Impotence and Overripe Grapes: Cultural Decadence in T. S. Eliot’s Early Poetry

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A wartime exile in his own country, Czesław Miłosz translated The Waste Land against “the glow from the burning ghetto.” This, for the Polish poet, made for “weird reading”: T. S. Eliot’s eulogy for European putrefaction, read by the “illuminat[ions]” of a smoldering Warsaw skyline.

This essay explores themes of sexual impotence and civilizational decay in Eliot’s early poetry, themes wound back upon a floundering Western culture. Taking close scrutiny of “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” and “The Hollow Men,” we will consider here the five-year interlude between these poems, and trace Eliot’s development on questions of fecundity and decadence. Our study will be driven in part by what changes in Eliot—what prospects for rejuvenation, what depths and contours of despair—but also by what remains constant, what problems prove insoluble in his poetic appraisal of modernity. Specifically, I contend that Eliot concerns himself in these poems, at least in part, with socio-sexual degradations, and presents those degradations as demonstrative of modernity’s wider rot. Eliot thus tracks the sloughing-off of eroticism: from a procreative enterprise, to directionless libido—again to transactional commerce, and finally to raw savagery—sexuality rendered at last as a bestial cruelty characterized by frustration and infertility. In this cruelty, we encounter a uniquely human abasement, a barbarity beyond and below the bounds of atavism, transgressing and perverting even animality. These themes of sexual deterioration and the neglect of procreation are aspects of a broader concern for cultural fecundity. For instance, in “The Hollow Men,” we encounter spiritual degenerates, men with flesh of straw (neither incarnate, nor, properly speaking “hollow”) who yearn and hunger, but cannot apply their appetites towards cultural flourishing, only towards whimpering.

This exploration will proceed in three parts. First, we will conduct an analysis of “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” paying careful attention to themes of sexual regression. Second, we will consider the ways in which the foregoing themes are carried forth and metamorphosed in “The Hollow Men.” The essay will then conclude with a survey of Eliot’s evolving views on decadence, acknowledging nonetheless how these problems remained largely intractable for the poet, especially before his conversion to “Anglo-Catholicism.”

Sweeney Among the Nightingales

For Eliot, “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” was of “uncertain meaning”—a poetic provocation: impressionistic and phantasmagoric—whose meaning was not so much abstruse or “obscure,” but rather, in the mode of modern art, phenomenal and unarticulated. Eliot considered this piece a “simple series of images” whose power was to evoke a snapshot or “still life,” to conjure for the reader a smattering of impressions as opposed to a narrative.1

Contrary, however, to Eliot’s uncertainty whether “[the poem] means anything at all,” the reader is here left with a distinct atmospheric taste—the unmistakable suggestion of “suspense and sultriness,” a foreboding that our poet connects to the “time of the air-raids of London.” Eliot here summons a potent, even pungent image—the fat-rolling zeppelins: black, cumulus-shaped, slow hanging and humming in the fog above London.2 Eliot’s remark gestures to that curious wartime dread, in which what is odious and unendurable to the human spirit smears by ugly habituation into a mundane not-comfort. The “suspense and sultriness” provoked in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a thing of terror, to be sure; it is also a languid atmosphere, suggestive of being worn down and made numb to life, a humid and oppressive effluvium, “sultry” in the tangible, perspirate sense of the word.

As such, one fruitful mode of approaching “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is to keep in mind that this poem is in the first order a “picture” (or a series of pictures), and in the second order “a mood for that picture.” With this frame in mind, we then approach the mood of sexual degradation, as that mood is presented in and through a still life of Sweeney.

The poem begins with its titular figure, “Apeneck Sweeney,” an emblem of sexual decline, of brutishness. Sweeney is a character, or character sketch, whose name gestures at the most immediate level to the penny-dreadful barber, Sweeney Todd. Todd’s original serial appearance involves a vulgar tale of murder, cannibalism, and misbegotten love.This disordering of the flesh is compounded by the fate of Sweeney’s victims, who are baked into human meat pies. Here we find an echo of classical drama’s barbarism par excellence; the polluted line of Atreus, which yields successive generations of profane cannibal-feasts. Tantalus and Atreus each cook their young family into human stews, and Agamemnon offers his daughter, Iphigenia, in the place of an animal holocaust, traditionally a sacrifice-banquet prepared both for gods and men. By these classical echoes, Sweeney, the demon barber, therefore signals the ironic and absurd fury that attends modern dissatisfaction—failure of copulation and succorless nourishment. This marriage of sexual agony and aimless rage is affirmed by Eliot, who insists that the eponymous Sweeney of his verse drama, Sweeney Agonistes, must look like the wife-murderer, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. Importantly, during his trial defense, Crippen called on the name of a fictitious patient in order to explain why he had stockpiled the poison hyoscine: “I had also another business in which I handled about two hundred letters – it is extremely difficult to remember names. I think I can remember one. Sweeney – no, M’Sweeney.”

