Futility and Hollowness of Modern Life in T.S Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and Bhupi Sherchan’s “We”

-Anup Joshi
Futility and Hollowness of Modern Life in Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and Sherchan’s “We”

This paper makes a comparative thematic study of the poem “The Hollow Men” written by English Modernist poet T.S. Elliot with the poem “We” composed by Nepalese Modernist Poet Bhupi Sherchan. Though Sherchan wrote his poem a half century after Eliot, we can find similar ethos of time in both the poems as modernism arrived later in case of Nepalese society. As an influence of Western Literary movements and extravagant city life, many Nepalese poets imported West based Modernist ideas in their poems during that time. Eliot, being a forefront English poet of the twentieth century, his poems have widely inspired Nepali writers. As Hutt observes in Sherchan’s fellow poet Bairagi Kainla’s poem "People Shopping at a Weekly Market", “The poem's penultimate verse, in which the line [Oh death went empty-handed from the market today] is repeated three times, is surely imitative of Eliot's "The Hollow Men" [This is the way the world ends]” (101). Alike “The Hollow Men”, “We” also has the plural first person speakers “We” and in both the poems, “We” are ululating to express the futility and hollowness of modern life at the same time are searching for a safer way out.
             When Eliot was writing his poem in 1925, World War I had just ended accompanied by the millions of casualties. Along with the advent of science and technology, warfare was centered on the use of poison gas and demonic modern weapons. Due to the gruesomeness of war, humanity was in peril and the human values, religion, spirituality and tradition was doomed. Everything was barren and impotent as Eliot best presents in his poem “Wasteland”. As an effect, Eliot claims “We are the hollow men” (1). The humanity was devoid of feelings and intuitions. There was cavity inside people’s heart, brain and they could neither sense nor think. Multitudes of people were killing each other and there was no morality with them. In the line that follows, the speakers paradoxically announce “We are the stuffed men” (2) and these men are stuffed with “straw” (4) which is a dead imagery. They lack vitality of life and are gorged with arrogance and indifference to each other. These are pack of fragile and insensitive zombies. As Miller puts it,
The hollow men are walking corpses and their emptiness is the vacuity of pure mind detached from any reality. They are cut off from one another. Their voices are whispers, "quiet and meaningless"...They are detached from nature, and live in a place which is devoid of any spiritual presence, a "cactus land," a "valley of dying stars," hollow like the men themselves (par 1).
The poem portrays the fragmented world of hollow men as full of broken images, “broken glass” (9), “broken column” (23), “broken stone” (51), “broken jaw” (56). Similarly, everything is dry there; “dried voices” (5), “dry grass” (8), “dry cellar” (10).  The whole landscape is deserted and only living thing that grows there is “cactus” (40), which is a plant that sprouts devoid of water and is definitely not a pleasant plant to have. Cactus plant has borne “prickly pear” (70) but it is also not a fruit one enjoys. Whenever ideas try to convert into reality or a conception seeks its way towards creation, there “falls the shadow” (80). This obstructive shadow which is an emblem for the abyss of modern human heart, is the recurring imagery in Hollow Men’s world.
            The inhabitants of Sherchan’s world are mostly corrupted by their pride. Throughout the poem, the speaker leads us to the disillusionment of the futility of their pride,However much we raise ourselves up/ However much we run here and there/ However loud we roar/ However, deep within, we are hollow” (24-27). During the 1960s, when the poem was published, Nepalese were adopting modern materialistic life and the intellectuals were blind with eccentricity of their knowledge. But from within, they were hollow, impotent. So however much they pretended to have raised up, their “superficial height is false, it's a delusion” (32). However much they roar and boast they are the most discerning people, their “roar carries no more weight than the hiss of an ember thrown into water.” (28-29). Alike Eliot’s poem, the hollowness of Nepalese society has also emerged from the excessive arrogance, pride and abandonment of the inner spirituality.
For Eliot, the main cause of futility and forlornness of modern life is lack of vision. The fragile hollow-men are stuck in purgatory and cannot redeem themselves. However much they attempt to supplicate God by bringing forth Lord’s Prayer, they cannot utter the complete prayer. Their prayers are also fragmented, “For Thine is/ Life is / For Thine is the” (91-93). Due to the selfishness and enmity with each other, they have lost their eyes, heart and mind. They cannot distinct right from wrong. They are driven by greed and lust. “The eyes are not here/ There are no eyes here/In this hollow valley/this broken jaw of our lost kingdom” (52-56). The people have way before lost their kingdom of God which used to shower them with spirituality and morality. As Stolarek analyses, Eliot depicts “the inhabitants of modern world as invisible and inaudible, half alive, partly humans and partly extraterrestrial beings, alienated and estranged” (par 9) in “The Hollow Men”. Similarly, Sherchan also laments over the ideal past and claims the modern extravagant life to be the cause of the hollowness. We “Have lost the memory of our own past/ We have forgotten the common stature of man/ We have forgotten the stature of the common man” (46-48). When most of the Nepalese people resided in villages with their common occupation as farming, they had communal life and sense of morality was prevalent among them. But with emerging cities, people became inclined towards individualism and forgot their past. They avoided the spiritual and moral lessons handed over by their predecessor. Intoxicated with vanity and smugness, “we” became hollow from inside. Similar to the Eliot’s hollow men who “whisper together” (6) “quiet and meaningless” (7), Sherchan’s “we” are also dumb. They pretend to be brave but are dumb inside. They are “never able to be brave without being dumb” (83).
