‘The Hollow Men’ by T.S. Eliot is a free verse poem that was written without a specific rhyme scheme or meter in mind. The poem is made up of stanzas of varying lengths, grouped together into five distinct sections.
Although there is no rhyming pattern, Eliot does not make use of a number of poetic techniques that help to unify the lines. One of the most prominent of these is anaphora or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. In the first stanza, Eliot uses “We” to begin three of the ten lines. This technique is even more pronounced in the final section which takes the form of a child’s song. Due to the structure of the song, the words “Between” and “And” are repeated over and over again.
‘The Hollow Men’ is rich in symbols and meaningful images. The men are depicted as living dry, barren, and broken lives. Everything around then seems to be falling apart. From the “broken column” to the broken glass on the floor and the “broken stone” to which the men must pray. Other important images a reader should pay attention to are those related to Heaven, or a place like it, and a vaguely defined shadowy presence. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Hollow Men
‘The Hollow Men’ by T.S. Eliot describes a group of “Hollow Men” who live in a barren world as they await a change in their circumstances.
The poem begins with the speaker, who is really a group, describing how their lives as “The Hollow Men.” They are, or they are like a group of scarecrows. The men are exiting somewhere between life and death, in a world, they have no agency in. It becomes clear as the poem progresses that they are unable to enter into true death. There is no money for them to cross the river. Instead, they have to wait for something to change.
At the end of the poem, the men are described as dancing around a cactus and singing. Even in this context, they are unable to finish the song or their prayers to God. The poem ends with the speaker stating that the world is going to end anticlimactically. There will be no big explosion, instead, it will go out with a whisper.
Analysis of The Hollow Men
The poem begins with an epigraph, or a written statement after the death of Mistah Kurtz, an ivory trader from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. His connection to the poem likely comes from a quote describing him as being hollow. He does not have a moral compass to guide him or the instincts of a decent human being.
The second epigraph is slightly more complicated and is connected to the historical figure Guy Fawkes and his plot to blow up Parliament in the early 1600s. The phrase “penny for the guy” is connected to asking for money on November the fifth, or Guy Fawkes Day. One should also consider other connections between death and a penny or coin. The most important is Charon, the ferryman who is responsible for guiding the newly dead across the River Styx. Without a coin to pay him, one would become stuck.This is partially the situation that the Hollow Men are in.
The poem begins in the first stanza with the speaker who is considered to be the collective “Hollow Men” He informs the reader of this fact by stating that “We” are both stuffed and hollow. They are like scarecrows, appearing like men but with a “Headpiece filled with straw.”
Their voices, like the rest of their lives and the setting, are dry. They try to speak to one another, but everything they say is “meaningless.” The speaker ends the stanza by comparing their words to the wind and the wind to “rats’ feet over broken glass.”
Stanzas Two and Three
He goes on to refer to himself and all those like him as being “without” true form. They are a “shade without colour” or a “gesture without motion.” This is how purposeless their words and thoughts are if they even have any.
The speaker also describes a scenario in which someone who knows them crossed into their land. Eliot’s speakers describe how this person if they remembered the Hollow Men, would know them “not as lost” or “Violent” but simply as “hollow men” or “stuffed men.” They are filled, but the filling is as good to them as empty space.
The second section of the poem begins with a ten-line stanza. Here, the speaker describes another feature of the Hollow Men. They are unable to look anyone directly in the eyes. In particular, they are worried about the eyes from “death’s dream kingdom.” This is the first reference to Heaven. They do not mention it by name, but it’s clear that the souls which rise there worry them.
This is one of the best examples of Eliot tying together different images to produce a larger result. It is unclear what each of these phrases means, from the “broken column,” perhaps a reference to the destruction of culture, to the singing of the wind. Likely, the point Eliot was trying to get across was that the Hollow Men are afraid of something. That something could be death, truth, or a reality they are unwilling to confront.
Stanzas Two and Three
In the next stanzas, the speaker asks that the souls from Heaven stay away from the Hollow Men. They do not wish to be any nearer to Heaven or to any of those whose eyes might tell them something about themselves they don’t want to know.
This stanza ends with another interesting image. This time the men are compared in earnest to scarecrows. They are trying to disguise themselves as something they aren’t but are quite close to actually being. The wind moves them, just as it would a scarecrow and they can be found in “deliberate disguises” consisting of “crowskin” and “crossed staves.” The third stanza is only two lines and contains a plea from the men that the “final meeting,” or God’s judgment of them in heaven is delayed.
