Reading Between the Lines: Liminal Spaces in the works of T.S. Eliot
by Jonathon Dey
Poetry captures something that other mediums struggle with. Novels, prose and films are all effective at capturing spaces, thoughts, and moments but poetry captures the flickering space between the static frames of the ostensibly moving film or the void between paragraphs; the nebulous space of feeling and transition between one thought and the next. This space might be loosely described as the ‘liminal’, the concept of individuals or entities which are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions” (Turner 1967 p.25), encapsulating the disorientation and ambiguity that occurs at a threshold that has yet to be crossed. In literature and poetry, the spaces between are important because the boundaries surrounding them are a membrane, the crossing of which necessitates a kind of cost (Viljoen, H & Van Der Merwe 2007 p.11). Interacting with the liminal provides insight and meaning that would otherwise be lost to the filter and consequently by doing so, poetry is able to substantiate feelings and create emotional responses that defy concrete explication (Viljoen, H & Van Der Merwe 2007 p. 10). Exploring this idea, T.S Eliot’s The Hollow Men (1925) and Ash Wednesday (1930) illustrates how liminality creates meaning in the space between meanings, a literary ether in which cognition is ultimately both fluid and diffuse.
T.S. Eliot is a modernist poet, a movement characterised by the desire for something new, owing to the disillusionment with humanity arising from the first world war among other things (Walz 2013 p. 6) The first poem, The Hollow Men expresses this disillusionment directly with a distinct sense of nihilism and hopelessness (Urquhart 2001 p. 199-201). By comparison, Ash Wednesday tracks Eliot’s movement from hopelessness and agnosticism towards religious belief in the notion of a higher power and meaning (Kirk 2008 p. 111-120). In a way, they are themselves a picture of a man caught in a liminal space, ascending from one system of belief to another without truly belonging to either. More importantly however, is the fact that they both also engage with liminality on a textual, structural and philosophical level.
This engagement with the liminal is perhaps most obvious in The Hallow Men which can itself be read as a kind of thesis on liminal spaces. The poem begins and ends in a place of death, which could uncontroversially be described as the ultimately threshold of human existence. It starts with an epitaph referencing the death of Guy Fawkes, “Penny for the Guy”(p. 89) and finishes with repetitions of “This is how the world ends” (p.92) – moving from the death of a man to the death of all men. This is important because it frames the poem within a landscape of inevitability. Life, in essence is what occurs between the bookmarks of oblivion.
This idea of inevitability, of meandering ruin, permeates the opening stanzas of the poem. The living are presented as “Hollow men”, a collection of bodies filled with straw to be looked upon by those who have passed beyond the threshold of death. This threshold is embodied by the reoccurring image of ‘death’s other kingdom’ (p.89-90) juxtaposed against ‘death’s dream kingdom’ (p.89), the former being the threshold itself and the latter being man’s trembling perception of it. In this sense, Eliot posits all life as liminal, as transitory, that we are faded and dead and just briefly engaging in the farce of existence as we fruitlessly search for greater meaning. Capturing this farce is the trite and lyrical nature of stanza 13 which simply reads “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” (p.91), a verse which is mnemonically engaging but ultimately meaningless.
This frustration towards the search for meaning becomes the focus of the final stanzas of the poem, presenting itself through the metaphor of the falling shadow. Four of the final six stanzas follow a distinct structure whereby ‘the shadow’ is located between four esoteric concepts of meaning. The stanza’s proceed with a kind of empiricism, “Between the idea / and the reality / between the motion / and the act / falls the shadow” (p.92), looking for a cause and effect relationship between things, between what we feel and what we do, desire and satiation, existence and non-existence. In this sense, Eliot is situating himself directly in the spaces between these juxtapositions which, significantly, he presents as places of shadow, something obscured. We are, in essence, searching for meaning in the shadows of the boundaries that surround us.
Furthermore, floating even within these boundaries of the final stanzas are three disembodied lines: “For thine is the kingdom / life is very long / for thine is the kingdom” (p.92). The first and last of the three serve as obvious religious allusions to the lord’s prayer “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory…” and yet the fragment we receive presents only ‘the kingdom’, something which the poem has already previously associated with the boundary of death – “Death’s other kingdom” (p.89). Consequently, these fragments present death conspicuous in the absence of power or glory. Death is simply death and ‘life is very long’ (p.92), another simple phrase carrying with it a tremendous sense of meandering tedium.
Significantly, in the penultimate stanza the fragment is shortened even further, reduced to simply “For thine is / life is / for thine is” (p.92), depriving the fragments of whatever meaning they previously retained. Thus even our attempts to define life by death is meaningless since both life and death are still ultimately relegated to a slow, meaningless descent into entropy, a concept informing the final stanza, “This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper” (p.92). In this sense, the Hollow Men uses the liminal to deconstruct the very boundaries that define it and subsequently evokes a profound and enduring image of existentialism and spiritual turmoil, a glimpse in to mind of T.S. Eliot.
Indeed, if the The Hollow Men (1925) was taken as a couple pages in the book of Eliot’s mind, the next poem, Ash Wednesday (1930) might be taken as the subsequent chapter. Within a historical context, the poem marks Eliot’s spiritual awakening, described by Kirk as having “passed from misgiving to belief; from horror to peace…”(Kirk 2008 p113). This movement once again establishes Eliot as a liminal figure in transition between boundaries. However, while in The Hollow Men, the shadows fell across the spaces between, in Ash Wednesday the dominant imagery is instead characterised by the opposite, by brightness and colour – by the light that casts the shadow.
