The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

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The poem continues with a series of paradoxical statements that become a trademark of Eliot’s poetry from this point onwards (and can reasonably be associated with the paradoxes of religious language in general). These have a teasing appropriateness to the half-life (or half-death?) of the hollow men: ‘shape’ and ‘form’ are potentially synonymous, but by deliberately contrasting them Eliot forces the reader into imagining shades of difference. Is ‘shape,’ for example, more two-dimensional a concept than ‘form’? Does ‘form’ have connotations of Plato’s Ideas? The same process of thought is repeated for ‘shade without colour’ though this is probably more obviously suggestive of a monochrome world. A ‘gesture without motion’ is not a logical possibility, in fact, but by denying the hollow men coherence even in language, their imagined reality becomes still more tenuous.

Their hollowness is then explored through contrast with those who have ‘passed on’ through this place, presumably, to heaven. These individuals have the sureness of eye that is always admired by Eliot (though it is generally evoked by its absence – cf. ‘my eyes failed’ from The Waste Land ). They look directly at each other and, presumably, at God, with the eyes of faith. Their passage to eternal life is described by the word ‘crossed’ which cleverly invokes the doctrine that it is through Christ’s cross that we are saved. This usage can be contrasted with lines like ‘That cross and cross across her brain’ from Rhapsody on a Windy Night ; a word of confusion and inhibition has become one of certainty in Eliot’s new, spiritualised, vision of the world.

Section I concludes with a clear enough statement that the reader should see the hollow men as the damned in hell – but ‘not as/Lost violent souls.’ This quiet hell without fire and torment is the logical successor to the mediocre lifelessness of the Waste Land. Perhaps it is not too reductive to suggest that the hollow men are what the inhabitants of the Waste Land become after their demise.

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T.S. Eliot

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