Tellingly, and as a double movement, “sweeny” gestures also to a medical condition in horses, wherein the withers atrophy on account of club-footedness. Sweeney is therefore by his name already doubly lame, doubly putrefied or degraded in the flesh, and threateningly disposed to retributive, ejaculatory outbursts.

This lameness and frustration are worked over into explicit sexual sterility by the first stanza’s end; Sweeney, who has parted his loins, is marked now by the phallic giraffe, “swelling” and “maculate.” This latter ascription, in contraposition to the Im-maculacy of the Virgin Mary, suggests befoulment, or, at least, implies the medical ailment of being “marked by maculae;” to be maculate is in this case to have spotted or diseased flesh. Beset then with pockmarks, with lameness and degradation, Sweeney, with his spread legs and swelling giraffe-part, cannot be interpreted as a figure of sexual fecundity, but is rather a figure of sexual disease or debilitation. Consider, for instance, the anatomical confusion of “zebra stripes” and giraffe maculae, and the established zoological principle that hybridization often yields sterility.3 Contraposed therefore to the virginal fertility of the Mother of God, Sweeney’s throbbing sexual appetite does not necessarily imply fruitfulness of the womb; quite the opposite, anatomical inviability here hangs together with apish lust.

This malheur—this aura of disease and impotency—is exacerbated by the poem’s astronomical references; there are “the circles of the stormy moon,” the constellations of “Death and Raven,” all of which “drift above” Sweeney’s spread-apart haunches, provoking their own atmospheric oppression, an overhanging miasma. The ringed moon is said to foretell approaching storms, while Corvus, the “sable-winged” constellation, likewise appears in The Jew of Malta as “the sad-presaging raven,” which shakes “contagion” off of her wings. Again, Sweeney is belabored by disease and an ill-omened future: he is sexually obscene, vulgar in his “orang-outang” appearance, at once mottled and disease-ridden, and made small under the predestinating stars.

We ought not, however, misidentify this doom too completely with bodily destruction, and thereby confuse the nature of its horror—confuse it with the terror of wartime annihilation or with Aeschylean murder plots. Rather, we must reconcile the foregoing malheur with the fragrance of the lines that follow: the overturned coffee cup, the yawning girl who “draws a stocking up,” the “silent man in mocha brown,” and the “oranges / Bananas figs and hothouse grapes.” These lines bespeak eroticism, drab excess, and (at the risk of being tongue-in-cheek) fruitfulness. But to return again to the “mood of the picture,” one is struck by the decadence of these gestures, “decadence” in the fullness of the word’s English double-sense. These are racy, acrid lines, provocative in their sensuality and gaudiness. Further layered atop that excess, however, is the lines’ languid movement: the post-coital creep of “drawing a stocking up,” the slight nod to rot or putrescence in the “hothouse” climate of these picked fruits—browning, spoilt, overripe, etc.

Similarly situated is the figure of the Jew, a character all too ready-at-hand for the antisemitic young Eliot. She makes her appearance in “Rachel née Rabinovitch,” a woman who “Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.” Burdened most obviously with the racial tropes of greed and appetitiveness, Mrs. née Rabinovitch’s “murderous paws” allude additionally to “the funeral flame that burnt fair Troy,” from Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. Rachel née Rabinovitch is here identified with the immolation of civilization, a consumptiveness that finds its manifestation not merely in cultural degradation, but in sexual violence as well; Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue tells of a women strangled to death by the “murderous paws” of an orang-outang. Thus, the bestial quality is found once more to haunt, even to pollute sexuality. The quality of the beast, when applied to “ape-necked” humanity, indicates a regression along evolutionary lines; for Eliot, the Jewish, unladylike paws tear at, and bruise, the hothouse grapes, spoiling love’s fruits.