            To plunge out of the futile and absurd life, both the poems offer certain safe ways out. As Sherchan’s poem is lucidly ironical, it seems more exquisite in offering solution. Once people denounce their hypocrisy and find remedy for their vanity, they might be redeemed. “We are just feet which run, which walk, which stand/Merely at the direction of someone else”. People have become void because they do everything on insistence of others and do not think for themselves. They are mere the “old pieces for the table top game of ‘ricochet’” (75) and require players to hit them with a 'striker'. “We are less like human beings and more like pawns” (80). The speakers of the poem cannot do anything on their own accord, they are just puppets and need someone to order them to do something. So, the pride they exhibit is fake, unreal. Once people revive their self and vision, they might revive humanity. At the last section of the poem, the poet becomes optimistic, “We are nothing, and perhaps that's why we are something!” (139). People should realize their hollowness and act for a spiritual or moral renaissance.
            On the other hand, Eliot poem’s is very subtle in implication. The poet does not use radiant language and manifests his idea in scatters. His bunch of hollow men are wandering aimlessly around the cactus land by the beach of tumid Styx river, which is the gateway to heaven. He does not mention the word ‘heaven’ explicitly in poem, but refers it by “death’s dream kingdom” (20) appearing repetitively in poem. The time is given as “at five o’clock in the morning” (71) which is the time of resurrection of Jesus in Bible. The hollow men make it clear that “unless/ the eyes reappear/ As the perpetual star/ Multifoliate rose…The hope only/ Of empty men” (61-67). So once the vision reappears among the fragile men enabling them to think and feel with moral and spiritual realization, they will be resurrected. So, amidst all the fragmented and cynical imageries, we can find some rays of hope.
            Structurally too, we can find many similarities between the two poems which overall contribute to the theme of the poem. Both are written in free verse and are divided in many sections, “We” is divided into seven sections whereas “The Hollow Men” is written in five parts. Before Eliot, poems were written in verse with meter and rhyming but he shattered the convention and chose new way of expressing. Both the poems are known for simplicity and style of free verse. When the classical poets were deifying the metanarratives of rationality and greatness of God or human being, they deployed grand epic verses. But Sherchan and Eliot’s poems embody the futility and hollowness of human life so they have distorted the conventional style to effectively epitomize the plight of modern hollow life. As Hutt alludes, “So that Sherchan’s poems could be readily understood, he developed a style of Nepali almost totally devoid of the Sanskrit-derived vocabulary that filled the poetry of earlier writers, such as Lekhnath and Devkota. Sherchan also rejected the idea of metrical verse out of hand” (122). Furthermore, Alike Eliot who brings allusions from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and many biblical references, Sherchan also drags references from Mahabharata and Gulliver’s Travel. The poems come to overlap with each other in verities of ways.
            To conclude, both the poems of Eliot and Sherchan exhibit the futility and hollowness of modern life. Like Sherchan proclaims, “We are the men of Lilliput” (67). Our assumed height is apparent and is mere delusion of our vanity. Due to backwardness in science and technology, Nepalese society leaped towards the age of modernity later than that of English society. Eliot is pioneer of Modernism in English Literature and Sherchan holds similar position in Modern Nepali Literature. In a way, we can note Eliot’s influence on Sherchan while writing the poem “We” as during the advent of Modernism, Nepalese poets were highly influenced by Western Literature and T.S Eliot was one of their favorite. However, both the poems were the product of the materialistic degenerated time where the values of the society were in ruins. Though overall themes of the poems resemble each other, they vary in approach. Sherchan’s poem is ironic and satirizes the assumed pride of human beings. In his poem, there is a great difference between the appearance and reality of modern human beings. The “We”s show themselves as stuffed being, but are hollow from inside. Whereas Eliot’s imagist poem is much subtle and traces the complete picture of modern life with particular settings and vivid details. He furthermore urges for the revival of religion, church and spirituality in a suggestive way. His representation is more bizarre and terrifying in comparison to Sherchan’s sarcastic tone.

Works Cited
Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men”. All Poetry. 14 Aug. Web.
Hutt, Michael James. Himalayan Voices: An Introduction to Modern Nepali
Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Print.
Miller, J. Hillis. “On “The Hollow Men”. University of Illinois. 14 Aug. Web.
Sharma, Tara Nath. “We/Bhupi Sherchan”. Online Sahitya. 14 Aug. Web.
Stolarek, Joanna. “Quest for values in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘Ash Wednesday”.
Academia. 14 Aug. Web.

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About Anup Joshi

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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