Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.
Thomas Stearns Eliot (26 September 1888–4 January 1965)
The disillusionment caused by World War One and Two not only created chaos amongst citizens, but it sparked a whole different movement within the 20th century. Modernism was not only taken up by famous artists such as Pablo Picasso, Albert Tucker and Vincent van Gogh, but it also triggered the start of the modernist age in literature as well.
T.S. Eliot was a British essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic who was perhaps most known for his famous poetry that encapsulated the anxieties that most faced within that period. This article will take a closer look at two of his poems: 'The Hollow Men' and 'Preludes'.
'Through a series of intense imagery and biblical allusions, Eliot explores his personal conflicts with morality and death in reaction to the socio-economic corruption entailed by World War I.'
Analysing 'The Hollow Men'
With its episodic free verse form and abundance of allusions to great literary works, 'The Hollow Men' allows for many different interpretations.
Interrogating the Role of Christianity in the New World
Eliot demonstrates a deep, psychological reaction to modern society though his poem, 'The Hollow Men'. Through a series of intense imagery and biblical allusions, Eliot explores his personal conflicts with morality and death in reaction to the socio-economic corruption entailed by World War I.
His awareness of society's disorders and questioning of the mysteries of life in response to the wars is reflected through his reproach to Christianity. For instance, Eliot prescribes an autobiography of himself as a hollow man, describing himself as desperately finding himself in a ‘hollow valley', as the technique of repetition is used to depict ‘dying stars’ in part 4.
Eliot reacts to the instability of religion in the modern world through 'valley', which can be read as a biblical allusion—specifically, Psalm 23 states, 'I walk through the valley of the shadow death'.
In conjunction to how ‘dying stars’ symbolise hope, Elliot asks the audience where hope and God might be in a world riddled with turmoil.
Reflecting the Absurdity of Modern Existence
Eliot highlights how society at large leads an absurd existence, demonstrated by 'We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men'. The paradoxical juxtaposition of ‘hollow’ and 'stuffed’ encompasses the audience in ‘we', demonstrating how modern society is full of nothing of importance. The empty nature of existence is demonstrated by:
'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.'
Through the distinction ‘Those who have crossed’, Eliot is emphasising the moral ambiguity, suggesting that it’s better to be remembered as violent than for being ‘hollow’—demonstrating how inaction isolates them from the rest of society.
Abandonment, Isolation and Degradation
Eliot furthers the isolation and degradation in “The eyes are not here/There are no eyes here/In this valley of dying stars'.
'Eyes’ and ‘valley of [death]' demonstrate how the ‘hollow men’ are abandoned, isolated from any hope of divine salvation.
He also uses ‘eyes’ as a motif in this poem, and in the rest of his oeuvre, as a symbol of the ‘soul’, inverting the common trope and using it to demonstrate society’s alienation from morals.
According to literary critic Alfred Alvarez, Eliot’s poetry highlights 'the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering.' This can be seen in the very last stanza: 'This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but with a whimper.'
The allusion to Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot—combined with the repetitive rhythm of the children's nursery rhyme—creates a sense of complacent futility and hopelessness, revealing that the destiny of this alienated and isolated humanity is not worthwhile.
Eliot's Spiritual Turmoil
'The Hollow Men' highlights Elliot’s philosophical anxiety towards the world around him, as he questioned the existence of God after the horrors of the war.
His denominational switch to Anglicanism reflected Eliot’s spiritual turmoil and bitter perception of the world. For example, the persona in part 5 was shown unable to finish 'The Lord’s Prayer', the religious allusion stating, “For Thine is/Life is.”
This suggests that if the hollow men had finished the prayer, their souls would have been saved. This links to Eliot’s trouble fully believing in religion and its ability to offer salvation. Therefore, his poetry can be seen as a deep and personal reflection of the social and religious dismay in the world around him.
Elliot’s poems were products of his reaction to the perceived moral decay of society in the 20th century.
The Meaninglessness of Society
‘Preludes’ explores the banality of human existence in response to modernist philosophy. Elliot utilises symbolism, imagery and irony to confront the audience with the meaninglessness of society.
The imagery of the 'smell of steaks’ points to the meaningless of life and the inevitability of death. ‘Steaks' acts as a metonym for humanity’s temporary existence, because they are meant to expire and point to the death toll of the world wars.
His pessimistic depiction of life is further conveyed through the imagery of grim and unappealing street life, as extracted from his own perception of the modern man in the 20th century. For example, the use of ‘I’ and ‘you’ in the poem can push readers to question the point of living a life driven by conformity.
Alienation and Exhaustion in Modern Industrialised Cities
'Preludes' can also be seen as a study of the alienation and fragmentation of society and the individual in a modern industrialised city.
The poem is structured in fragmented vignettes from a 24-hour city routine, creating a disconnected and monotonous atmosphere reflective of urban life. This is aided by the ambiguous, bleak phrase presented in 'burnt-out ends of smoky days'. It quite literally refers to burnt-out fires that powered the city at that time, but also reflects the exhaustion felt about life in an industrialised, secularised world.
This sense of listless isolation is emphasised in the second-person narration:
'You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;'
The dreary diction in 'lay', 'waited' and 'dozed' creates a lethargic atmosphere, demonstrative of a futile existence. This clearly demonstrates to the reader that modern society is devoid of purpose and meaning, leaving people to reach the conclusion that there is no purpose to their existence.
Evocative Imagery and Isolated Body Parts
This is furthered by Eliot’s use of olfactory imagery ('burnt-out ends'), kinesthetic imagery ('grimy scraps') and visual imagery ('vacant lots'), creating a holistic mood of an alienated society.
Moreover, the isolation and fragmentation of the individual can be seen by the synecdoche of 'short square fingers', 'yellow soles of feet', 'eyes assured of certain certainties'. The portrayal of isolated body parts demonstrates the separation of individuals from humanity’s collective, contributing to the alienated and futile atmosphere.
The simile in 'The worlds revolve like ancient women/Gathering fuel in vacant lots' reinforces the stagnant, hopeless nature of humanity and reflects the atmosphere of futility.
Shutters, Gutters, and Sordid Images
Eliot's used imagery to link the modern world to a red light district, as suggested by the negative tone insinuated by ‘sordid images'. The sordid images are likely a reference to the rise of prostitution triggered by the Great Depression, suggesting that the prostitute in the poem was overcome by regrets and desperation.
Furthermore, the use of rhyme in this instance contrasts the seriousness of the poem, potentially mocking the lives led by these individuals. For instance, ‘shutters’ and ‘gutters’ created a childish element to the poem, as rhyme was associated with nursery rhymes, highlighting the impact of modernist philosophy on Eliot’s worldview.