This beastliness is mirrored in the “contraction and concentration” of the male figure, first in the “silent vertebrate,” and at last in the “man with heavy eyes,” who in his weariness (sleepiness?) declines his gambit, forfeits boldness and initiative, and “shows fatigue.” For the second time, then, apishness and impotency find their twin expression. We are left with highly troublesome, seemingly contradictory sketches: the gaudiness and hyper-sensuality of our fleshly nature, and a concomitant shrinking back into our own flesh, a shrinking before sexuality.

This seemingly schizophrenic tilt, between sensuousness and toxicity, between rot and indulgence, enjoys wide expression in French literature, especially in the decades immediately preceding Eliot’s early poetry. Eliot’s engagement with Symbolism is well documented, and it is likewise apparent that decadent literature exercises a general atmospheric influence on these poems. Motifs of passion fruit, erotic impotence, and a sweltering, unhappy self-indulgence are pervasive in such works as Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À rebours and Léon Bloy’s La femme pauvre. These novels are marked by the disappointments (and indeed inversions) of the flesh, depicted with almost pornographic quality, in highly confrontational tones.

Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” resonates along these same lines. The lethargic, even torpid ambience, the rank frippery of the establishment, which Eliot himself describes as a “dive”: all of this points at last to the nightingales with whom Sweeney keeps company, and their importance for the question of sexuality in a destabilized, doom-laden modernity.

Much as with the name “Sweeney,” there is at least a double meaning for the poem’s nightingales, who for Eliot “are not only the birds of the final stanzas.” In the first place, however, if we do consider these nightingales in their appearance as birds, we encounter immediately a reverberation of the poem’s “sense of foreboding.” Here again is the ill-fated Corvus, the bird that shakes disease from its feathers. In classical tragedy, the nightingale is a bird of omen, prophesying submission before fate. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Cassandra laments, “Ió ió, the life of the clear-voiced nightingale! The gods have clothed her with a feathered form and given her a pleasant life with no cause to grieve; while what awaits me is to be cloven by a two-edged weapon.”

Prophetic birds figure similarly in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Tereus and Procne’s bridal chamber is “brooded over” by “the uncanny screech-owl:” “Under this omen were Procne and Tereus wedded; under this omen was their child conceived.” The sexually predative Tereus is “the ravenous bird of Jove… dropp[ing] in his high eyrie some hare caught in his hooked talons,” and his victim, Philomela, is “a dove which, with its own blood all smeared over its plumage, still palpitates with fright, still fears those greedy claws that have pierced it.” Ovid’s avian references are laminous, layered atop one another and mutually illuminative; the prophetic bird foreordains sexual perversity and dissolution, the raptorial vulture penetrates the “still-palpitat[ing]” sacrificial dove, and at last, all three characters: Tereus, Procene, and Philomela, are metamorphosed into birds—Philomela, most importantly, into the nightingale.4

Turning against the prophetic, however—against the screech-owl of omen that sings atop the birthing-bed—Milton casts his nightingale as a mourning-bird, one that “Warblest at eve, when all the woods are still…” whose “liquid notes… close the eye of day.” It is this final configuration—the bird that flies at dusk, that sings for decline—which portends the second meaning of Eliot’s nightingale.

By slang usage, “nightingale” can also suggest a prostitute or burlesque singer. To sing sad night-songs for decline is therefore wedded to sexual degradation, to the filthy dive, to the phlegmatic movements of flesh. In this figure of nightingale-prostitute, the poem’s theme of sexual impotence takes on its most precise meaning. Here, copulation is shorn not only from its procreative aspect, but also from eroticism as such; the languid atmosphere, the spoilt fruit, and the dingy transactionalism all suggest a mood of post-erotic ennui. Coupling these depredations with Sweeney’s beastly apishness (“Apeneck Sweeney spread his knees / Letting his arms hang down to laugh, / The zebra stripes along his jaw / Swelling to maculate giraffe.”), we can say even that Eliot’s “mood for the picture” is that of a sexuality which confuses itself with violence, of a wounded humanity that has “transcended” below even the bounds of animal cruelty.

