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Analysing Thomas Eliot's (T.S Eliot) Poems: 'The Hollow Men' and 'Preludes'

Updated on February 5, 2018
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Working towards a Bachelor of Arts, Simran writes articles on modern history, art theory, religion, mythology, and analyses of texts.

Thomas Stearns Eliot (26 September 1888 – 4 January 1965)

The disillusionment caused by the World War One and Two did not only cause chaos amongst citizens, but it sparked a whole different movement of itself within the 20th century. The movement of modernism was not only taken up by famous artists such as Pablo Picasso, Albert Tucker and Van Gough, but it was a start of the modernist age in literature. T.S Eliot was a British essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic and most known his famous poetry that encapsulated the anxieties that most faced within that period.

T.S Eliot

Analysing 'The Hollow Men'

Eliot demonstrated a deep, psychological reaction to modern society though his poem, the Hollow Men. Through a series of intense imagery and biblical allusions, he explored his personal conflictions with morality and death in reaction to the socio-economic corruption entailed by the First World War. Eliot’s awareness of disorder and mystery of life in response to the wars was demonstrated through his reproach to Christianity. For instance, Eliot prescribed an autobiography of himself as a hollow man, describing himself as desperately finding himself in a ‘hollow valley’, as the technique of repetition was used to depict ‘dying stars’ in part 4. Eliot reacted to the instability of religion to the modern world through “valley,” which was a biblical allusion to bible psalm 23 that stated, “I walk through the valley of death.” In conjunction to how ‘dying stars’ symbolise hope, Elliot comfortingly questioned the audience where hope and God were in a world riddled with turmoil.

T.S. Eliot Reads The Hollow Men (Poetry Reading)

This poem as its episodic free verse form and plethora of allusions to great literary works allow for many different interpretations and perceptions of the poem. Eliot highlights how the larger society leads an absurd existence, demonstrated by “We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men”. The paradoxical juxtaposition of ‘hollow’ and stuffed’ encompasses the audience in ‘we’, demonstrating how modern society is full of nothing of importance. The empty nature of existence is demonstrated by “Those who have crossed… remember us-if at all- not as lost violent souls but only as the hollow men the stuffed men.” By the distinction between ‘those who have crossed’ Eliot is emphasising the moral ambiguity, as he expresses it’s better to be remembered as violent, than for being ‘hollow’, demonstrating how inaction isolates them from the rest of society. Eliot furthers the isolation and degradation in “The eyes are not here/ there are no eyes here/ in this valley of dying stars”. “Eyes’ and ‘valley of [death]” can be interpreted as a biblical allusion, and demonstrates how the ‘hollow men’ are abandoned, isolated from any hope of divine salvation. Eliot also uses ‘eyes’ as a motif in this poem, and in the rest of his oeuvre, as a symbol of the ‘soul’, inverting the common trope and using it to demonstrate society’s alienation from morals.

According to Alvarez, Eliot’s poetry highlights “the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering.” This can be seen in the very last stanza “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but with a whimper.” The allusion to Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot combined with the benign repetitive rhythm of the children's nursery rhyme creates a sense of complacent futility and hopelessness, revealing that the destiny of this alienated and isolated humanity is not worthwhile. Thus, one can come to the understanding of Eliot’s textual fame by a critical study of the morally ambiguous and alienated modern society.

'The Hollow Men; highlighted Elliot’s philosophical anxiety towards the world around him as he questioned the existence of God after the horrors of the war. His denominational switch to Anglicanism depicted Eliot’s spiritual turmoil highlighted his bitter perception of the world. For example, the persona in part five was shown unable to finish 'The Lord’s Prayer,' the religious allusion stating, “For Thine is, Life is.” This offered the impression that if the hollow men had of finished the prayer their souls would have been saved, which linked to Eliot’s disturbance in believing in religion when he had difficulty in believing it could offer salvation. Therefore, Eliot’s poetry was a deep and personal reflection of social and religious dismay in the world around him.

"Preludes" by T.S Eliot (read by Tom O'Bedlam)

Analysing 'Preludes'

Elliot’s poems were products of his reaction against the moral decay in society in the 20th century. ‘Preludes’ explored the banality of human existence in response to Modernist philosophy. Elliot utilised symbolism, imagery and irony to confront the audience with the meaninglessness of society. Eliot utilised imagery and sensory imagery of the “smell of stakes’, to demonstrate the meaningless of life and the inevitability of death. ‘Stake’ acted as a metonym for ‘humanity’s’ temporary existence as stakes were meant to expire, promoted by the death toll of the world wars and the modernist focus on moral decay. His pessimistic depiction of life was further conveyed through the imagery of grim and unappealing street life as extracted from his own perception of the modern man in the 20th century. The use of imagery and sensory imagery confronted the audience since this drew from their experiences. For example, the use of ‘I’ and ‘you’, made them question the point of living a life driven by conformity. Therefore, the Modernist period significantly influenced Eliot’s perception of humanity and the world around him as demonstrated by ‘Preludes.’

John Atkinson Grimshaw, Broomielaw, Glasgow (1886)

Preludes itself is a study of the impact of a modern industrialised city on the alienation and fragmentation of society and the individual. The poem is structured in fragmented vignettes from a 24-hour city routine, creating a disconnected and monotonous atmosphere reflective of urban life. This is aided by the ambiguous bleak phrase presented in “burnt out ends of smoky days”. It quite literally refers to burnt out fires that powered the city in Eliot’s context, but also reflects the exhaustion felt about life in an industrialised, secularised world. This sense of listless isolation is emphasised in the second person narration “you tossed a blanket from the bed, you lay upon your back and waited; you dozed”. The dreary diction in “lay, waited, dozed” creates a lethargic atmosphere, demonstrative of a futile existence. This clearly demonstrates to the reader that modern society is devoid of purpose and meaning, leaving people to reach the conclusion that there is no purpose to their existence.

This is furthered by Eliot’s use of olfactory imagery - “burnt out ends” -, kinesthetic imagery “Grimy scraps” and visual imagery “vacant lots”, creating a holistic mood of an alienated society. Moreover, the isolation and fragmentation of the individual can be seen by the synecdoche of “short square fingers”, “yellow soles of feet”, “eyes assured of certain certainties”. The portrayal of isolated body parts demonstrates the separation of individuals from humanity’s collective, contributing to the alienated and futile atmosphere. The simile in “The worlds revolve like ancient women gathering fuel in vacant lots” reinforces the stagnant, hopeless nature of humanity, reinforcing the atmosphere of futility. Thus, one can see that Eliot’s unique poetic treatment of alienation in a listless futile urban society allows contemporary readers to engage with his work.


Elliot’s poems were products of his reaction against the moral decay in society in the 20th century. ‘Preludes’ explored the banality of human existence in response to Modernist philosophy. Eliot addressed the modernist concept of moral decay in response to how he viewed the everyday life of a 20th century man. For instance, he utilized imagery to link the modern world to a red-light district as advocated by the negative tone insinuated by ‘sordid images.’ The sordid images was Eliot’s reaction to the rise of prostitution triggered by the Great Depression, suggesting that the prostitute in the poem was overcome by regrets and desperation. Furthermore, the use of rhyme in this instance retracted the seriousness of the poem, which suggested that it was to mock the life led by these individuals. For instance, ‘shutters’ and ‘gutters’ created a childish element to the poem, as rhyme was associated with nursery rhymes, highlighting the impact of modernist philosophy on Eliot’s worldview. Therefore, the Modernist period significantly influenced Eliot to comment on moral decay in world around him as suggested by ‘Preludes.’


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