Poetry Friday: 1925

I’ve been looking forward to this year in poetry.  1925 is a great year for literature in general—The Great Gatsby, Mrs. Dalloway, Carry On, Jeeves, and J.R.R. Tolkien publishes his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  I could go on.  But as far as modern poetry goes, for my money, you can’t beat the unimaginatively titled Poems, 1909-1925 by an American poet who had lived so long in England that he was on the verge of becoming both Anglican and an English citizen: T. S. Eliot.  And among the poems in that collection is perhaps my favorite poem to use as a class discussion—I looked forward every year to putting this poem on the board and simply letting my A.P. students wrestle with it until they had won some meaning out of it.  I really encourage you to do the same: to pick anything that stands out to you, that reminds you of something, that seems to make sense (even if only for a moment), and share that thought in the comments.  Let’s make some sense of this poem together, not by relying on “commentaries” or “criticism”, but simply by letting the words speak to us, and reflecting on them.

T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”:

Mistah Kurtz — he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

I

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.

II

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

III

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.

IV

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.

V

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.

 

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4 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1925

  1. Bonnie Hood says:

    Wow. What a poem! It builds and builds, and ends in such a way that it leaves you feeling very creeped out, which you would never guess, from the way it begins.

    My mind went somewhere odd with it, but I’ll tell you anyway. I thought of how impotent (not that way, of course) the men who were left behind felt, when most of the men went off to war. Anyway, it certainly gave me a post WWI feel. Is this the guy who wrote Wasteland, because it reminded me of that too…that kind of stream of consciousness style it has, especially toward the ending.

    That, and also scarecrows toward the beginning.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I like it too–thanks for commenting on it! I’m sure that WWI is an important element in the war. I’m not sure that it relates as much, for me, to the men left behind as to the shattered men who came back from the trenches. But your idea is an interesting wrinkle I’ll have to think about.

      Yes, T.S. Eliot is the guy who wrote The Waste Land. This does have that style, though I like it better than The Waste Land (and I like the Four Quartets better than both). He’s worth reading more of, if you haven’t (or haven’t in a while).

  2. Bonnie Hood says:

    All I’ve read is The Waste Land, which was too obscure for my tastes, so I’ll definitely have to sample some more of his poetry.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      He does tend to be obscure. If you’ve never read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (the musical “Cats” is VERY loosely based on it), it’s fun and light-hearted. A good read.

      Journey of the Magi is season-appropriate, and brief enough not to overwhelm the way that Waste Land does.

      And the Four Quartets are huge and hard to understand even on re-reads, but they have such beautiful language, I think I’d give them a shot. If nothing else, try the last of the Quartets, Little Gidding, which I think is out of this world.

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