This slovenly, sub-animalistic apishness is mirrored in Dante’s “miserable sinners,” those who swarm the banks of the Acheron, “c’hanno perduto il ben d’intelletto.” Sweeney thus inhabits his own “vestibule of hell,” a member of “la seta d’i cattivi / a Dio spiacenti e a’ nemici sui.” In the Augustinian formulation, this is the “land of unlikeness;” when man is shorn of his intellectus, his speculative faculty, he is likewise shorn from the “fonte ond’ ogne ver deriva.” Similarly, Sweeney is disengaged from sexuality’s teleological end in procreation; more than this, however, he is alienated from sensuality’s final referent in divine love, and therefore from his own likeness in the divine image. That Sweeney’s sexuality is frustrated and embittered therefore implies a wider ontological derangement—the putrid plush of the dive and Sweeney’s ejaculatory violence is contraposed to the pregnant warmth of a properly erotic love.

In making sense of the tone and content of this violence, we must consider the Aeschylean bookends to the poem, the dual references to Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of Clytemnestra. While Sweeney’s identification with Agamemnon is certain, the precise character of that identification is left ambiguous. Scholars have generally sought to establish a thoroughgoing narrative parallel, wherein Sweeney’s actual assassination is foretold by nightingale-song in “the bloody wood.” By contrast, James Davidson persuasively argues in his article, “The End of Sweeney,” that this parallel is ultimately a deconstructive and satiric one: “Agamemnon died a dirty death, but [that death] emphasized his importance. Not so with Sweeney. The horrible and funny truth is that Sweeney is just not worth killing.”

The advantage of this satiric interpretation is that it resonates with the wider “mood of the picture,” furthering the poem’s tone of ennui and bloodlessness. In the ornamental world of decadent gild, Sweeney’s apishness is satirically abortive; it never quite rises to the grandeur of heroism, and he is never exactly threatened with (or promised) a genuinely tragic end. This tone is echoed in the poem’s closing line: “to stain the stiff dishonored shroud.” The “endless net” that hobbled Agamemnon, rendering him helpless before Clytemnestra’s sword, here fetters Sweeney, who himself is now enfeebled, “dishonored.” This is a genuine point of intersection between Agamemnon and Sweeney; both are neutered, made shameful before a dominating female presence. Importantly, however: though Sweeney is fettered, we never are told explicitly that he is skewered.

If Sweeney stands as a diminished, murky foil to the tragic Agamemnon, we ought to consider a wider reading of the Oresteia into “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” with the latter serving as a shadow-parallel to the former. Aeschylus’ trilogy is in large part a story of coming-to-civilization, a myth of man’s shrugging off the retributive justice of the Erinyes in favor of the jurisprudence of Pallas Athena via the Areopagus and the fertility cult of the Semnai Theai. Sweeney charts by contrast the decadent moldering away from civilization’s mythic fruits. Whereas Aeschylus’ House of the Atreus “has escaped from its troubles and from the wasting of its possessions,” Sweeney finds himself in a world worn thin by the pastiche of false exoticism and succulence, a world of Spanish capes and putrefying fruit. Eliot’s poem so imparts to us through impressionistic smatterings the still life of a regression; the era of Sweeney harkens to the pre-heroic and bestial gods of old,5 who drip upon the blasted waste “a canker causing leaflessness and childlessness.”

If “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” thus illustrates a disheartening mood for modern sexuality, “The Hollow Men” reflects on the broader implications of that mood. Here we encounter even more straightforwardly questions of cultural reproduction and cultural self-immolation.

The Hollow Men

The title of this poem immediately signals its palimpsest nature; Eliot attributes his naming of the piece to an amalgam of Rudyard Kipling’s The Broken Men and William Morris’ The Hollow Land. At this nexus of titles, we are provided the hint that “The Hollow Men” deals not only with the desiccation of men, but with the very hollowing-out of the broader landscape—the woundedness and fruitlessness of the cracked earth, penetrating deeply, applied back unto man as an embodied species, or as an animality that is thrown into (or doomed to) its surroundings. This infertility parches the very soil; in “The Hollow Men,” modern man is cultivated or reared up in an exsiccated environ: his culture is depleted, incapable either of fecundity or rejuvenation. However, while concerns for reproductive regression and impotency persist in this poem, what differentiates “The Hollow Men” from “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is the former’s very thin sense of hopefulness. Still shorn of any pretense towards spontaneous revitalization, these “hollow men” evince nonetheless a hope of being healed in their groping blindness: “Sightless, unless / The eyes reappear / As the perpetual star / Multifoliate rose / Of death’s twilight kingdom / The hope only / Of empty men.”

