Eliot was born into a family that was influential in the Unitarian Church. His grandfather was the founder of the Unitarian sect in St. Louis, Missouri, and his uncle founded the Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. Yet, as Eliot matured, he rejected his family’s beliefs. For much of his early adulthood, Eliot lived without regard to organized religion, a choice that was supported by the modernist milieu in which he lived and worked. Personally, Eliot struggled to reconcile his intellect with his faith and, in 1927, at the age of thirty-nine, he was baptized in the Church of England. The move took place only two years after the final publication of ‘‘The Hollow Men.’’ Eliot’s decision to join the Church of England did not endear him to his family, or to his peers. Still, the period in which Eliot struggled with his spirituality also saw the production of three works that are not only religious in content, but also highly prized for their modernist aesthetic, namely, The Waste Land (1922), ‘‘The Hollow Men’’ (1925), and Ash-Wednesday (1930). In fact, numerous critics have commented on the thematic arc among the three works. According to David Spurr in Conflicts in Consciousness: T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism, ‘‘‘The Hollow Men’ replaces the richly chaotic style of The Waste Land with an austerity of expression that prepares for the contemplative mode of AshWednesday.’’
Though a great deal of critical attention is paid to the numerous allusions in ‘‘The Hollow Men,’’ much attention is also directed toward the poems personal and autobiographical aspects, specifically in regard to its religious content. Even without considering Eliot’s personal spiritual journey, the religious tone, content, and imagery in the poem are well worth remaking upon. Quotations from the Lord’s Prayer are obviously religious, as are allusions to Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Yet, the latter does bear some additional exploration. Dante’s work is arguably the source of contemporary conceptions of heaven, hell, and purgatory, and Eliot uses these concepts to great effect. The afterlife that Eliot describes is a desert without eyes, watched over by fading stars, replete with crumbling statues and mouths unable to kiss. All of these images take on a quality distinctly reminiscent of Dante’s purgatory. Given the belief that souls in purgatory will ultimately be allowed to enter heaven, the idea that Eliot portrays purgatory in the poem is bolstered by the speakers’ claim that there is another afterlife, and that there is a final meeting that comes after what would already appear to have been the final meeting.
The absence of eyes in the afterlife, though not an explicitly religious image, is one that many critics have remarked upon in the discussion of ‘‘The Hollow Men’’ as a religious poem. Indeed, according to J. Hillis Miller in Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers, ‘‘there are no eyes in the hollow valley, and the empty men are bereft of God.’’ In fact, Hillis even goes on to indicate that the absence of eyes in the poem is meant to signify the absence of the divine gaze. Supporting the idea that the speakers are in purgatory, the critic also finds that ‘‘Eliot’s hollow men understand dimly that if they endure the death which is prelude to rebirth they have some hope of salvation.’’ Yeats Eliot Review contributor Joseph Jonghyun Jeon, however, declares just the opposite: ‘‘When the hollow men look to the stars for evidence of divinity and the hope of salvation, they see only more emptiness in places that resemble their own too much to offer any solace. The poem is too committed to demarcating a ground for meaning that the absent divine figure cannot provide.’’ Indeed, Jeon goes on to state that ‘‘Eliot makes clear that the hollow men have no agency, and hence are incapable of self-sacrifice. It is central to the poem’s project to render such a place as heaven as either inaccessible and inconceivable or proximate, and thus unable to live up to any promise of transcendence.’’ The impossibility of heaven in the poem, to Jeon, is evidenced by sections one through four, which he describes as an ‘‘attempt to accord human thought as figured by the hollow men with orthodox belief.’’ Yet, Jeon finds that ‘‘the available structures ultimately fold in on themselves. The failure of the many binary differences in these sections also means the impossibility of salvation because an ideal place like heaven and a divine figure become unimaginable.’’
Certainly, it would seem that religion in Eliot’s poem is a dead thing, one that must pass away in order to make room for the new. Yet, Hillis disagrees with this interpretation, observing that ‘‘though nature, other people, and God have an almost entirely negative existence in the poem, they do exist as something outside the hollow men.’’ To Hillis, this distinction imbues ‘‘nature, other people, and God’’ with at least one redeeming quality. Regardless, religion’s impotence seems to be further indicated in the poem’s final section. The juxtaposition (the placing side by side) of the Lord’s Prayer with a children’s nursery rhyme is a compelling example of this impotence. Another such example can be found in the poem’s final line, which asserts that the apocalypse will come quietly, that no grand display heralding the end of the world will be forthcoming. To Jeon, however, this line need not be taken at face value. He states that ‘‘the hollow men try unsuccessfully to imagine the existence of a divine and a world that depend on such a figure and, accordingly, their voices fail to register in any effective manner.’’ This failure, then, evokes the whispers referred to in the final lines. Even more remarkably, Jeon declares that Eliot ‘‘treats whimpers, not as meaningless utterances that vanish in the abyss between heaven and earth, but as shadowy murmurs that have no meaning until they are considered in relation to one other.’’ He adds: ‘‘The key is scale. A whimper among gods is a meaningless sound: a whimper among whimpers is a language.’’
It is hard to say whether Hillis or Jeon are correct in their varying interpretations; the poem’s ambiguous and ambivalent nature implies many possible or plausible meanings. However, Jeon is perhaps most eloquent in his assessment. He finds that ‘‘whimpers for Eliot in this poem carry the force of bangs. Whimpers in the end are not retreats.’’ Indeed, if ‘‘The Hollow Men’’ provides any solution to the question of religion, Jeon asserts: ‘‘The answer that this poem provides is that prayer without God is poetry.’’
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, T. S. Eliot, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Hollow Men,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010