The Fractured Form of Eliot’s Ellipsis

“Make it new!”

That was the rallying cry of Ezra Pound harkened to by young artists of the early twentieth century. This period would later be coined “modern” due to the rapid advancement in industry, technology, science, and women’s liberation, among other things. Western civilization was pulsating with electricity. The life of the modern man was propelled forward by the speed of travel via the automobile and airplanes. Networks of train tracks and highways stretched across the country. However, it was not solely the material aspects of life that were changing. “Much social energy in the 1920s expanded the boundaries for acceptable self-expression. Adherents to small-town values such as work ethic, social conformity, duty, and respectability clashed ideologically with internationally-minded radicals and newly affluent young people who argued for more diverse, permissive, and tolerant styles of life” (Byam 6). In short, social mores were changing. The first global war in which technological advances exponentially increased the horror only served to prove that man was “not in Kansas anymore.” The psychological effects of World War One saturated life. A landscape ravaged by war and an awareness of the violence man was able and willing to inflict on one another only encouraged the cynicism and disorientation felt by the modern man. One of the emerging artists of the time, Thomas Stearns Eliot, captured this feeling like no other. Through his poetic language, Eliot gave voice to the modern man and all his doubts, insecurities, apathy, and fractured feelings. His use of specific linguistic devices, namely ellipsis, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land,” as well as “The Hollow Men,” provide cohesion while at the same time creating uncertainty – a defining characteristic of the modern era.

There are multiple functions of the ellipsis. For one, it can be used to leave out redundant information. Ellipsis derives from the Greek word, ἔλλειψις, which means omission. When one or more words are omitted, but the phrase can still be understood based on context, this is known as an ellipsis. This type of ellipsis is often used in language because it is efficient, and meaning is often derived from context. For example, in “The Waste Land,” Eliot writes, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow.” Left out by the ellipsis in the second clause are the verb are, the determiner the, and the adverb that. The second clause can be easily understood without the missing elements because the reader can infer meaning based on the preceding phrase. Omitting unnecessary words allows Eliot to discard parallelism while creating an imbalance in the sentence, which correlates to the psychological imbalance experienced by the men and women undergoing the social upheaval of the twentieth century.

What is more intriguing and defining about T.S. Eliot’s poetry is his use of ellipsis in which the reader must look both behind and ahead in the poem to discover the meaning within the ellipsis. The most well-known ellipsis employed by Eliot, and one which sets the stage for the rest of his poetry, is from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” first published in 1915. Eliot creates an atmosphere of intense contemplation with the ellipsis used in the first stanza:

“Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question…”

What is the question which Eliot leaves out? Understanding what the question Prufrock is speaking of ultimately relies on the context of the rest of the poem. In fact, the intentional omission of the precise question is deliberate and forces the reader to delve deeply into the rest of the poem, into Prufrock’s psyche, into Eliot’s psyche, and most importantly, into the reader’s psyche. As the reader journeys through the rest of the poem, Eliot poses many questions which could replace the ellipsis. Furthermore, while it is Prufrock who is questioning, the reader is also meant to question. “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Two roads diverged in the wood – which one should he take? Which one should we take? Will we play it safe, or can we step out of our own insecurity and indecisiveness and live deliberately? Should we, can we, “have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” Again, the action is required by Prufrock, by us; the demand is to be a participant, not merely an observer. “How should I begin to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” How can we possibly justify our lives in the end? How can we attempt to account for the time given to us, especially if it is as easy and tedious as measuring out our lives with coffee spoons? “Will it have been worth it after all?” Eliot presents an unknown with the ellipsis, and all the possibilities he then gives the reader to contemplate creates anxiety felt by many living in the new age of modernity.

The ellipsis is used again in “The Waste Land.” In part two, A Game of Chess, Eliot interrupts the conversation (four times) between two women in a London pub. He uses a common calling of the day, “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME,” to indicate it is closing time at the pub. One could infer from the context of the setting that the words left out might be, “Hurry up, please. It is time to go.” Alternatively, perhaps, “Hurry up, please. It is time to close.” However, even more important to consider is the overriding theme of time in Eliot’s poetry. On the surface, it is merely a closing call, but underneath it is much more and brings a cohesive element to his poetry. This dread caused by the quickening of time can be seen in the neurotic Prufrock and later observed as a metaphysical conundrum in Burnt Norton, taken from “Four Quartets.” Taking that into consideration, the reader can expand their thinking and suppositions on what exactly it is time for. “Time to turn back and descend the stair,” or perhaps it is “time yet for a hundred indecisions, and for a hundred visions and revisions.” Using the ellipsis, Eliot allows the reader freedom to explore their ideas without being given an answer. This allows a certain amount of intellectual stimulation that would not be made possible without using the ellipsis.

In “The Hollow Men,” section five, Eliot uses the ellipsis to create meaningful fragments. After the second stanza, Eliot writes a well-known line from the Lord’s prayer, “For Thine is the Kingdom.” In line 83, he writes, “Life is very short,” followed by, “For Thine is the Kingdom,” again in line 91. This is what the reader will mentally fill in when reading stanza five, lines 92-94: “For Thine is / Life is / For Thine is the.” This stanza also supplies an example of sentence fragmentation, which is equally important in engaging the reader’s thinking. As Anne Curzan explains, “We often speak in sentence fragments because context allows us to supply the missing sentence parts” (193). In this case, the ellipsis creates a fragment to accentuate the feeling of uncertainty and hopelessness arising from the death of God, which was initiated during the Age of Enlightenment and completed during the modern era leading into the post-modern era where the only truth remaining is the knowledge that there is no truth.

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water…”

In the Waste Land, man cannot answer the question or even guess at the answer because all he knows anymore is the fragmented images and experiences of modern life. This is mirrored in the fragment, “Life is,” from the “Hollow Men.” The dead tree and dry stone speak to the idea that there is no savior, no God, and no hope for a resurrection. The idea of God’s death is seen in the inability of the Hollow Man to complete or repeat the phrase, “For Thine is the Kingdom.” Modern philosopher, Fredrich Nietzsche, predicted the despair arising from this “death.” He also predicted the nihilism which would follow, and the inability of the Hollow Man to complete or repeat the phrase but only say, “Life is,” seems to speak to there being no clear definition of what life is anymore; it is meaningless. It is easy to imagine the three-dotted ellipsis following the words, leaving off on the trail of cynical contemplation. And in the end, perhaps we are all just hollow men waiting for the world to end, “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Upon reflection, it is not so difficult to imagine what life was like before post-modernism. People living in the present are very much experiencing the difficulties in a rapidly changing world. With the ascent of the internet, virtual reality, social media, the disappearance of privacy and a deterioration of nationalism, as well as the decay of the institution of marriage, the celebration of homosexuality, and the idea that gender is a social construction, and it is easy to gather a sense of what our predecessors felt. T.S. Eliot’s poetry is as relevant today as it was then and provides a voice for those struggling to reconcile the newly formed order of what is to the old order of what was. With the use of the ellipsis and the ability of Eliot to engage the reader’s contemplation and reflection, Eliot acts as our Virgil, guiding us through “streets that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent,” which lead us always and inevitably to that overwhelming question…

Adams, Michael, and Anne Curzan. How English Works: A Linguistic Guide, 3rd ed. Pearson Education Inc., 2012.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Waste Land

The Hollow Men

Categories: Essays

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