We begin with the uncertain hollowness of these “hollow men,” who, far from being empty, are “stuffed:” stuffed as “headpieces full of straw,” as strawmen on “crossed staves,” cast about as the “wind [blows over] dried grass,” ‘form[less]” and “colour[less]” indeed, though at once with “shape” and “shade.” This liminal existence does not express itself as a halfway salvation, or as a better-than-nothingness; rather, these shadow men are in desperate straits, “grop[ing] together” as on the “beach of a tumid river,” awaiting deliverance from some externality. And as the title would suggest: what deliverance can hollow men await but to be filled, incarnated or in-dwelt? This pitiable, prayer-like yearning is therefore made tragic in that the hollow men are already filled, hopelessly stuffed with froth or substance-less straw. The “stuffed men” are presumably, therefore, foreclosed to the type of receptivity that would allow for their deliverance.

This inconclusive existence finds yet another expression in that the hollow men are depicted as scarecrows: straw-stuffed men propped-up on wooden poles. There is, certainly, a teleological confusion or disintegration about these creatures; they are scarecrows who don the gutless and self-canceling disguise of the “crowskin.” At this, the sublation of fear and flight, of petrifaction and desire, we can turn once more to Dante’s damned. As they await eternal punishment, “quelli che muoion ne l’ira di Dio” are spurred on to their torment by divine justice; “sì che la tema si volve in disio.” The hollow men exist similarly in a neither/nor of spiritual dither—recoiling and thirsting, pressed unto yearning only by fear. Such cowardice finds meticulous formulation in Dante’s viltà, the etymological vile-ness that plays opposite “nobility of character.”

Just as our “empty men” are in fact congested with weightless straw, the environment painted in “The Hollow Men” pulls in almost opposite directions. The land, this “valley of dying stars,” is “dead,” “ston[y],” and “cactus[ed],” reflective (or perhaps generative) of the hollow men that call it home, and yet there is a certain desiccated froth that fills this environment to brim, that makes this infertile culture ironically overripe. To gesture briefly to another of Eliot’s poems from this period, western modernity is not a “wasteland,” but a “waste land,” a wasted land, or a land inundated with filth. We arrive once more at the paradoxical double-definition of “decadence:” modernity is in an undeniable state of decay or decline, of falling away or collapse; this is, however, a decay marked by richness in cheap flavor, by the overabundance of filth. To take a leaf from the pages of Sweeney, it is in one sense a hyper-sexualized age, but only if one is willing to call “sexualized” that which is languid and mottled, shorn even of eroticism.

The fascinating development that Eliot undergoes, from Sweeney to these hollow men, is to situate the latter in a state of suspension, wherein the “stuffed men” yearn, yet are silenced. Moreover, the senses themselves are foreclosed: the hollow men are “sightless,” “broken [of] jaw,” and “dried [in their] voices.” The prayerful “I” of the poem’s second part calls upon the remembrance of souls that have gone before him, yet shrinks in shame from “Eyes I dare not meet,” wishing to “be no nearer / In death’s dream kingdom.” The hollow men loiter on the periphery; whether this is out of cowardice or numbness is at least suggested in that they “wear / Such deliberate disguises” as the skins of rat, crow, and strawman. They are men who turn from their own yearning and self-knowledge, and go on “Behaving as the wind behaves,” tilting in whichever way they are bid, limp and necrotic.

The effect of this suspension—between desire for transcendence on the one hand, and faintheartedness on the other—is to evoke a powerful sense of pity. Blind, deaf, and paralytic, the hollow men are only ever-more pitiable for their wanting so desperately, as yet they languish in their incapacity to act on that wanting. This pity takes on once more a double form: “pathetic” in the mode of pathos, eliciting emotion, and “pathetic” in the loathsome sense, evocative of sneering, even disgust. This time, we can perhaps go so far as to say that the mood of the poem contradicts or confronts itself: these dual elicitations of “pity” fall on either side of empathy, as Dante’s “pietà” is chastened by Virgil in Inferno 20, when the Mantuan tells the Florentine “Qui vive la pietà quand’ è ben morte.” Here therefore hangs the fate of the hollow men, whether they ought be subjects of compassion or of scornful dismissal.

