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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot

"The Hollow Men" can be found here [link]

some of Eliot's own line periods


Perhaps I move a touch too quickly with this post. In defense my intent here, as with other posts of this nature, is not to argue definitively but to prompt thought.


Seeing a small word – an adverb or pronoun or conjunction – at the end of a line is these days a too reliable cue that the break is unpurposed, in continuation of the previous post that the line carries no sense of a line period, that it is not a constructed line; such words are too frequently strong evidence that the text is not verse at all but prose with line breaks pretending to verse.

Take, as a quick example, and possibly too easy an example, Philip Levine's "The Second Coming," which appears in the February Poetry Magazine, found online here [link]. Out of eight lines, five of them end in small words: "the," "only," "is," "a," and "of." At first glance – indeed at that first "the" – a reader should know that the text is not verse, that it will show little of that fundamental quality of verse, the crafted line.

That the text is shaped does not defeat the assessment, it does not magically turn a prose text into verse. One need only think about the shaping of text in magazine advertisements as cases in point. There is nothing about concrete shape that excludes the possibility of crafting lines, as such


the text

is physically

shaped does not

excuse the author who

desires to write verse from

the requirement of writing lines.

Indeed, my initial response to such texts – and this shaping includes breaking lines to be the same length– "wow, you didn't try very hard at all." Which is not a good thing.

Which is not to say that every time a line ends in a small word it is a poor line. A line with such an ending can yet be a crafted line. For example:

Reflecting light upon the table as (83)

That is from The Waste Land, which was written after Eliot published the essay on Marlowe in which we find the phrase "line period," so ostensibly Eliot is crafting his lines with the idea of a line period in mind. How then does Eliot justify, textually, the construction? Let me give you the full context, which is at the opening to "A Game of Chess." The excerpt starts in mid-sentence, and ends before the sentence ends.

From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion;
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes, (80-87)

The first way Eliot strengthens the naturally weak, closing "as": the text is blank verse and the "as" is a stressed syllable; as well, it is the closing stress of a very regular line.

reFLECting LIGHT uPON the TAble AS

Second, he gives strength to the word by following it with the rhyming "glass" three lines later (a rhyme that finds companionship with the aural echo between "profusion" and "perfumes"). Third, the lines preceding and following have strong, independent identities, so it is a not a moment of weakness within a more general weakness. Finally, ending the line on "as" is stronger than the alternative, starting the next line with the "as." I add a word to keep the rhythm:

Reflecting light upon the lacquered table
As the glitter of her jewels rose to meet it.

The double unstressed syllables at the front of the line would be a less welcomed choice, especially in that within a natural reading of the sentence the "as" begs to be stressed. Indeed, I would argue that setting the "as" as a stressed syllable on the end of the line gives the following line more strength of identity – which is no small matter.

In toto, the line – and passage – was not written with the "as" left dangling at the end because of an arbitrary break: there is a design to be found in the context that gives that "as" strength. The line is a crafted line with a line period, and the line can be read as having an aural 'period,' if a soft one, after "as."

There are a couple of other places we can point to in The Waste Land. To chose but one more, consider

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only (24)

The word "only" finds much of its strength in that it is part of a textual event that is characteristic of Eliot: the use of the repetition of words across the ends of the lines. Eliot does it thrice in the broader context, with "only," with "red rock" and with "you."

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; (21-29)

Though the second use of "only" is a single word, the first word of a sentence set at the end of a line, it is set up by the first "only," which has its own semantic justification: it belongs with the whole of the line of which it is a part.

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
Only what?
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

The repetition of onlys strengthens the second "only." Though the second "only" does not have a line leading into it as with the first, the reader has already been told now to read it.

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
Only what?
There is shadow under this red rock,

With those two examples alone we have already a fairly strong understanding of the ways in which Eliot uses and strengthens small words at the end of the line.

There are but a few example in his works that preceded The Waste Land. One is found in "Preludes."

Sitting along the bed's edge, where (35)

Here too the word is strengthed with meter and with rhyme.

You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

There is also created the same effect that was created with "only": a hesitation before the next line. As with the "as" in the first example, that hesitation is strengthened by the "where" being metrically in a place of stress.

The fifth stanza of "Gerontion" is filled with odd line endings. But the stanza is another example of how Eliot uses line endings to give shape across free verse lines.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What's not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what's thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.

