In many respects, T. S. Eliot’s poems “articulated the disillusionment of a younger post-World-War-I generation with the values and conventions—both literary and social—of the Victorian era” (American National). Eliot used The Waste Land and The Hollow Men to illustrate his feelings of a brutal age of war. The Waste Land was “taken over by the postwar generation as a rallying cry for its sense of disillusionment” (American National). These feelings of disillusionment gave way to a more stable religious theme, such as in Journey of the Magi, later in Eliot’s career.
T. S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot was born September 26, 1888. Until he was eighteen, Eliot lived in St. Louis and then went on to attend Harvard. At twenty-two, after earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, Eliot moved to the Sorbonne University in Paris. After spending a year at the Sorbonne, Eliot returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but in 1914 he moved to England. In 1915, Eliot married his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and they moved into a London flat with Bertrand Russell.
Not only did Russell share his flat with the Eliots, but he also shared with them his social connections. With Russell’s help Eliot met many of Europe’s elite, including Ezra Pound. Pound helped Eliot to meet many of his contemporary authors, poets, and artists. Eliot and Russell’s relationship soured over Russell’s romantic involvement with Vivienne, which led to Eliot not attending his Ph.D. dissertation defense.
It was during this time that Pound recognized Eliot’s poetic ability, and “in 1917 he received an enormous boost from the publication of his first book, Prufrock and Other Observations, printed by the Egoist with the silent financial support of Ezra and Dorothy Pound” (American National). Prufrock established Eliot as a leading poet of the twentieth century. The years of Eliot’s poetic maturation were accompanied by familial hardship. Eliot’s father died in 1919, at the same time as Vivienne’s mental and physical health started to deteriorate, and the emotional strain on Eliot took its toll. In 1921, Eliot suffered from a nervous collapse, and on his physician’s advice he took a three-month’s restive cure.
Whether it was because of the breakdown or the long-needed rest he received afterwards, Eliot recovered from a severe case of writer’s block. He took the time to finish a poem he had started in 1919, which became The Waste Land. The poem’s intensity stems from a blending of the horrors of Eliot’s life, the recently fought war, and many literary influences from English mythology. Although written during a very trying time in his life, it was the publication of The Waste Land that made “Eliot’s reputation grow to nearly mythic proportions; by 1930, and for the next thirty years, he was the most dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world” (American National).
The Waste Land reveals itself as aptly titled, especially when the difficult and dream-like verses have yielded their secrets. The melancholy and morose lyrical feast unveils the aridity and impotence of modern civilization in a series of sometimes realistic and sometimes surrealistic mythological episodes, whose perspectives overlap and underline each other with an indescribable total effect. The complete poem cycle consists of a mere 436 lines, but actually it contains more meaning and impact than most novels of as many pages. The Waste Land is now more than eighty years old, but unfortunately it has proved that its catastrophic visions still have undiminished clairvoyance in the shadow of the digital age, and as Eliot stated about his own work: “I don’t see why the prospect of human annihilation should affect the poet differently from men of other vocations. It will affect him as a human being, no doubt in proportion to his sensitiveness” (Hall Interview 221).
The surreal nature of The Waste Land is in itself a means to Eliot’s ends. The poetic juxtapositions he uses allow Eliot to produce a feeling of shock and awe to offset his message of a hopeless new age. The poem’s discontinuity, from this perspective, is a symbolic form of the confusion of awakening from a deep slumber. The poem’s use of allusions to the past as well as its form must be read as a sign of the disruptive power of primal forces reasserting themselves. It is hopeful to a Christian society to believe that it lives in a world where God is not dead, but the poem is not about such a world. The hope that The Waste Land holds is a negative one: “[t] he fact that men have lost the knowledge of good and evil, keeps them from being alive” (Brooks 186). The Waste Land does not merely reflect the passing of the golden age of Victoria, but shows Eliot’s feelings of a society where people walk around morally dead. Beneath Eliot’s scathing criticism there lies a “profound and painful disillusionment, and out of this disillusionment there [grows] forth a feeling of sympathy, and out of that sympathy [is] born a growing urge to rescue from the ruins of the confusion the fragments from which order and stability might be restored” (Nobel).
The Waste Land was Eliot’s first long poem, and can be read as his philosophy on the need to still destructive human desires. There is little hope found in The Waste Land; its major theme is the inevitable collapse of society through the “Unreal City,” which Eliot seems to use to represent post-war urban areas. This “Unreal City” is always “[u] nder the brown fog” (Waste Land ℓℓ 61 & 208), which seems to represent the pall of death that hung over much of Europe after World War I. The “Unreal City” is a nightmarish place that parallels the urban decay and disintegration of the majority of Europe’s cities after WWI. The poem’s finale is an orgy of elemental and social violence, with “[those] who were living […] now dying” and the “red sullen faces [that] sneer and snarl from doors of mudcracked houses” (Waste Land ℓℓ 329 & 344-45), representing the inevitability of death and the fear of man. What the poem attempts here, by pointing out the slow descent to death and the fear ascribed to that death, is the achievement of an elaborate code of conduct that is indicative of the desires, which Eliot feels should be repressed.
However, Eliot, consumed by the rigors of his domestic life, found it hard to fully appreciate his success. In 1923, Vivienne almost died, which nearly sent Eliot into a second emotional breakdown. Over the next two years, Eliot continued down his path of emotional despair, until a lucky chance allowed him to quit his overly demanding job at Lloyd’s Bank. The infant publishing company of Faber and Gwyer saw the advantage of having a literary editor who was versed both in letters and business and hired Eliot. Eliot had finally found a job for which he was suited.