One method of reconciling compassion with scorn, and the desiccated man with a wasted culture, is to take seriously the death of “Mistah Kurtz” in the opening epigraph. When Kurtz perishes in the Congo’s heart of darkness, he does so in “denial of Empire, of Nation, [and] of Race.” Kurtz dies as a man professing faceless, objectless “horror,” “fearfully alone with the Wilderness.” Eliot’s evaluation here—with, not “in” wilderness—is quite telling; Kurtz is a man emptied out, disabused and, as it were, stripped bare, one left alone to contend nakedly in a face-to-face with wildness. He is a pathetic and brutal specimen, blown away like a “flickering candle” in obscure darkness; he is compelling and haunting, surely, and this precisely for reasons of his brutality. Dying, Kurtz stands as an “antithesis” or a condemnation of what he has, in the end, rejected: programs of empire, nation, and racial domination. In short, he is, in his very failure or impotence, a living accusation against desiccated western culture, especially as that culture is foisted upon the “wild” Congo.

This reading suggests a line of sight on the second epigraph, and in turn a method of reading that epigraph into the poem’s final lines. “A penny for the Old Guy” makes at least two simultaneous gestures: a soul begging for a copper, that it may pay the ferryman and be shepherded across the River Styx, and a child calling out to the crowd on November Fifth, selling revelers his stuffed effigies of “Old Guy” Fawkes. The former points once more to death in a state of helpless exposure, or to awaiting one’s deliverance upon the shoreline. The latter, in light of the “Mistah Kurtz” epigraph, takes on a new mode of powerlessness, this time of failure and folly in political idealism. If this epigraph speaks to the straw-like fate that awaits cultural conceit (condemned to mockery, to effigy), that fate is given its image in the pathetic hoarseness of the conniving, trundled heads of stanza one: “dried voices” like “quiet and meaningless” whispering, like wind over “dried grass,” all cooped up in the “dry cellar.” Crackle-voiced and with straw-for-brains, the “our” of the first stanza is given over to self-deprecation, and again to a yearning that one is powerless to act upon.

This reading of the two epigraphs compels a fresh analysis of the poem’s final section. The dichotomies sketched in these lines speak neither to stasis nor to movement, but rather to indecision as an ontological condition; the hollow man warbles, as in an orbit about an event horizon, strung between “idea and reality,” “motion and act,” “conception and creation,” “emotion and response,” “desire and spasm,” “potency and existence,” and “essence and descent.” These gnosticisms are curious, non-intuitive in their contradistinction, never so straightforwardly opposite as to suggest mutual exclusivity. Rather, they demonstrate the hollow man’s own irresolution: he is an insoluble creature, caught always between potentiality (desire, potency) and kinesis (creation, spasm). The hollow man is stuck awaiting his Charon, yearning for kinesis, for movement, but nonetheless remaining pinned-up in the shadowbox of potentiality: gathering in dry cellars, making himself restless through whisperings and gunpowder plots.

“The Hollow Men” closes, however, with a deflating antiphon on the question of such plots: “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.” Of course, the historical Gunpowder Plot ended in this fashion, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” Of greater interest, however, is that the “we” of the hollow men, or the “we” circling about the prickly pear, give way in the poem’s closing lines to a comment made on the world as such. By this eerie psalmody, modernity is shown to brook no plots, to accept neither attempts at cultural rejuvenation nor visions of progress. Rather, modernity hems its hollow men within “this last of meeting places,” where dried murmurings are given at last over to silence, and made pitiable. For this bleary culture, in its throes of decadence, the “stuffed man’s” appetites are never satiated, only submitted to whimpering. Even the heroic endurance of infertility is denied to humanity, as are the theatrics of global suicide, or an orchestral exit from the wasted land; asked in 1958 if the looming specter of nuclear annihilation changed his mind about these lines, Eliot responded starkly that the “association” was “irrelevant.” Even with the advent of thermonuclear weaponry, modernity is caught still between stasis and spasm—the stasis of decay, the spasm of self-immolation, each in fact a species of the other.

Between “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” and “The Hollow Men,” there are undeniable continuities, owing perhaps to the simple fact that the decadence they diagnose remains intractable. For Eliot, cultural degradation is a problem from which there is no simple exit. As proclaimed by the nightingales, who shake disease from their wings and sing sad songs at dusk, there is a foreboding sense that we recognize cultural necrosis only in its terminal stage.