Notice all the repetitions along the end of the lines. You have the trebled "Think now," "Think now", "Think." You have "Gives to late" and "Gives too soon." There is also "Unnatural vices" and "impudent crimes," as well as "whispering ambitions" and "subtle confusions." Here the verseform constructed across the stanza gives strength to lines that, in other contexts, might very well be points of weakness. (One should also recognize here a similar use of halting enjambement such as is found in the opening of The Waste Land.)


Let's move forward now to "The Hollow Men," a text that is mostly free verse. I want to look at six lines in the poem that resemble the kind of textual event that I have been discussing. The point is to see how the lines maintain their strength within the text, how Eliot does not permit the small words at the end of the line to be a weakness to the line. I'm not going to over state the case: much of the work has already been done with the brief discussion above. I'll mostly point out the line, give reasons why the line has strength, and move on.

Keep in mind that "The Hollow Men" is constituted mostly of short, choppy lines. This is a poem whose main body closes – before the final incantatory stanza – by emphasizing that halting nature of the text:

   For Thine is
Life is
For thine is the

It is Eliot's aim to maintain that short, choppy presentation throughout. Greatly, the lines with the small words are crafted to work toward that aim.

I'll take the six instances in order.

(1) Line 4:

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Now the final word of the line is a one word sentence, so it carries the strength of its own identity. For that it's really outside the discussion. But it is interesting in that whether it is placed on the end of line 4 or at the beginning of line 5 it changes the referent of the exclamation: either

Headpiece filled with straw, alas!


Alas, our dried voices

Comparing the two is a small exercise in poetic semantics. Having it on line 4 is much preferable, working there as a despairing close to the opening statement (lines 1-4) of the nature and plight of the hollow men. It would be weaker if it led off line 5.

(2) Next comes that next line, line 5.

Our dried voices, when

In three ways is the word "when" given strength. First, there is the rhyme with the first two lines of the stanza.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when

Second is the structural echo with line 4. But the strength of line 5 lies greatly as well in now it lends to the strength of line 6

We whisper together

which itself carries an aural strength by the echo between the two triplets of syllables:

we WHIS per // to GE ther

That identity and strength in that line would only be weakened if the "when" were dropped down to lead the line off – not to mention putting "when" at the end of the previous line also avoids leading off the line with two unstressed syllables.

(3) The next example is line 16, in the third stanza.

Violent souls, but only

There is in the line the aural echoing across the comma found in the last example. But the main reason the "but only" works at the end of the line is, similar to the previous example, lies greatly in what it makes of the line following.

Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men

It preservers the choppy phrasing that was established in the opening declaration. By keeping the conjunctive phrase out of the following line, that line, with the line after, is made to echo the opening lines of the section.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
. . .
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

The section thus closes as opened.

(4) Line 25, in the first stanza of section II:

And voices are

Again, here the construction of the line has strength in what it permits the lines around it to do: namely, echo, without becoming overly long. Again, keep in mind Eliot wants the line to be short and abrupt.

There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing

There is a musical quality to the triplet of lines. Of course, the "are" is strengthened also by the rhyme three lines later.

And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

(5) Line 48, in the second stanza in the third section.

At the hour when we are

Looking within, the line has its own rhyme and structural doubling with

At the hour // when we are

And in context, the line is greatly formed by the surrounding lines. Looking forward, it permits "Trembling with tenderness" to keep its brevity and its own aural unity. Looking backward, it is almost like the construction is dictated by the short statements leading in,

   Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are

especially with the sense of dimeter established in the stanza.

(6) Line 61, opening the third stanza of section IV. This might be my favorite of the six.

   Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star.

Though really there is nothing here that hasn't been seen before. There is the aural doubling within the line. And there is the strength given to the following line by it not having to carry the conjunction. But what I like best is the pause, the emotional reversal, created by the coupling of the two words:

Sightless . . . . . . . . . . unless

That first, single word, "Sightless," is isolated by the comma from the rest of the stanza, the rest of the stanza being introduced by the second, single word, "unless": a hopeful word, but with it being paired with "Sightless," with it not escaping the line, a word that is emptied of hope as soon as it is uttered. As though the unseen final line of the stanza might be

But, yet, sightless.

a line not unwarranted because of the actual final lines of the stanza,

The hope only
Of empty men

that which again echoes the grounding, opening statement of the text.

Quickly through them, there. But, again, the aim here is to point them out and show how Eliot never permits such a line construction to be a weakness within a text. Always he strengthens the weak ending of the line through the line's own construction and/or the ending's interaction with the surrounding lines. Never is the line permitted to be questioned; never is the break permitted to look arbitrary.

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