The Wasteland of My Heart

I’m not leaving T.S. Eliot without at least personally coming to terms with his masterpiece “The Wasteland.” There’s no denying it’s an impressive piece, surely Eliot’s “tour de force.” Even if, like me, you’re unwilling to explore the literary allusions as extensively as they demand, you immediately feel the despair implied by the title.

Nor is it as exhausting and time-consuming as it used to be to explore the allusions in the poem because you can go to an
Extensive site on T.S. Eliot’s poem, a nearly 600 page exploration of Eliot’s masterpiece. Of course, if you don’t have a life to live, you can study the poem on your own.

Still, it’s one thing to understand a poem and something quite different to love it. It seems to me that whether you love “The Wasteland” or not depends to a large extent on whether you agree with Eliot’s definition of poetry, as explained in
American Poetry from T. S. Eliot to Allen Ginsberg

The dominant figure in modern poetry from the 1920’s through the middle of the century, in part because of his stature as a critic and publisher, was the poet T. S. Eliot. In his landmark essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” (1919) Eliot defined poetry as an escape from emotion and personality–a definition that subsequent American poets have alternately embraced, argued with, and denounced in such a vigorous fashion that it may be useful to consider it as a linchpin of modernism.

The article, a remarkable short history of modern poetry I heartedly recommend to anyone interested in that sort of thing, goes on to trace the reaction to this remarkable statement through a discussion of some of America’s greatest modern poets.

As I read the essay, it became perfectly clear to me why I have the reaction I do to Eliot’s poetry. When I think back, I suspect that the five pages of footnotes at the end of the poem, not just my initial confusion, are what immediately turned me off to the poem. This is a poem of the “mind” not of the heart.

Now, I admire rational thought as much as anyone. I am, after all, an INTP, and “the central goal of the INTP … (is) …to understand
and seek truth.” But it is really the N, the intuitive, not the T, the thinking aspect, that truly attracted me to poetry in the first place.

It was Thomas Hardy’s vision of an unjust world where pure happenstance and societal restrictions doomed men to unhappy lives that first attracted me to literature and poetry. Hardy’s poetry is many things, but it is not “intellectual.” Of course, I also attended the UW where Theodore Roethke was holding court, and his “work was possessed of a romantic sensibility and vibrant, deeply lyrical language. In fact, at times I have wondered if I had begun my poetic studies in the East instead of the at the UW whether I would have had a totally different attitude towards poetry. Or would I have dismissed it entirely and pursued a career in physics as I had earlier intended.?

For whatever reasons, I am still drawn to the poetry of the heart. It is the emotional appeal of the poetry to my own heart, not any logical argument, that is most likely to convince me of the authenticity of the poet’s vision.

The Journey to the Center

While re-reading Eliot’s Collected Poems and Plays I discovered another poem besides “The Hollow Men” that I truly liked. In fact, I was surprised how much I liked “Journey of the Magi” for I’m sure if I’d seen the title in an anthology I would have skipped right over it. It’s perhaps even more surprising considering the fact that, unlike Eliot, I find myself drawn more and more to Unitarianism, at least to its underlying beliefs, and less and less drawn to established religions and the accompanying rituals he found so powerful.


A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Although the beginning of the poem was “lifted from Lancelot Andrewes’s Nativity Sermon of 1622, and modified”, most of the poem is immediate and straightforward, not a patchwork of allusions. While the opening descriptions are obviously symbolic, they are presented as concrete narrative, with little commentary. Imagery carries the poem, and to a large extent the reader is allowed to draw his own conclusions from the images. It is only in the final stanza where the narrator is looking back that “ideas” are directly introduced, and even here they seem to be an integral part of the narrative.

More importantly, the message of the poem is more amiable to my own vison of the world and of Christianity than most of Eliot’s poems. Though I came to the poem expecting a typical Christmas Eve poem, I left with a very different impression, a good thing because I value poems that surprise me, that force me re-examine my beliefs, rather than merely reinforce them.

The first stanza vividly conveys how difficult it is for person to reach Christ, particularly with ” voices singing in our ears, saying/ That this was all folly.” And because Jesus calls us from the things of the world, from the “the silken girls bringing sherbert,” most of us find ourselves resisting the call at some point in our lives.

