Modernism in Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” Poem Essay
Updated: Jul 5th, 2021
Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of the acclaimed poets of the twentieth century, was not only one of the major authors of his time but a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. His poems are monumental to the modernist style, with many of his works laying the foundation for further development of the movement. The modernists, war influenced and dealing with the terrors the First World War had inflicted upon people, attempted to transfer the general attitude of society through their work.
The literary characteristics of the style stem from horrors experienced in the First World War, which brought to life a distrust of authority, secular and religious, as well as a disassociation between soul and body. Effectively outlined in a paper by Palmer and Minogue, “from a fragmented modern world arose the fragmented subject of self” (228). “The Hollow Men” is an apt example of the modernist style in Eliot’s work, demonstrating all the core characteristics of it. Eliot develops the theme of fragmentation and broken things in the poem by describing anything surrounding the hollow men as damaged. From their voices characterized as “rats’ feet over broken glass” (Eliot I) to their idolatry in “Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone,” (Eliot III) the men exist in a fractured world. This scene of destruction indicates the spiritual devastation of the men, as the depiction of death and the afterlife connect with the Christian idea of the soul.
A profound sense of loss, through its direct experience, created a society that was disposed to questioning any authority, which sent them to their death, the most substantial being God. The poem, written in 1925, “emphasizes spiritual emptiness, entropy, despair and hopelessness” (Stolarek 235), which are all feelings typical of the interwar period. Displeasure towards religion shows in the portrayal of the afterlife, as the men reside “In this valley of dying stars / In this hollow valley / This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms” (Eliot, IV). This image is not paradise, and the poem ends with the men unable to finish the Lord’s Prayer, as their voices fade “For Thine is / Life is / For Thine is the” (Eliot, V). Written two years before Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism, “The Hollow Men” displays the poet’s conflict with Catholicism, a religion that no longer lets him, and many others of his contemporaries, find solace within itself.
A widespread technique used by modernists in their undermining of authority was not only the focus on common, as opposed to dignified, objects, or misuse of punctuation. Eliot, to demonstrate his stance on those in control, uses citations as “[he] distorts certain quotations according to his poetic needs” (Ducroux 4). Stemming from the aforementioned religious contempt, he rephrases Dante’s description of heaven in “Divine Comedy” as a “Multifoliate rose / Of death’s twilight kingdom” (Eliot IV). This subversion of a classical view of the afterlife demonstrates the drastic change that has come about in the perception of paradise and, by allusion, religion.
A man of his time, Eliot created works deeply reflective of the time after the end of the First World War. The war lasted four years and produced causalities that secured it as one of the deadliest conflicts in history, creating a society traumatized and broken by chemical and trench warfare. Modernism, as a literary style, relayed the growing social sentiment and reassessed that, which was labeled as commonplace in a new, post-war light.
Ducroux, Amélie. “The Feeling of Thought: T.S. Eliot’s Programmatic Poetry.” Transatlantica, no. 2, 2014, pp. 1-15. Web.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. “The Hollow Men.” All Poetry, Web.
Palmer, Andrew, and Sally Minogue. “Modernism and First World War Poetry: Alternative Lines.” A History of Modernist Poetry, edited by Alex Davis and Lee M. Jenkins. Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 227-252.
Stolarek, Joanna. “Quest for Values in T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday.” Fides et Ratio, vol. 1, no. 17, 2014, pp. 234-243, Web.
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