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


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.


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


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.


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.


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:


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.