Many of us have found, at least temporarily, an inner place like the one described in the second stanza. For some it’s the moment they’re baptized or enter into a particular congregation. For others, it’s finding something that makes them feel at peace with themselves, a spiritual center that sustains them.

The greatest question, the one Eliot addresses in the third stanza, is whether you must deny your “old self” in order to be true to the new self. Doesn’t “reborn” suggest both death and life? In order for the new self to be born, it would seem that the old self must first die, or perish. If you must return to your old “kingdom,” your job, say, in order to live, can you ever feel comfortable in “the old dispensation,” with people who suddenly seem to cling to old values, to Moloch, sacrificing their very lives and beliefs to the demands of everyday existence, “Christians” rendering unto Caesar their very existence?

Eliot’s Whispers of Mortality

With the exception of “The Hollow Men,” most of T.S. Eliot’s poems don’t reach out and grab me, though I find myself liking them better than I did years ago when I first encountered them in college. Perhaps that’s because I no longer am pressed to explicate them in a long, tedious essay that seems as boring as some of the poems themselves. No longer obliged to explicate every nuance of a poem, I can simply look for poems that I enjoy reading. Eliot’s image of “daffodil bulbs instead of balls/ Stared from the sockets of the eyes” in “Whispers of Immortality” is such an outrageous, yet apt image that I was almost immediately captured by this poem:


Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense;
To seize and clutch and penetrate,
Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.

Grishkin is nice: her
Russian eye is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonette;

The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.

And even the Abstract Entities
Circumambulate her charm;
But our lot crawls between dry ribs
To keep our metaphysics warm.

Although I didn’t immediately appreciate all the literary allusions, the general meaning of the poem was clear even on a first reading. Although I don’t think I’ve ever thought about “breastless creatures under ground” when confronted by a “friendly bust” that “Gives promise of pneumatic bliss,” I have been put off by being stalked like a “scampering marmoset.” Thoughts of death may well give us reason to question our actions and to decide that fulfilling carnal desires is less important than attaining eternal happiness, though I still think I prefer Yeats’ Crazy Jane’s advice here.

After I’d actually found a poem by John Webster, my enjoyment of Eliot’s poem was enhanced by his allusions. Indeed, perhaps I’m fond of this poem precisely because the first part of the poem does remind me of the metaphysical poets, poets like Donne and Marvell. Although I couldn’t find a Webster poem that contained a reference to “Daffodil bulbs instead of balls/ Stared from the sockets of the eyes!” that is precisely the kind of delightfully-shocking image one would expect from the metaphysical poets.

Eliot’s allusion to Webster (how could I resist such a name) led me on a multi-hour search in old textbooks and on the internet before I found the following poem by (John) Webster:


ALL the flowers of the spring
Meet to perfume our burying;
These have but their growing prime,
And man does flourish but his time:
Survey our progress from our birth—
We are set, we grow, we turn to earth.
Courts adieu, and all delights,
All bewitching appetites!
Sweetest breath and clearest eye
Like perfumes go out and die;
And consequently this is done
As shadows wait upon the sun.
Vain the ambition of kings
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.

I may actually prefer Webster’s poem to Eliot’s, but having it in front of me certainly adds depth to Eliot’s poem and would have probably added even more depth if I could have automatically recalled it as I read his poem. That’s unlikely, of course, because I found it sandwiched, all one-quarter page of it, between a play by Marlowe and a play by Shakespeare. It’s unlikely that someone who has forgotten the name of a favorite student from ten years ago is going to remember a quarter page poem, even by an author with the same last name, in a 1000 page text.

There is, I think, another important literary allusion suggested by the ironic title of this poem, an allusion to Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” Knowing Eliot’s tendency to use literary allusions, I can’t believe that the similarity of the titles is accidental. Here’s probably the most famous selection from that poem:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

I suspect Eliot meant “Whispers of Immortality” to serve as a refutation of Wordsworth’s famous poem. After all, Wordsworth is often considered the greatest Romantic poet, but his optimistic view of life had certainly fallen into disfavor by the time Eliot had written this poem. Eliot rejected the idea of natural innocence, just as he “rejected the Unitarianism of his upbringing, and embraced Anglo-Catholicism, in a public and controversial conversion.

