The poem is one of the most powerful literary methods used to convey ideas or opinions. Through vivid imagery and compelling metaphors, the poem conveys to the reader the thoughts and emotions of the author. Modern poets, however, manipulated traditional forms of poetry and sought to greatly influence the ideas of their readers. T.S. Eliot is a prime example of a modern poet who wrote controversial and thought-provoking works, particularly ?The Hollow Men?.
Modernism is the time period between 1865 and 1950 that consisted of a change in the perspectives of how people examined themselves and their role in society. Many things occurred during these eighty-five years that accounted for great social change. Among these things were World War I, the Civil Rights Movement, prohibition, women?s suffrage, the Great Depression and World War II. Particularly after World War I and during women?s suffrage, society?s standpoint on certain issues changed dramatically. After World War I, people?s attitudes were brimming with high expectations for themselves but were soon lowered after the economy?s fall. During women?s suffrage, society?s focus on simple traditions shifted to concentrate more on urban culture. The Great Depression also caused major stress and hopelessness for the nation resulting in a time of despair for much of the world. Meanwhile, many writers emerged, such as Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot. These writers found themselves in a generation of consecutive movements. While having to sustain their creativity, they had to go forward with the seasons at the same time. Their works are characterized as ?breaking away from patterned responses and predictable forms?(Reuben). Many of their pieces contested tradition against new methods. The outlook of society changed from a moral perspective to fast times. Many people tended to look individually from average events that occurred in their daily lives to find greater reasoning.
T.S. Eliot is considered to be one of the most prominent poets and playwrights of the modern era and his works are said to have promoted a ?reshape [of] modern literature? (World Book). He was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri and studied at Harvard and Oxford. It was at Harvard where he met his guide and mentor Ezra Pound, another well-known modernist poet. Pound encouraged Eliot to expand his writing abilities and publish his work. Eliot became a citizen of England in 1925 and received the Nobel Peace Prize for literature in 1948. Eliot connected most of his earlier works to French Symbolists, such as Mallarme, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud and first came into contact with these three in college while reading The Symbolist Movement in Literature by Arthur Symons. (Pearce) He produced a celebrated style that was original and new for his time. He learned the ability of other poets to write poetry filled with wisdom while adding his own passionate language. Eliot?s most famous works include The Waste Land, ?The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?, ?Ash Wednesday?, ?Four Quartets?, ?The Elder Statesman?, ?The Confidential Clerk?, and ?The Hollow Men?. His early works, like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Wasteland, are written based on a wide range of cultural reference that depict a modern world in ruins yet somehow beautiful and deeply meaningful. (Spender)
Eliot?s later poetry includes more spiritual and religious themes as he got older and declared himself Christian. His later works tend to focus on giving revelations and advice instead of centering on the behavior of mankind like his earlier poetry. Most of his poetry comes from observations he made by watching humans interact with one another and their environment. He believed in speaking truthfully and bringing originality to everything he did. Eliot made it clear that the poem should come before the poet and emphasized society?s role in his poetry. As a whole, the works of T.S. Eliot depict the public?s position as a moving culture faced with conflict.
Eliot?s poetry informs the reader of human circumstances whether they are glorious or disturbing. Many of his poems are associated with death and dreadful imagery. For example, his poem, ?Whispers of Immortality,? which was written in 1920, gives an unpleasant glance at death and the interest behind it. During this time, the world was suffering from a turning point caused by World War I and many of the population?s young men were killed. On the other hand, other poems contain humor. In a manner of speaking, Eliot uses amusement in certain works to confront important social problems, such as in the poem ?The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.? This poem presents a humorous situation packed with pessimism that permits the reader to associate him or herself with the main character and ask questions. For many readers in the 1920s, the main character, Prufrock, seemed to summarize the frustration and insecurity of the modern individual. As Pearce stated: ?[Prufrock] seemed to represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment.? His poems also make the reader aware of enduring circumstances, such as the role of tradition in the home and the argument of religion. ?Modern poetry, such as Eliot?s, was the first great ideological response to social crisis and breakdown of shared religion,? noted Reuben.
Eliot?s poems reflect the chaotic lives of individuals and society as a whole. Keep points out that ?modernism thus marks a distinctive break with Victorian bourgeois morality; rejecting nineteenth century optimism, they presented a profoundly pessimistic picture of a culture in disarray.? Eliot?s most distinguishable piece of work concerning the disorder of the community is The Wasteland. In this five-part poem, Eliot produces characters based on the manners of individuals living during the World War I generation. The characters are going through distress and morals are thrown out while they seek and hope for a good resolution. The emphasis of the poem is on the conflict surrounding faith instead of the declaration of it. Most of Eliot?s other poems during this time reflect on society?s hopelessness and desperation following the war.