Nonetheless, there is a religious sensibility in “The Hollow Men” that, however pale and stumbling, finds no partner in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales.” For the hollow men, the world’s end indeed arrives not in bangs, not in the extravagance of conflagration, but in muffled, smothered tones. However, it is an end that, whatever its inarticulateness, is heralded in prayerful whimpers— enunciated between broken, uncertain lines of the Our Father.

Similarly, reference to those “gathered on this beach of the tumid river” evokes the River Acheron, and the souls who exist in suspension on her shores, caught in the neither/nor of Dante’s ante-inferno. These are once more the “livid marshes” of the third canto, on whose verge brew eternally “l’anime triste di coloro / che visser sanza ’nfamia e sanza lodo.” Though heaven casts them out, “né lo profondo inferno li riceve.” These shades are thus situated like the hollow men—like scarecrows who flutter to-and-fro on their bent staves, feckless neutrals caught in indeterminacy, passive before “potency and spasm.” They are souls led about by “una ’nsegna / che girando correva tanto ratta / che d’ogne posa mi parea indegna.” Like their banner, they are agitated, yet enraptured, held captive by empty, directionless spectacle. In Eliot’s construction, therefore, the hollow men stand apart, gathered on the shores of hell’s grim pageant. Their posture suggests restless reflection, bearing witness to a co-inherited hopelessness. Indeed, the fate of these “stuffed men” is sealed beyond any real hope of deliverance (at least by a Dantesque reading, these are souls consigned already to an eternal pseudo-damnation); nevertheless, a persistent (persisting) religiosity is given expression in memorial and in testimony: “Remember us—if at all—not as lost / Violent souls, but only / As the hollow men / The stuffed men.”

Conversion, hopelessness, and decadence

What remains is to explore this religious persistence—a prayerful whimpering that expresses itself neither in the confidence of deliverance, nor in the expectation of reversing cultural decay. How, in other words, are we to make sense of a religious hope that situates itself in perfect impotence?

Without confusing Eliot’s pre-conversion abidance with his later “Anglo-Catholicism,” there is nonetheless a sense in which hopeful eyes are kept locked on a faraway, “perpetual star.” This, “The hope only / of hollow men,” is directed in anticipation of the “Multifoliate rose,” whose divine petals suggest the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, and the later cantos of Dante’s Paradiso. The image of the watchful gaze evokes vigilance and witness, not action, the vigilance of an ascetic who imbibes his own powerlessness, who keeps his eyes centered on the horizon and remains penned in by the shores of the River Styx. Meanwhile, the molting-away of a desiccated culture continues unabated around him. This enfeebled witness is given expression in Nicolás Gómez Dávila’s seminal essay, El reaccionario auténtico:

If the reactionary concedes the fruitlessness of his principles and the uselessness of his censures, it is not because the spectacle of human confusion suffices for him. The reactionary does not refrain from taking action because the risk frightens him, but rather because he judges that the forces of society are at the moment rushing headlong toward a goal that he disdains. Within the current process social forces have carved their channel in bedrock, and nothing will turn their course so long as they have not emptied into the expanse of an unknown plain. The gesticulation of castaways only makes their bodies float along the further bank. But if the reactionary is powerless in our time, his condition obliges him to bear witness to his revulsion. Freedom, for the reactionary, is submission to a mandate.

This “mandate” is by Eliot’s own lights to bear poetic witness to his culture’s deterioration. Perhaps more: in bearing such witness, Eliot traces the “headlong” currents of cultural infertility to their most disastrous ends. He records with candor a societal malheur wrought by impotence and decay. These forebodings are enunciated in the manner of poetry and prophesy, without concession to hopes or foolhardy optimisms. The later Eliot will write of culture’s collapse:

Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it.

The true process of cultural rejuvenation is then, for Eliot, one of complete self-immolation, and  budding once more from underneath the ashes, in the slow-rummaging process of building anew. It is not for individuals of the old culture to comprehend this process, nor even to survive it. Though for the hollow man, there is a species of religious persistence, of hope in bearing witness, which in Eliot’s case gives form to his own later experience of conversion.


