Magazine: The Explicator, Winter 1998


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. These puppets were called Argei, which naturally suggests Greeks; and Wissowa has contrived to persuade himself not only that a number of Greeks were actually put to death by drowning in an age when everything Greek was beginning to be reverenced at Rome, but (still more extraordinary to an anthropologist) that the primitive device of substitution was had in requisition at that late date in order to carry on the memory of that ghastly deed. And the world of German learning has silently followed their leader, without taking the trouble to test his conclusions . . . whatever be the history of the accessories of the rite--and they are various and puzzling,--that actual immersion of the puppets is the survival of a primitive piece of sympathetic magic, the object being possibly to procure rain.(n4)

Fowler's contemporary Sir James Frazer, whose work The Golden Bough greatly influenced Eliot, pointed to aspects of the ritual of purification in river water involved in the rite of the Argei. He observed that

it is possible that the puppets made of rushes, which in the month of May the pontiffs and Vestal Virgins annually threw into the Tiber from the old Sublician bridge at Rome had originally the same significance [as the Roman festival Compitalia]; that is, they may have been designed to purge the city from demoniac influence by diverting the attention of the demons from human beings to the puppets and then toppling the whole uncanny crew, neck and crop, into the river, which would soon sweep them far out to sea. . . . This interpretation of the Roman custom is supported to some extent by the evidence of Plutarch, who speaks of the ceremony as "the greatest of purifications."(n5)

Frazer also noted that as far as he could "see, there is little or nothing to suggest that the ceremony had anything to do with vegetation," and instead he suggested that the Argei "may have been offerings to the River God, to pacify him."(n6)

This motif of sacrificial separation and collective departure at a river's edge then provides a clear thematic link between the "hollow . . . stuffed men," who are "gathered on this beach of the tumid river / sightless" (lines 60-61), and the blind, featureless Argei ready to be tossed away by Roman officials standing on the Tiber's banks. The "tumid river" suggests not only Dante's River Acheron and the souls gathered nearby, as noted by Martin Scofield, but also the waters of Rome's greatest river.(n7) For the river into which twenty-four or twenty-seven Argei were hurled on an annual basis was swollen in mid May with spring run-off.

In Rome the ritualized murder of these straw hominids served to absorb evil forces, which rendered them accursed and profane. In Eliot's poem the stuffed men anxiously implore the reader, and "those who have crossed . . . to death's other kingdom" (13-14), to "remember us--if at all--not as lost / violent souls, but only / as the hollow men / the stuffed men" (15-18). Thus the small crowd of rush-stuffed Roman mannikins, who are as clonelike and uniform in their aspect as Scofield once described "the hollow men," find their destiny bound up with a riverside community.


(n1.) B. C. Southam, A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1990) 154-155.

(n2.) John B. Vickery, The Literary Impact of the Golden Bough (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973) 267.

(n3.) W. Warde Fowler, Roman Religious Experience (London: Macmillan, 1922) 55.

(n4.) Fowler 54-55. For the classical sources see Varro 7.44, Ovid, Fasti 5.621-622, and Plutarch, Quaes. Roman 86.

(n5.) Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan, 1963) 107-108.

(n6.) Ovid, Fasti, ed. Sir James Frazer (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1951) 426, 428.

(n7.) Martin Scofield, T. S. Eliot: The Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988) 159.

(n8.) Scofield 140.


By MICHELE VALERIE RONNICK, Wayne State University

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Source: Explicator, Winter98, Vol. 56 Issue 2, p91, 3p.