On the whole, the voice of Ash Wednesday is far more personal than that of the Hollow Men, as Eliot sets himself up as a kind of pilgrimaging figure voyaging out from the shadows, -“Because I do not hope”(p.85), and moving across landscapes of desert towards the light – “through a bright cloud of tears, the years restoring” (p.90). This pilgrimage is denoted by the structure of the poem which is separated into distinct parts, each with their own tone and style. The first part starts with repetitious fragments characterised by hopelessness and weariness in a manner reminiscent of The Hollow Men. In this part Eliot is describing himself, his inability to hope, “These wings are no longer wings to fly / but merely vans to beat the air”(p. 86). It paints the picture of a man still lost to the meaninglessness of reality. The next part however shifts to a meeting with the goddess-like figure of the “Lady”(p.87) whose three leopards eat Eliot down to the bones. The imagery in this section shifts dramatically, exclaiming the “goodness”(p. 87) and “loveliness” (p.87) of the lady and the “whiteness” (p.87) of her gown transposed against the whiteness of Eliot’s bones. Even the desert is recast, emphasising the “quiet” of the desert and the “coolness” (p.88) of the sand beneath the juniper tree. The third section seemingly denotes temptation back to the despair of the first section, ending in a repeated lamenting cry to god, “Lord, I am not worthy / Lord I am not worthy”(p.89) while the final section is a completed shift to images of colour, light, music and redemption. (p.90) Importantly however, in the final section, the autonomous figure of Eliot is gone, with all mentions of “I” being notably absent.
In Stanza eight Eliot writes “We shine with brightness. And I who am here disassembled” (p.87), exemplifying what I think is the key transition from the Hollow Men to Ash Wednesday. While before the world and all its inhabitants were barren and hollow in perpetuity, now it is Eliot himself who is skeletal and flightless as he presses against a boundary of something greater. This seemingly marks a tremendous shift away from the Hollow Men where all things were ultimately meaningless fragments in a space of entropic ruin. Instead, Eliot posits meaning in the religious significance of the garden, the symbol of paradise, heaven, a life without death. In other words, rather than a poem written in the meandering spaces between oblivions, Ash Wednesday moves to a new space situated between living-death (The desert and bones) and salvation (the garden). This is significant in of itself in the sense that religious afterlife is inherently liminal , a kind of purgatory in anticipation of true life (Ashley 1990 p. 11). However what is more significant about the poem is that Eliot never really reaches the garden as a conscious entity.
Despite the movement from darkness to light, the second part of the poem where Eliot meets the lady, largely retains a sense of grimness to it. She is the impetus of his salvation but upon meeting her he is not simply washed clean and made holy, but rather eaten by leopards until his bones “shine with brightness…” (p.87). He is not saved so much as consumed, rendered back to his disassembled structures, returning to the sand, “united in the quiet of the desert” (p.88) to become, perhaps, the fertiliser needed for the garden itself to grow. He is saved only by becoming something other than himself. Consequently, the threshold to the garden is never truly crossed but rather the space and the boundary become blurred together. This is interesting because despite it being a poem written in the context of spiritual conversion, death, the ultimate threshold set up in The Hollow Men isn’t crossed but rather it is merely reconceptualised. In other words, the entropy and meandering ruin of the Hollow Men persists but is intrinsically rendered as paradise through the acceptance of it. The falling of the shadow becomes the shade of the juniper tree under which “The bones sang, scattered and shining”.
In a way, this reconceptualisation of salvation as a beautiful loss of self rather than spiritual persistence for all eternity illustrates a strange and wonderful melding of Agnosticism and Gnosticism, perhaps reflecting Eliot’s dabbling into humanism (Russel 2006 p. 116). Each boundary becomes a platform to reform and reconstruct the other as he passes into the threshold of Anglicanism. Indeed, the ability for the poems to paint in abstract the inner turmoils of a man struggling to find his place and make sense of the universe is perhaps the most striking thing about them. Through the use of imagery, voice, structure and allusion, the poems trace the silk-thread-like lines of reasoning behind Eliot’s transition, embodying the space between Gnostic and Agnostic, hopeful and hopeless, rational and irrational, all the while doing so in just a handful of pages. This is important for a number of reasons. First as an exercise in literary prowess, it magnificently explicates the inexplicable, pushing thoughts to evolve beyond the boundaries of cliché, but perhaps more importantly it reminds us that people aren’t the static, consistent entities that we perceive them to be. In the end we are all liminal, transitory figures speaking with a thousand voices through the filter of one, colonies with grand delusions of unity.
© Jonathon Dey
Ashley, K 1990, Victor Turner and the Construction and the Construction of Cultural Criticism, Indiana University Press, Indiana.
Harris, A 2005, Luminous Intenisty and the other in T.S. Eliot’s criticism and poetry from ‘Silence’ (1910) to Ash Wednesday
(1930), UMI Dissertations Publishing Warwick.
Kirk, R 2008, Eliot and his age : T.S. Eliot’s moral imagination in the twentieth century, ISI Books, Delaware.
Turner, V 1967, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage,” from The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual.
Urquhart, T 2001, ‘Eliot’s The Hollow Men’, The Explicator, vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 199-201.
Waltz, R 2013, Seminar Studies in History: Modernism, Routledge.
Viljoen, H & Van Der Merwe, C.N 2007, Beyond the Threshold: Explorations of Liminality in Literature, Peter Lang Publishing, New York.
IMAGE: T.S. Eliot by Alexey Kurbatov