break with the past" (21). As a statement about Eliot's politics, Asher's account offers a strong case for this claim. But as a statement about Eliot's poetics, it ignores the internal complexities around the question of poetic agency which are crucial not to a decision about Eliot's ideological commitments, but to the value of Eliot's thought for contemporary theory and criticism. His description of Eliot's break--"Radical individualism and reliance on one's inner voice is still anathema, but the charge of romanticism is evolving into that of heresy"--is attentive to Eliot's revised diagnosis of problematic poetry, but overlooks the complicated terrain poetic agency must now occupy in his new model. The shift towards orthodoxy places a more intense pressure on this poetic agency, which does not disappear as much as it becomes more problematic.

(4.) See Eliot Letters. In a letter to John Quinn dated 9 May 1921, Eliot writes, "I see reason in your objection to my punctuation; but I hold that the line itself punctuates, and the addition of a comma in many places, seems to me to over-emphasize the arrest. That is because I always pause at the end of a line in reading verse, which perhaps you do not" (451). But one need only to listen to Eliot's own recorded reading of The Waste Land, particularly to the portions of "The Fire Sermon" that are structured not unlike these lines from The Hollow Men to see that this is indeed not his practice, even when reading aloud.

(5.) Kenner quotes from Julius Caesar II.i.63-4.
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Title Annotation:T. S. Eliot
Author:Jeon, Joseph Jonghyun
Publication:Yeats Eliot Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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