Scholars have long endeavored to identify the sources of various images in T. S. Eliot’s work, so densely layered with literary allusions. As Eliot himself noted in his essay “Philip Massinger” (1920),
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
In Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” several sources have been posited for the “hollow men . . . the stuffed men / leaning together . . . filled with straw” (lines 1-2). B. C. Southam notes three: that the “hollow . . . stuffed men” are reminiscent of the effigies burned in celebration of Guy Fawkes Day; that “according to Valerie Eliot, the poet had in mind the marionette in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka”; and finally, that the “straw-stuffed effigies are associated with harvest rituals celebrating the death of the fertility god or Fisher King.”(n1)
In 1963, some years before Southam’s summary, John Vickery had proffered an interpretation similar to the third point mentioned. He noted that “the opening lines of `The Hollow Men’ with their image of straw-filled creatures, recalls The Golden Bough’s account of the straw-man who represents the dead spirit of fertility that revives in the spring when the apple trees begin to blossom.”(n2) Whereas Eliot may well have had any or all of these ideas in mind, I suggest that there is yet another connection to be made, namely between Eliot’s “hollow . . . stuffed men” and the Roman ritual of the Argei.
In 1922, a few years before Eliot wrote “The Hollow Men,” W. Warde Fowler described the particulars of this ritual, which was to him a “fascinating puzzle” and “the first curiosity that enticed” him “into the study of Roman religion,” in his book Roman Religious Experience.(n3) The rite according to Fowler occurs
each year on the ides of May, which is in my view rather magical than religious, though the ancients themselves looked upon it as a kind of purification, [namely] the casting into the Tiber from the Pons Sublicius of twenty-four or twenty-seven straw puppets by the Vestal Virgins in the presence of the magistrates and pontifices. Recently an attempt has been made by Wissowa to prove that this strange ceremony was not primitive, but simply a case of substitution of puppets for real human victims as late as the age of the Punic wars.
An Analysis of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
The editors of anthologies containing T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” invariably footnote the reference to Lazarus as John 11:1-44; rarely is the reference footnoted as Luke 16:19-31. Also, the reference to John the Baptist is invariably footnoted as Matthew 14:3-11; never have I seen the reference footnoted as an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s Salome. The sources that one cites can profoundly affect interpretations of the poem. I believe that a correct reading of Eliot’s “Prufrock” requires that one cite Wilde, in addition to Matthew, and Luke, in addition to John, as the sources for the John the Baptist and Lazarus being referenced. Furthermore, the citation of these sources can help explain Eliot’s allusion to Dante’s Guido da Montefeltro.
By a correct reading of “Prufrock,” I mean a reading consistent with the central theme of the poet’s belief made mute because the poet lives in a culture of unbelief–that is, the “silence” of the poetic vision in modernity. Prufrock renounces his inherited, romantic role as “poet as prophet” and renounces poetry’s role as a successor to religion. The future of poetry may have once been immense, but that future no longer exists for Prufrock, who is faced not only with the certainty of the rejection of his poetic vision but also with a situation in which there are no grounds for rhetoric: “That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all.” Fear of rejection leads Prufrock to the ultimate silencing of the prophet and hero within himself, to being “a pair of ragged claws.” He cannot share his poetic vision of life: to do so would threaten the very existence of that life. Paradoxically, not to share his light, his “words among mankind,” threatens the loss …
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…ince none has ever returned alive from this depth, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy.” Guido has no fear of answering all of Dante’s questions–of letting his flame shine forth. Prufrock, on the other hand, lives with his light entombed in the dark hell of his own fear of rejection: he cannot share his “love song.” He says, in effect, A prophet is never honored in his own time; therefore, this prophet shall remain silent. He says, in effect, Lazarus wasn’t sent back from the dead–because you already have your prophets. So what need have you of me? The labyrinth of his own “love song” is the hell that Prufrock is certain no one of us will escape. His silence is assured.
Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in An Introduction to Literature. Ed Sylvan Barnet et al. 13 ed. New York: Longman. 2004. 937-940.