The seeds of his future faith take root in The Hollow Men, although when published in 1925 the poem reads as the sequel to the philosophical despair of The Waste Land. Although The Hollow Men is not truly a sequel to The Waste Land, it is a thematic appendix to this earlier work. Like The Waste Land, The Hollow Men shows the depths of Eliot’s despair and need for a compass by which to guide himself. By starting the poem with “Mr. Kurtz–he dead,” Eliot taps into Conrad’s theme in Heart of Darkness of the death of the gods of primitive men. The death of Kurtz, the god of Conrad’s African primitives, shadows the death of the primitive elemental forces that govern Eliot’s life, like some ancient thunder god. With the death of his primitive gods, Eliot becomes one of the hollow men and must find something with which to fill himself up again.
The Hollow Men takes place in a twilight world of lost souls and disembodied forces. This world is peopled by “[s]hape[s] without form, shade[s] without colour, paralysed force[s], gesture[s] without motion” (Hollow ℓℓ 11-12). These hollow men are walking corpses, soulless individuals who do not know that they have lost their souls. These men live in a “valley of dying stars” (Hollow ℓℓ 54), a land that is as hollow as they are themselves. The hollow men avert their eyes not only from each other, but also from the eyes of the divine; they are empty men estranged from God. They are the shadow that isolates men from each other and the divine; these hollow men are the unenlightened masses, devoid of a moral compass. These hollow men share the fate of “inhabit[ing] ‘death’s dream kingdom,’ not remembered, to be sure, as ‘lost violent souls,’ but, not on the other hand, even memorable” (Kenner 161).
Although there is little hope for the hollow men in their “twilight kingdom” (Hollow ℓℓ 38), there is life outside in “death’s other kingdom” (Hollow ℓℓ 46). This other kingdom, God’s kingdom, is peopled by the stuffed men: those who found their souls and are no longer hollow. Eliot’s hollow men seem to believe, at least to some degree, that if they withstand “the twilight kingdom” they may find some rebirth in “death’s other kingdom.” Through Eliot’s use of the snippets of the Lord’s Prayer in the poem’s conclusion, he implies that the hollow men’s adverted eyes may once again turn to the divine and they may become members of the stuffed men.
The Hollow Men seems to be Eliot’s final exorcism of the dæmons of his troubled youth. Merely two years after the publishing of the poem, Eliot’s life began to head in a slightly more stable direction. In 1927 two important things happened in Eliot’s life: he found God in the Church of England and he became a British citizen. Although Eliot’s marriage and personal life continued to disintegrate, he began to find solace in his new relationship with God. Therefore, Eliot’s emotional turmoil of his youth gave way to a religious maturation both in his person and his poetry. With his latter religious poems such as Journey of the Magi, Eliot tries to capture God’s calming influence on his life and share it with others.
Journey of the Magi is the monologue of one of the three wise men, come to see the nativity. Although he believes in the importance of the birth he comes to witness, proven by his willingness to travel to Bethlehem, the magi is not jubilant but melancholy. He has been “led all that way for Birth or Death” (Magi ℓℓ 35-36), but does not comprehend that which he has truly come to see: the child’s birth or his own death. It is not until he witnesses the scene that the magi truly knows the answer.
Upon his journey home the magi realizes the real reason for his journey: “It is not that the Birth that is also Death has brought him hope of a new life, but that it has revealed to him the hopelessness of the previous life” (Smith 122). This realization has not filled him with the fervor or elation of those touched by God, but the morose emptiness of one whose life has been exposed for the fallacy that it is. The magi must now return home to face the “alien people clutching their gods” (Magi ℓℓ 42). His transformation is so complete that he can no longer relate to his own people, the magi now knows the true God, and the gods of his people become as alien to him as his people now seem.
Eliot uses the magi to represent his own sacrifice; “he has reached essentially, on a symbolic level true to his emotional, if not to his intellectual, life, the humble, negative stage that in a mystical progress would be prerequisite to union” (Smith 123). In other words, Eliot has reached the very limit of personal tribulation, and through his acceptance of God, and the sacrifice of his old emotional turmoil he has been reborn into a new version of himself. “Uncertainty leaves [the magi] mystified and unaroused to the full splendor of the strange epiphany” (Smith 124), and Eliot seems to view his own sacrifice with some melancholy, as if his uncertainty matches the magi’s. Even though there is uncertainty in Eliot’s transformation, he has matured enough to realize the calmness of his faith is probably better in the long run than the “old gods” of his tumultuous heathenism.
Through the reading of his work it is easy to see why, in 1948, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry” (Nobel). Just in examining these three poems alone, they can be seen as definitions of poetry itself: they masterfully show the emotions and experiences of the poet in a way that elicits a similar reaction from the reader. If these poems are considered among the complete body of his work, they retain the same meaning as well. Eliot spent his career cataloguing his life through its translation into poetry. This kind of expansive self improvement and refinement is a mark of achievement for anyone, but his ability to turn his life into verse to which anyone can experience sets Eliot apart as a truly great poet.
Brooks, Cleanth Jr. “The Waste Land: An Analysis”. A Norton Critical Edition: T.S. Eliot The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York: Norton & Company, 2001. pp. 185-210.
Cooper, John Xiros. T.S. Eliot and the Politics of Voice: The Argument of “The Waste Land”. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.
Eliot, T.S. The Hollow Men. Collected Poems: 1909-1962. London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991.
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Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot. London: W.H. Allen, 1960. pp. 161-164.
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“T.S. Eliot Presentation Speech”. Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967. Editor Horst Frenz. Amesterdam: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1969.
Smith, Grover. T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956. pp.122-124.