Much of Eliot?s poetry centers around the plight and the lifestyles of women as well. During his career as a writer, women began to climb the social ladder. Many women began taking jobs that were usually male-dominated and they also acquired the right to vote. The Portrait of a Lady, ?Aunt Helen?, and ?Cousin Nancy? are among various poems written by T.S. Eliot that has themes dealing with women and their advancement in society. In the poem ?Cousin Nancy,? Eliot writes:
?Miss Nancy Ellicott Strode across the hills and broke them,
Rode across the hills and broke them–
The barren New England hills–
Riding to hounds
Over the cow-pasture.
Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.?
This poem fully demonstrates the impact of women?s presence in the modern society. It shows the confidence of the new profound woman and how the older generation, or ?her aunts,? reacts to the new movement. His poems reflect on the women of that time period as they begin to explore their sexuality and intellect. He confirms their position in the world, especially at a time of great change.
T.S. Eliot challenged tradition in society and then reinforced it. Customs and traditions are said to be two main things that help a culture prosper. In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot explores the role that tradition plays in humans, particularly writers. He declares that the dictionary meaning of tradition should be discouraged and that tradition is something earned rather than being passed down. ?Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour,? Eliot writes.
Eliot was also deeply concerned with the culture?s moral emptiness and with ways for people to become more honest. ?Unfortunately, by the time Eliot wrote on cultural issues, beginning in the 1930s, we had lost so much of our inheritance that we no longer recognized our condition? (Keep). In that case, Eliot had to find a way, through his writings, to explain the importance of having a culture. His poems ?The Hollow Men?, ?A Cooking Egg? and ?Mr. Eliot?s Sunday Morning Service? are prime examples of his concern for the ethical values of society. The aftermath of the war and the depression of the 1930?s caused hardship for the nation?s people and resulted in violence and ailment. ?Eliot stressed that morals and assurance was passed down through cultures and that culture cannot be separated from religion? (Keep).
The imagery depicted in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” evokes a sense of desolate hopelessness and lends to Eliot’s generally cynical view of civilization during this period in history. A reaction of deep and profound disappointment in mankind around him is made evident in this stark work, first published in 1925. In this short piece, Eliot enumerates several deep faults he finds in his fellow man, including hypocrisy, apathy and indifference, and leaves the reader with a feeling of overwhelming emptiness. An important feature of this poem is the fact that the narration of the poem is in first person. This establishes Eliot’s and the reader?s (society?s) relationship to the images and ideas presented. When the poem begins “We are the hollow men” rather than “They are …” or “You are…” the reader is immediately included in this description. This type of narration creates a sense of common “hollowness” and by the end of the poem, therefore, a sense of common responsibility and guilt.
Eliot then mentions the dead, calling them “Those who have crossed…to death’s other kingdom.” He repeatedly mentions their eyes. He refers to them first as making their crossing into death with “direct eyes,” meaning that they faced death, unable to turn away. Eliot also states they have “eyes I dare not meet in dreams,” indicating that the narrator fears meeting such hollow and immoral people. Later in the poem, in part IV, Eliot returns to the eye imagery with “The eyes are not here/There are no eyes here.” The absence of eyes indicates Eliot’s condemnation of indifference among those still living to the fate of the dead and emphasizes the absence of their souls, for the eyes are the windows to the soul. Without eyes they are without vision; the eyes, or the souls, are a key to moral strength and hope.
Throughout this powerful poem, the fear of death is brought to surface among ?the hollow men.? This fear is so pronounced because at final judgment, they may be rejected from eternal life because they have not lived good lives on earth. To support this notion, Eliot includes the Lord?s prayer, but a deviated form. The hollow men are trying to pray this prayer, but are so devoid of spirituality that they don?t remember the prayer nor can they properly recite it. The image of the scarecrow, or hollow man, in the field with crossed staves can also be seen as an evocation of the Christian image of Christ suffering on the cross. This reference reveals the hypocrisy of men who consider themselves followers of Christ but do nothing to express their so-called faith or to relieve suffering of men in their own time and place. The end of the poem comes by way of ironic completion as the nursery rhyme takes up its repetitive round, and terminates with the line that characterizes the evasive excuse: ?This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.?
Eliot?s poetry connects to society by providing a window into individual thoughts and behaviors of his time period. This connection to society is exemplified in ?The Hollow Men?. The overriding image of humankind as ?hollow men? is powerful and depressing, but these are the exact feelings that Eliot most likely intended to convey. Eliot was very much intrigued with the kind of society people claimed to desire and how it was supposed to be achieved. Eliot wanted people to regain their spirituality and sense of worth and hoped to convert them by means of his poetry.
Works CitedEliot, T.S. The Complete Poems and Plays. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1971.
Keep, Christopher, Tim McLaughlin, and Robin Parmer. The Electronic Labyrinth. 1993.
Reuben, Paul P. ?Chapter 7: Early Twentieth Century-T.S. Eliot.? PAL: Perspectives in
American Literature– A Research and Reference Guide. 7 June 2000.
?T.S. Eliot.? World Book Encyclopedia. World Book, Inc. 1985. pp. 185-186.