Unlike Eliot, I still subscribe to Wordsworth’s view that children come into this world “trailing clouds of glory,” God’s promise that, if we do our part, the world will get better, not worse. However, if society tells a person often enough they’re a sinner, they’ll probably believe it, and their divinity will soon “fade into the light of common day.” Eliot is right that the thought of death is not easily, or lightly, dismissed, but neither do we have to live life haunted by the inevitable death that awaits us.

Though I admire and envy Eliot’s poetic skills, his poetry seldom touches my heart because I’m unable to share his vision of man’s nature or his view of the world itself. Even my tour in Vietnam, my divorce and resulting separation from my children, and my years of teaching too many students who saw literature as a waste of time could not convince me that the world is the wasteland that is pictured in most of his poems.

T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”

Although I’ll have to confess that the more I study T.S. Eliot’s life and philosophy the more I realize why I originally rejected his poetry years ago, it is still hard to deny the pure, poetic power of his best poems.

Strangely, I still love “The Hollow Men,” a poem I memorized my first year in college and can still come close to reciting from memory. Perhaps it is merely the sound of the poem I love. Perhaps in some ways it is my poor man’s version of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” a poem I admit I like better now than I did the first time I read it, either because it seems relatively straightforward compared to Pound’s Cantos or because my exposure to films like Blade Runner and The Matrix have better prepared me for such visions. Although I do not share Eliot’s vision of life, “The Hollow Men “ conveys a sense of despair that seems far too widespread in our culture:

The Hollow Men


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us — if at all — not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer —

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

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 a whimper.

Although my research suggests that the hollow men probably represent Guy Fawkes’ dummies that are blown apart to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, for some reason the first stanza has always evoked images of the strawman in the Wizard of Oz, desperately seeking a brain, not realizing just how dangerous, and useless, a brain might be. It’s never quite clear, particularly if you see this poem in light of poems like “ J. Alfred Prufrock,” whether having a brain is a good thing or a bad thing. These people certainly do nothing but whisper meaningless phrases, but is that because they don’t have a brain or because they think too much and have too little faith? Like Prufrock and Hamlet, they seem incapable of action. Those who have died, if they look back at all, would see them as lacking the passion needed to truly live life, paradoxically “hollow,” but at the same time “stuffed” with delusions, pride, or despair?

Although the narrator almost seems to long for death, at least the kind of peaceful death where there is “sunlight on a broken column” and “voices are/ In the wind’s singing,” he fears death because he is afraid that instead it will be a “twilight kingdom.” Realizing his own world is a wasteland, a desert marked by stone images, the narrator fears the afterworld will be as void as this world and he will awaken with lips praying to “broken stones,” awaken in an abandoned graveyard littered with broken tombstones.

The absence of eyes, the windows to the soul, is frightening, but equally frightening is the fact that the people find themselves speechless, waiting to be conveyed across the River Styx, unable to see the future unless the “multifoliate rose,” Dante’s symbol of Paradise, “the hope only of empty men” should suddenly appear to save them.

“Here we go round the prickly pear” with its substitution of the cactus for the mulberry bush suggests that the week’s activities are as arid as the desert itself. The obvious references to the Lord’s Prayer in section five led me to reread:


Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom ,
and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever. Amen.

When I first re-read “The Lord’s Prayer” I was struck by the similarities in rhythm and length of line between the two. Indeed, “The Lord’s Prayer” seems to offer the ultimate contrast to “The Hollow Men,” perhaps suggesting Eliot’s imminent conversion, which he celebrated in the next poem in his collected poems, “Ash Wednesday.”

The oft quoted last lines “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper’ are the most memorable lines in the poem, suggesting modern man’s inability to confront life, much less death. Ironically, though, I quite often recalled these lines when people suggested that the world would end in nuclear war, an ending I never found believable, but then I probably have a lot more faith in people than Eliot did.

A more traditional explication of “The Hollow Men” can be found here.