T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”

Although I’ll have to confess that the more I study T.S. Eliot’s life and philosophy the more I realize why I originally rejected his poetry years ago, it is still hard to deny the pure, poetic power of his best poems.

Strangely, I still love “The Hollow Men,” a poem I memorized my first year in college and can still come close to reciting from memory. Perhaps it is merely the sound of the poem I love. Perhaps in some ways it is my poor man’s version of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” a poem I admit I like better now than I did the first time I read it, either because it seems relatively straightforward compared to Pound’s Cantos or because my exposure to films like Blade Runner and The Matrix have better prepared me for such visions. Although I do not share Eliot’s vision of life, “The Hollow Men “ conveys a sense of despair that seems far too widespread in our culture:

The Hollow Men

I

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

II

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer --

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

III

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.

IV

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.

V

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.


Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Although my research suggests that the hollow men probably represent Guy Fawkes’ dummies that are blown apart to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, for some reason the first stanza has always evoked images of the strawman in the Wizard of Oz, desperately seeking a brain, not realizing just how dangerous, and useless, a brain might be. It’s never quite clear, particularly if you see this poem in light of poems like “ J. Alfred Prufrock,” whether having a brain is a good thing or a bad thing. These people certainly do nothing but whisper meaningless phrases, but is that because they don’t have a brain or because they think too much and have too little faith? Like Prufrock and Hamlet, they seem incapable of action. Those who have died, if they look back at all, would see them as lacking the passion needed to truly live life, paradoxically “hollow,” but at the same time “stuffed” with delusions, pride, or despair?

Although the narrator almost seems to long for death, at least the kind of peaceful death where there is “sunlight on a broken column” and “voices are/ In the wind’s singing,” he fears death because he is afraid that instead it will be a “twilight kingdom.” Realizing his own world is a wasteland, a desert marked by stone images, the narrator fears the afterworld will be as void as this world and he will awaken with lips praying to “broken stones,” awaken in an abandoned graveyard littered with broken tombstones.

The absence of eyes, the windows to the soul, is frightening, but equally frightening is the fact that the people find themselves speechless, waiting to be conveyed across the River Styx, unable to see the future unless the “multifoliate rose,” Dante’s symbol of Paradise, “the hope only of empty men” should suddenly appear to save them.

“Here we go round the prickly pear” with its substitution of the cactus for the mulberry bush suggests that the week’s activities are as arid as the desert itself. The obvious references to the Lord’s Prayer in section five led me to reread:

THE LORD'S PRAYER


Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom ,
and the power, and the glory,
forever and ever. Amen.

When I first re-read “The Lord’s Prayer” I was struck by the similarities in rhythm and length of line between the two. Indeed, “The Lord’s Prayer” seems to offer the ultimate contrast to “The Hollow Men,” perhaps suggesting Eliot’s imminent conversion, which he celebrated in the next poem in his collected poems, “Ash Wednesday.”

The oft quoted last lines “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper’ are the most memorable lines in the poem, suggesting modern man’s inability to confront life, much less death. Ironically, though, I quite often recalled these lines when people suggested that the world would end in nuclear war, an ending I never found believable, but then I probably have a lot more faith in people than Eliot did.

A more traditional explication of “The Hollow Men” can be found here.

37 thoughts on “T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”

  1. Thank you, Loren, for sharing your personal thoughts on this reading of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” Like you, I find my appreciation of it different than when I first read it decades ago.

    For me, however, it is my exposure to music over the years that has made the difference, I think. This poem evokes such powerful images that I found myself pausing between stanzas, closing my eyes, and letting the pictures and thoughts “run” against an imagined Philip Glass sondtrack. Then, when the images and music faded, I could return to the next stanza.

    It was a delightful experience. Thanks again.

  2. How coincidental that you should leave a note, Roscoe.

    I was pleasantly amused by your recent change of description of my site. For links, I guess one word descriptions will probably have to suffice, won’t they?

    I was just now wondering how to list your link to me since we have such different views of the world.

    I read an older entry of yours about going to church and meditating and how fast time went by. Though I never go to church, and do my meditating alone in my room, I found that entry quite moving.

