The Hollow Men

The Hollow MenT S EliotMistah Kurtz-he dead            A penny for the Old Guy                       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.

1. Mistah Kurtz: a character in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”2. A…Old Guy: a cry of English children on the streets on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, when they carry straw effigies of Guy Fawkes and beg for money for fireworks to celebrate the day. Fawkes was a traitor who attempted with conspirators to blow up both houses of Parliament in 1605; the “gunpowder plot” failed.3. Those…Kingdom: Those who have represented something positive and direct are blessed in Paradise. The reference is to Dante’s “Paradiso”. 4. Eyes: eyes of those in eternity who had faith and confidence and were a force that acted and were not paralyzed.5. crossed stave: refers to scarecrows6. tumid river: swollen river. The River Acheron in Hell in Dante’s “Inferno”. The damned must cross this river to get to the land of the dead.7. Multifoliate rose: in dante’s “Divine Comedy” paradise is described as a rose of many leaves.8. prickly pear: cactus9. Between…act: a reference to “Julius Caesar” “Between the acting of a dreadful thing/And the first motion, all the interim is/Like a phantasma or a hideous dream.”10. For…Kingdom: the beginning of the closing words of the Lord’s Prayer. 

A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’

A summary of Eliot’s classic poem

‘The Hollow Men’ is a poem of boundaries. Published in 1925, halfway through the modernist decade of the 1920s, it was T. S. Eliot’s one major poem between The Waste Land in 1922 and his conversion to Christianity in 1927. The ‘Hollow Men’ of the poem are themselves trapped in some sort of between-world, a limbo or purgatory between death and life, existence and nothingness, light and darkness. How should we analyse this most liminal of modernist poems?

Well, it’s tempting to analyse ‘The Hollow Men’ as a sort of reprise of The Waste Land. Like The Waste Land, ‘The Hollow Men’ began life as a series of shorter poems: early versions of part of ‘The Hollow Men’ are included in the Collected Poems 1909-1962 (see ‘Eyes that last I saw in tears’ and ‘The wind sprang up at four o’clock’). These and several other short verses were published as ‘Doris’s Dream Songs’ in The Chapbook in 1924. They share a number of features: the five-part structure, the use of sombre allusions (the Book of Common Prayer in The Waste Land; the Lord’s Prayer in ‘The Hollow Men’) alongside snippets of classic nursery rhymes (‘London Bridge is falling down’ in The Waste Land; ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’ in ‘The Hollow Men’), the references to a sort of wasteland world populated by rats and lost souls. Yet it would be a mistake, perhaps, to interpret ‘The Hollow Men’ as a mere add-on to that earlier, more famous poem. Although it is not about development or progress itself – instead, it’s about stasis, immobility and a sense of being trapped – ‘The Hollow Men’ does move T. S. Eliot’s poetry on in a number of key ways.

‘The Hollow Men’ is a poem about repetition: in the Collected Poems 1909-62, that title, ‘The Hollow Men’, is given twice, once on the poem’s title-page and again before the first line. The poem has two epigraphs; ‘Here we go round the prickly pear’ is repeated, as is ‘prickly pear’ in the line that falls between the two ‘Here we go’ lines; ‘This is the way the world ends’ is repeated not once but twice at the end of the poem. Allusion to Joseph Conrad is repeated, too, for ‘Life is very long’, like ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’ from Heart of Darkness (1899), quotes from Conrad’s fiction, this time from An Outcast of the Islands (1896).

Indeed, a clue to the prominent themes of the poem is provided by the poem’s two epigraphs. The first is the four-word declaration of the villain Mr Kurtz’s death given by an African boy to Marlow, the second narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This allusion teases us with possible readings of the poem that follows: is ‘The Hollow Men’, like Heart of Darkness, about the dark side of imperialism? Is it significant, given the title of Eliot’s poem (arrived at, according to Eliot himself, by combining William Morris’s ‘The Hollow Land’ with Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Broken Men’), that in Conrad’s novel, the vile figure of colonialism, Kurtz, is described as being ‘hollow at the core’?

Perhaps. But then we come to the second epigraph, this time a reference to the familiar child’s cry on Guy Fawkes night: ‘A penny for the Old Guy’. Effigies of Guy Fawkes, the conspirator (though not the ringleader) arrested late on 4 November 1605 (not 5 November) for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament, are burnt every year in Britain. But with this epigraph, it begins to look less likely that empire is the theme of Eliot’s poem. But the reference to straw effigies does pave the way for the poem’s ‘stuffed men’ with the headpieces ‘filled with straw’.

The first four sections of ‘The Hollow Men’ describe the situation of the titular men, dwelling in the ‘dead land’ (recalling the waste land of Eliot’s earlier poem) and desert space, ‘cactus land’ (again, shades of The Waste Land here), in a sort of twilight world between ‘death and dying’. There is a ‘tumid river’ which might be interpreted as an allusion to the River Styx, the river across which the dead were ferried to Hades.

The fifth and final section of ‘The Hollow Men’ is a little different: it begins with a song suggesting a dance around the aforementioned cactus (‘round the prickly pear’) at the ungodly hour of five in the morning. We then get a series of ‘between’ statements, which could not be more appropriate for this poem about interim states. What is being described here? One possible interpretation is that Eliot is talking about that other interim state between death and life – not at the end of our lives, but at the beginning. Between the conception and the creation – what is a baby after it has been conceived but before it has been born? This question is obviously a fraught one in the context of stem-cell research and debates over abortion. And what about the conception of a new life itself? Between the desire (erotic desire?) and the spasm (orgasm?)? And do we need to dwell on the seminal possibilities of a word like ‘essence’ in this connection? This is not to say that such an analysis of Eliot’s lines decides the matter once and for all, of course. But the fact that this series of ‘between’ statements, almost like a chant, is punctuated by a reference to life itself (‘Life is very long’) and to the words of the Lord’s Prayer (‘For Thine is the Kingdom’) suggest the almost divine miracle of human life. But this has to be balanced against the wretched existence of the hollow men, who are – like one of the speakers from The Waste Land – ‘neither living nor dead’. One is even tempted to propose that these hollow men are the souls of babies who never made it, whether because they were aborted or as a result of miscarriage – but then they wouldn’t just be ‘men’, surely, nor would they be adults at all, perhaps.

‘The Hollow Men’ remains an elusive poem, like much of T. S. Eliot’s work. It perhaps presents even more of a challenge to comprehension and close analysis than The Waste Land does. But it moves Eliot’s work forward into more spiritual territory, albeit tentatively. Two years after ‘The Hollow Men’ was published, Eliot would join the Church of England. The same year, he would renounce his American passport in exchange for British citizenship. The between-man, the Anglo-American poet of the age, would be ‘between’ no more.

Assignment: Write 3-5 pages on T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” What does the poet mean by hollow men? Think in terms of the in-between worlds and situations Eliot mentions. For instance, what does Eliot mean by the following?

Between the conception    And the creation    Between the emotion1    And the response    Falls the Shadow

What does the poet mean between the conception and creation? Think in terms of conception, an idea, and the creation of the idea in physical form. The idea is not concrete but mental. There is often a lag time between the idea and the act, the thought and getting off the couch to accomplish the goal. People say that they are going to work out, but often they never get to it. That is the gap. Maybe you can recall and use people you know who have been stagnated in this between, hollow world. Think in terms of actual cases you are aware of to illustrate Eliot’s contentions.

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