Isolation and References in T.S. Eliot's Poems
Eliot’s poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men” are different in subject matter, but they both share the thematic framework and tone that one would expect from the author of “The Waste Land.” They can also be read as two sides of the same coin that depicts Eliot’s view of the modern world: the individual perspective, and its societal counterpart. While “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” seems to be a personal account of a dream vision, “The Hollow Men” features a collective voice of individuals who have lost their individuality and identity, and they both coexist in a world that is defined by isolation as a result of a communication breakdown. In both poems, Eliot sets the tone with references to other works, much like in “The Waste Land”, and constructs the voice of each poem based on that tone. In this way, the epigraphs serve to set the poems in their respective literary contexts in the eyes of the reader. In turn, the voice of each poem uses additional references to further explore the themes that dominate them. The main themes of isolation and miscommunication in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men” are rooted in the voices that Eliot has constructed, and are highlighted by the literary references enriching these voices.
Eliot’s epigraph for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” features the words of Guido da Montefeltro from Dante’s Divine Comedy. This reference to Dante’s work sets the tone for a confessional poem featuring of a character isolated from society, in the way Montefeltro is isolated in his damnation in Hell. His words resonate through the poem as Prufrock seems to enter a dream state, which can be noticed in the first lines of the poem:
The first line in particular has been subject to a lot of various interpretations of who the “you” in the line might refer to. On this topic, John Paul Riquelme writes that “In many dramatic monologues the listener is also not specified, and the reader is invited to take over the role of listener in a one-sided conversation. In ‘Prufrock,’ however, it is not clear whether a real conversation is being dramatically presented, whether the ‘I’ is having an internal colloquy with himself, or whether the reader is being addressed directly. The ‘you’ that is ‘I’’s counterpart stands in two places at once, both inside and outside Prufrock’s mind and inside and outside scenes that can with difficulty be imagined based on the minimal details provided” (Riquelme 252). The “you” of the poem can be internal to Prufrock, it can refer to the reader of the poem, or it can be perceived as a Virgil-like figure, in the way he was guiding Dante in Inferno. In any case, it joins Prufrock in this experience. According to Childs, “Prufrock, not the evening, is etherized upon a table. Like everything else in the poem, the tired, sleepy evening is an aspect of Prufrock’s mind” (691). This suggests that after that line, Prufrock is under the influence of ether and all that occurs in the poem is a dream vision. This creates the feeling of isolation, of a departure from reality. The way Eliot describes the scenery, the October weather, the yellow smoke and fog, and the way Prufrock reacts to the elements and ages, in the beginning they set the scene, but after a few lines, the constant repetition of the same elements creates the feel of a dream. The two-line stanza:
has the same effect when repeated, as a fragment of a dream that Prufrock seems to have regularly. Prufrock’s focus is on these women and his failure to communicate with them quickly turns into self-criticism, and this series of events gain a cyclical nature. This can be seen in the lines “Do I dare” and “That is not what I meant”, which are repeated several times in the poem. Particularly the latter represents perfectly this feeling of isolation and communication breakdown. Apart from the isolation from his unfulfilled relationship with the women mentioned above, his main isolation is from society at large. In the final line of the poem, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown” (line 131), Prufrock is pulled out of his dream by the real “human voices,” and once he is forced back into reality, he drowns. He is awoken back to his physical existence, and it’s the isolation that he feels in everyday life that ultimately drowns him.
Like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, Eliot sets the tone of “The Hollow Men” with the epigraph, which in this case references both Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes Night. Robert Crawford connects the first epigraph, “Mistah Kurtz–he dead”, with the second one, “A penny for the Old Guy,”:
The epigraph, “A penny for the Old Guy,” stresses that Eliot’s poem relates to ceremonial effigies. Here, as in “The Waste Land,” Heart of Darkness is important. “Mistah Kurtz–he dead” emphasizes a connection between savage ritual and Eliot’s crossed staves. To obtain power by embracing darkness, Kurtz deified himself in line with primitive belief; ironically, Eliot’s speaker dresses in relics of forgotten ritual out of a sense of total impotence, wishing to avoid a horrid dusk: ‘Not that final meeting / In the twilight kingdom’ (Crawford 103).
Of course the character of Kurtz is that of someone completely isolated from what is perceived as civilized society, and has become a sort of god-like figure for the natives of Congo. This connection is made even stronger when the poem is read with this passage from Heart of Darkness in mind: “I think [the wilderness] had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core” (Conrad 57-8). In this context, the isolation of Kurtz and the isolation of the hollow men in the poem give the same feeling of decaying civilization. Eliot wrote “The Hollow Men” after the First World War, and its effects on the poem are visible in the way he views society as having lost its humanity and morality. This sense of lost faith is also visible in the famous last stanza of the poem, which is preceded by the line “For thine is the,” (line 94) and the Eliot believes that the end of the world will not come from some natural catastrophe as in the Bible, but from small acts performed by humans, which he equates to a final whimper. The first stanza of the poem creates the collective voice of the hollow men as they present themselves as strawmen, devoid of all humanity:
They represent Eliot’s view of modern society where individualism is lost, social structures have failed, and society is facing a dehumanizing phenomenon of communication breakdown; their voices have nothing meaningful to say. The ritualistic elements mentioned by Crawford can also be seen at the start of the fifth section of “The Hollow Men”:
This is a twist on the nursery rhyme “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” which relates back the epigraph “A penny for the Old Guy,” as this is what British children say when collecting money to buy fireworks for Guy Fawkes Night. Crawford writes that “ideas of childishness, linguistic degeneration, and confusion support the central theme of the degradation of essential ritual. The barely glimpsed possibility of Christian hope plunges to crazy childishness” (Crawford 124). The childlike nature the poems takes at this point connects to the meaninglessness of the hollow men’s voices, and adds to this failure to communicate introduced in the first stanza.
The selected lines from the two poems analyzed show that the way Eliot constructs and introduces the voices in them is a direct representation of the themes of isolation and miscommunication that lie at the heart of both “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men.” This is reinforced by the epigraphs he has chosen to open each poem. These epigraphs are not there simply as literary references, but they are crucial to the construction of the voices mentioned, and to the way a reader understands Eliot’s work. As in “The Waste Land,” he takes lines from other works and uses them as foundations for his own poetry.
CHILDS, DONALD J. FROM PHILOSOPHY TO POETRY : T.S. ELIOT’S STUDY OF KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE.LONDON: ATHLONE, 2001. PRINT.
CONRAD, JOSEPH. HEART OF DARKNESS: AUTHORITATIVE TEXT, BACKGROUNDS AND CONTEXTS, CRITICISM. ED. PAUL B. ARMSTRONG. NEW YORK: W.W. NORTON & CO., 2006. PRINT.
CRAWFORD, ROBERT. THE SAVAGE AND THE CITY IN THE WORK OF T. S. ELIOT. OXFORD: CLARENDON PRESS, 2001. PRINT.
ELIOT, T.S. “THE HOLLOW MEN.” THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE. GEN. ED. STEPHEN GREENBLATT. 9TH ED. VOL. F. NEW YORK: NORTON, 2012. 2543-2546. PRINT.
ELIOT, T.S. “THE LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK.” THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE. GEN. ED. STEPHEN GREENBLATT. 9TH ED. VOL. F. NEW YORK: NORTON, 2012. 2524-27. PRINT.
RIQUELME, JOHN PAUL. HARMONY OF DISSONANCES: T.S. ELIOT, ROMANTICISM, AND IMAGINATION. BALTIMORE: JOHN HOPKINS U PRESS, 1991. PRINT.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.