    Perhaps we’re on parallel journeys, but taking very different routes to get there.

    And, no, bad Dorothea, I’m not dragging out those two volumes of Frost and re-reading them at the moment, even though I’ve been thinking about that recently.

  3. to the main entry:

    >>It’s never quite clear, particularly if you see this poem in light of poems like J. Alfred Prufrock, whether having a brain is a good thing or a bad thing.<<

    only, you would be seeing the poem more accurately if you saw it in light of the waste land. some of the insights your research has afforded you are worthwhile. others sem to indicate how in some cases, having a brain can be a bad thing…

    as for the poem suggesting any imminent conversion, i highly doubt eliot prefigured himself converting to some faith when he wrote the poem. moreover, eliot has been noted for saying that writing is a constant abandonment of personality–so how one can draw conclusions based on a personal spiritual quest are mind boggling.

    what is clear is that a similar strain of social consciousness is flowing through this poem from the waste land (like disillusionment from the war); only here it is manifested in a more dismal light. not so to indicate lack of faith in people, either, and i doubt mr. eliot’s intention was to decree a lifelong disappointment with humanity.

    Kudos, for having “more faith in people than Eliot did.” however, that assertion is unfounded and as pertinent to the poem as nabokov was a pedophile.

  4. I thought it was quite interesting to find allusions to Dante’s Inferno within the poem. Just thought I’d give that little tid bit for thought.

  5. Well, I guess The Hollow Men is saying that our society is decaying, and we are just wasting life. We are Hollow Men stuffed with material things (in his words; straw). From a Christian view, I see it as that we have to fill ourselves with the love of Chr*st, and not material things, they will never really fill us, but in order to fill ourselves with the L*rd, we have to remove the straw first. T.S. Eliot is looking at this world as disgrace.

  6. ‘The Hollow Men’ not only depicts a dark theme representing man in his decaying state but even goes further to reveal a yet darker theme of the poet’s helplessness to do something worth when values perish.

  7. wow we have almost exactly the same thoughts about this poem its amazing! although you dont really care for other T.S. Eliot poems i love his works. This is a helpful article to me thanks!

  8. Well, I don’t know why eliot is always being sad,melancholic,depressed and gloomy!! I don’t like that at all.. Life is good and cheerful ,that’s when u know what are your dutyies and what are your rights! No need to be always gloomy like him .. You can make your Happy Land and live in it without vexations ..In my religion there is a saying of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him), which says there is a mundane paradise it is the fiducial Paradise ,and who never enters it ,never enters the Last Paradise. Thats all ;)…
    N.M.K
    alqadr_night@yahoo.com

  9. It was fun to review Hollow Men again through your post. I always found Eliot’s poems to be quite personal, even though the title on this one is not “Hollow Man”. I still like all of Eliot, whether I can claim to understand him or not. I suppose that such intelligence in the service of evil is disturbing, but he usually pulled back (into religion, if nothing else). In all those cutesy Cats poems, he pulled all the way back, didn’t he?

  10. Thank you for this analysis of one of the best things of T.S.E. I have been always mesmerized by his superb language and the solemn truth hidden in all his later poems except Cats (which is, I’m afraid, no more than a joke of genius and must not be taken too seriously). What is the truth I’ve found in his poetry? You may find it through religion, or through observing the nature, through some books or songs, or just getting older and gaining life experience; the truth someone can’t be comfortable with, but to me it is obvious and perfectly sound: the ‘other kingdom’ of death is not the thing to deny or avoid, and it may be seen through everything we see any day of our lives – not only the last day when we die. And Death beholds to God. And being religious, we must not be afraid the thoughts about finiteness of life. There’s nothing more miserable than a “hollow man” trying to live a dissipated life in a vain attempt to forget the inevitable ending because it seems to be too distant.

    However, the things Eliot talks about – Death, Faith, Eternity – are close connected and very complex and his masterpieces help any reader to begin thinking about the things larger than their brains used to digest. Thanks Loren for giving the people such an opportunity.

