According to poets.org, T.S Eliot was born as Thomas Sterns Eliot in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888. He lived in Missouri until leaving to earn both undergraduate and master degrees at Harvard. He then traveled to Paris, until returning to Harvard to gain a
doctorate degree in Philosophy. He did not move to England until he was twenty-six years old. He did not become a citizen of Britain until 1927. Why is Eliot’
s background important? Well, what makes British Literature and American Literature differ in this sense? Although Eliot had both a citizenship of England and America, he is always noted as a British writer, being anthologized in the Norton Anthology of British Literature we use in class. Through understanding Eliot’s works readers can understand what it means to be a British writer.
Morrell, Lady Ottoline. Thomas Stearns (‘T.S.’) Eliot with his sister and his cousin. Digital image. Wikimedia.org. National Portrait Gallery, 1934. Web. 14 May 2017.
Due to Eliot living in England during both World War I and World War II, a lot of his work shows the darkness that England, and most of Europe faced during this hardships. His poem “The Hollow Men”, sheds light on the dark times of England. The poem starts out with two different Epigraphs. The first is a quotation from Joseph Conrad’s novel we read earlier in this time period, Heart of Darkness. By starting out with “Mistah Kurtz- he dead” (Eliot 2543), it shows the death of an older man who agreed with Western imperialism. Although this time is “over” due to Mistah Kurtz’s death, by starting the poem out with this allusion, points out the fact that the troubles of England have been ingrained for a while, and are still going on even though imperialism died with Mistah Kurtz. The second Epigraph is referencing to children begging to pennies to guy fireworks to kindle scarecrows for Guy Fawkes’s day, a national holiday for England. These scarecrows, are to represent Guy Fawkes who was a traitor to the British. A holiday basically for kids to set fire to a symbol of a traitor; talk about some national pride! Both of these epigraphs show the death and doom that life in England have. First the imperialism (and death of) and the death of the traitor, we can tell this poem is not light stuff.
In Line 15 and 16 of the poem, the speaker give allusion of parts of Canto 3 of Dante’s Inferno. In Dante’s Inferno, groups of souls were excluded from Hell because they were not bad enough. In Eliot’s poem is states “Remember us- if at all- not as lost violent souls, but only as the hollow men” (Eliot 2543). They cannot take a side, so they are basically in Purgatory. This makes the reader think if the speaker is referring to Britain as a purgatory. The men aren’t lost or violent, they are just- there. The poem also references Dante’s Inferno in line 60 as the speaker states, “Gathered on this beach of the tumid river” (Eliot 2543). The term “beach of the tumid river” gives understanding that this river, most liking the Acheron River, which is a branch of the mythological River Styx, is swollen. Swollen shows that the river is overfull, just how the London streets must have felt to Eliot at the time of his writing. The term “beach” makes a reader think of a vacation, yet this is not a vacation at all. It is the life of these hollow men.
In lines 77, and 91-94 there are references to the Lord’s Prayer that many Christians still know by heart. “For Thine is the Kingdom” (Eliot 2543), refers to Heaven. This is a drastic switch from talking about Hell in previous lines. This relates to how difficult living in England is, especially during the World Wars and how the “kingdom” meaning heaven is the goal, yet it is rather unreachable. This plays into the purgatory idea again, that they are neither in heaven or hell. They are just there. Also, “For Thine is the Kingdom” starts the end of the prayer, which is a prayer often read right before someone passes away, if the death is imminent, and could have meaning that the speaker might be close to death or that they know someone who is. It might also mean that England as a whole is just people close to death.
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.”
Many scientists believe that the world started with a bang- the big bang. Yet, with this the speaker is showing that war (the bang) will not end the world, but the whimper of the dying will. Although this poem is not very uplifting, I suppose this ending can give the reader a sense of hope that war won’t end the world, yet that’s a stretch.
So, how does this poem show that Eliot is a British writer? Although America also has hardships, this poem relates itself to many different British epigraphs and metaphors. Throughout the entire poem, it relates “the hollow men” to those who are stuffed just like the scarecrows about to explode.It shows the pain living in England has on people, and how it feels like they are living in purgatory. The important of British Literature, is not about the country in which the author was born, but how their literature helps solidify history and culture of the country.