1 I have relied extensively throughout this essay on the masterful bibliographical commentary of Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, in their two-volume The Poems of T.S. Eliot.
2 For a contemporary rendering of the languid, menacing zeppelin, see David Lynch’s short film, Bug Crawls.
3 Mules are perhaps the most well known example of this phenomenon; importantly, hybridization in many cases is forbidden entirely by the physical incompatibility of genitalia.
4 Book VI of the Metamorphoses finds other parallels to Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales;” Tereus’ unhappy feast echoes the demon barber’s meat pies, and therefore the putrefied or maculate flesh of Sweeney. Likewise, the bellowing of Boreas amidst the “vaulted hollows of the earth” mirrors the subterranean “vento / che balenò una luce vermiglia,” in Dante, Inferno, III.133, a canto that will become especially important in Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”
5 That is, the pre-Olympian “Children of the Night.” For Aeschylus especially, the Erinyes are identified with calamities, with the blackness of storms and pollution, and with measureless, retributive justice. In Seven Against Thebes, for example, the Furies are harbingers of the Oedipal curse, further suggesting the entanglement of sexual deviancy, lawless retribution, and the blight of cultural infertility. That these are chthonian gods also has special import for Eliot’s hollow men, who are constitutively fated to the derelict earth. See discussion below.



Aeschylus. Agamemnon. Libation-Bearers. Eumenides. Translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Aeschylus. Persians; Seven against Thebes; Suppliants; Prometheus Bound. Translated by Alan Herbert Sommerstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated by Jean & Robert Hollander. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2000.

Alighieri, Dante. Paradiso. Translated by Jean & Robert Hollander. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2007.

Augustine. Confessions: Books 1-8. Translated by Carolyn J.-B. Hammond. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Blough, Frani. “T. S. Eliot Reads and Comments on His Poetry.” The Vassar Miscellany News. May 10, 1933, XVII edition, sec. 46.

Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. London, UK: Penguin, 2003.

Drew, Elizabeth A. T.S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949.

Dávila, Nicolás Gómez. “The Authentic Reactionary.” Intercollegiate Studies Institute, October 8, 2014.

Eliot, T. S. Christianity and Culture: the Idea of a Christian Society and Notes towards the Definition of Culture. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

———. For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order. London: Faber, 1970.

———. “Kipling Redivivus”Review of The Years Between, . Athenaeum, (May 23, 1919): 361–62.

———. Letter to A. S. T. Fisher, January 19, 1943.

———. Letter to The Editor, The Times Literary Supplement. London, UK: 24 Russell Square, January 10, 1935.

———. The Poems of T.S. Eliot, Vol. 1: Collected and Uncollected Poems. Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

Falque, Emmanuel. The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist. Translated by George Hughes. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2016.

Gregory, Horace. The House on Jefferson Street: A Cycle of Memories. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.

Hayward, John. “The London Letter.” The Sun. November 23, 1934.

Hewes, Henry. “T. S. Eliot at Seventy, and an Interview with Eliot.” The Saturday Review of Literature, September 13, 1958.

Huysmans, J.- K. Against Nature. Translated by Robert Baldick. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 2003.

Mack, Robert L. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Marlowe, Christopher, and Thomas Nash. Dido, Queen of Carthage: A Tragedy. London, UK: Printed by D.S. Maurice for Hurst, Robinson, and Co. and Archibald Constable and Co., 1825.

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus and Other Plays. Edited by David M. Bevington and Eric Rasmussen. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Matthiessen, F. O. The Achievement of T. S. Eliot: An Essay on The Nature of Poetry. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1935.

Miłosz, Czesław. Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition. Translated by Catherine S. Leach. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.

Milton, John. John Milton: The Complete Poems. Edited by John Leonard. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1998.

Newman, Dorland William Alexander. “Sweeny.” In Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 1814–14. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders, 2012.

———. “Macula.” In Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 1094–95. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders, 2012.

Ovid. Metamorphoses: Books 1-8. Translated by Frank Justus Miller. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems. London, UK: Vintage Books, 1975.

Roby, Kinley E. Critical Essays on T.S. Eliot: The Sweeney Motif. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1985.

Southam, B. C. A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot. 6th ed. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1996.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1990.

Wolpert, Judy. “T. S. Eliot’s Lecture Illustrates Development of Striking Trends.” Wellesley College News. May 8, 1947, LV edition, sec. 24.

Young, Filson. The Trial of Hawley Harvey Crippen. Edinburgh, UK: W. Hodge & Company, Ltd., 1920.