  11. The Hollow Men is important because, without the
    inner stuffing, the men could not exist. Just as it
    takes a pause to validate music. So the holes in Henry Moore’s sculptures add validity to the solid masses and achieved a heavenly concord, as in J.S. Bach’s cantatas/ The hollowness is a vital component of the whole. Solidity loses meaning without its counterpart, emptiness, a strange dichotomy.

  12. Addendum: Choleric Dylan Thomas cautioned us not to go gentle in the night.
    In the general scheme of things, think T.S. Eliot’s
    Hollow Men were more apposite. One usually does not
    go out with a bang but a whimper.

  13. oh joy to see
    elliots words splayed to see
    the digest of prose
    like freshkill upon the road

    da vinci would not have known
    with out exploring being
    behind the skin
    to find expose on hollow men
    to deep link to new locations

    profound.

    I came in looking for reference to hollow men, from a NPR commentary this morning where Elliot is quoted… ‘between the idea and the reality between the motion and the act falls the shadow’

    i seek stories about this and in seeking find much by deep linking and here i am thankful for a path into dante regarding the line… ‘unable to see the future unless the “multifoliate rose,” Dante’s symbol of Paradise’ …

    oddly enough it brings to mind an idea about the holly grail, mary magdalene and her symbol, the rose.

    deep linking i go
    deep linking i go
    deep linking i go

    ;-) perhaps i should lay off the espresso?

    feel free to ping me …. i am a blogger too

  14. i re-read hollow men, as i was trying to understand the meaning of pre-destination (qadr) in muslim philosophy. the line, “between the idea and the reality between the motion and the act falls the shadow” explains it all, as what is predestined is qadr (our destiny) and what actually happens is the choice we make out of our free-will. “shadow” explains the lapse between conception–creation…motion and response etc. shadow encapsulates all those intangible. only “faith” can fill the chasm or the shadow. without faith, man will always be hollow.

  15. Since Eliot became a Catholic shortly after he wrote this poem I would find it a little hard to believe that he was using the Muslim idea of predistination, shaukat, though it’s not unreasonable to assume that he might have read about the concept at some point.

  16. Well!Eliots poetry is alawys an intelectual one and it’s most iteresting to explore those hidden depths of meaning lying within the text….wats more important is that every layer gives a beautiful message ,a food for some thought process.

  17. Sorry, but you need to read “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. That is the origin of the poem “The Hollow Men”. You ommitted the entrance to the poem, the first line “Mistah Kurtz, he dead”, a direct line from the book and a reflection in the poem. The poem is about existntialism, the futilist nature of life, and the propensity for one great person to do evil things.

  18. The Hollow Men doesn’t seem to have any type of lesson, but seems to be more a mere description of the hoplessness often felt in the hearts of so many people… I’m young, but can seriously appreciate this peom… although I’m not happy about having to analyze it for English Comp.

  19. Hey, wow, I never saw this poem as having anything to do with faith, not being a believer myself. But I did see the depressing thoughts he had about this world. I was wondering what the shadow is in V?

    Thanks for the great insights.

  20. thanks alot for shareing this poem
    this poem have lots of similarities in themes with Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness” and Apocalypse Now wich explains the dark side of human being such
    “Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
    Remember us — if at all — not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men”

  21. @the poor slave

    T.S. Eliot suffered from one form of depression to another throughout his life, and especially during his first marriage had few reasons to be happy. He was overworked in order to pay the medical bills required to sustain his wife Vivien’s failing health, and also had to deal with her long-term psychological problems, especially her growing paranoia. He was also estranged from his family, and this meant that he wasn’t able to be around for the death of his mother or father. The Hollow Men and the The Waste Land are responses to that, and reflect a cutting and laconically realistic, if depressing, view of the world he lived in. Don’t be so quick to criticize that which you don’t understand…

  22. I simply agree with this interpretation.

    You all should listen to composer Kees van Baaren’s exceptional musical interpretation of the poem……

  23. windy words compete for my ears eye,precious cargo of thought,his words leave my soul stripped to feel the depth and wonder beyond this earthly veil

What do you think?