The setting which hosts the Hollow Men is further described in the third section. Just as they are broken, dry and barren, so too is the “dead land.” It is a desert, filled with cacti and “stone images.” These stones have been raised in order to beg for Heaven’s help. It is a small gesture, that seems futile underneath “the twinkle of a fading star.” The star is very distant, far out of reach, but it still represents some kind of hope. That is until it finishes fading.
The Hollow Men ask in the second stanza of the third section if “death’s other kingdom” is like theirs. They appear to be in some kind of purgatory, between life and death. This hope is minimal, and the best they can envision is a world where people are somewhat happier but still pray to “broken” stones.
Those in the other kingdom of death are better off, but not by much. They still walk alone at the same time as the Hollow Men do, but are not completely alone.
Stanza One and Two
In the first stanza of the fourth section, the speaker returns to the image of the eyes. They are unable to follow men to their “ valley of death.” This references the popular Psalm 23 regarding “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.” In this instance though, the men do not have God to comfort them as the Psalm states.
Once again one comes across the word “broken” in this stanza. In this instance, it is attached to the phrase, “this broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.” It is unclear what Eliot intended with this line but perhaps it is simply connected to a physical degradation and inability to function painlessly.
In the second stanza, the group of speakers state that it is in the kingdom that they gather. It is the “last of meeting places” where they can avoid the eyes. The men stand on the “beach of the tumid,” or swollen, “river.” The use of the word “river” connects this stanza back to the second line of the opening epigraph concerning the River Styx. They wait without conversing, for someone to take them across. At this point, they’re stuck.
The third stanza is a great example of Eliot’s desire to reference other literary works. This time he speaks on the “Multifoliate rose” in Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso, the third book of The Divine Comedy. The rose has many petals and is a stand-in for heaven. The kingdom is a rose of God’s grace, good virtues, and angels.
It is not until the eyes come, reform themselves into a star, that the Hollow Men are going to be able to see again. This is when their hope will truly return. The men do not seem to have the ability to get themselves out of this situation.
Stanza One and Two
The fifth section is different than those which came before it. The stanzas are constructed in the form of a song, perhaps sung by the Hollow Men themselves. They are singing a version of “Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush,” but rather than a bush, they have a “prickly pear” cactus, common to their desert landscape. Eliot states that the men dance at “five o’clock in the morning.”
The next stanza explains that all along, the thing which has kept them from changing their own situation was “the Shadow.” This for is undefined but it comes “Between the idea / And the reality.” It blocks any intentions for change the men might have. There is no way for their motions to coalesce into actions.
The line “For Thine is the Kingdom” is separated from the rest of the text. This is part of the Lord’s Prayer but is missing the ending, “and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” Eliot includes this fragment of the prayer to show the good intentions of the men but their inability to do anything to completion.
Stanza Three and Four
The third and fourth stanzas of the fifth section follow a similar pattern to the second. They are other lists of ephemeral places that “the Shadow” hides. It is between “conception / And the creation” as well as “the desire / And the spasm.” All of these comparisons are interesting in themselves but in general, they bring one to the conclusion that “the Shadow” keeps the beginning from leading to the end.
In between these two stanzas is the line, “Life is very long.” This seems to be a simple expression of exasperation over their own situation. Due to their position somewhere between life and death, “Life” could be very long indeed. After the second stanza, there is another long line, this time the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer. Again, the men are stymied. They can’t finish the prayer.
Stanza Five and Six
In the fifth stanza, Eliot uses three more fragmented lines. These are parts of the previous fragments that appeared between the longer stanzas. They are included in order to emphasize the speakers’ broken lives. The lines have no endings as if the degradation of their situation is progressing even further.
The final four lines are perhaps the most famous Eliot ever wrote. They come down to the phrase, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” The phrase is connected again to the song that inspired the first stanza which includes a number of phrases that begin with “This is the way…” Rather than maintaining the song’s original happy, child-friendly tone though, the speakers sing on death.
The world does not end with huge wars, catastrophic damage or even a literal giant explosion. Instead, it goes out as the men do, with “a whimper.” It is a dark vision and, if not disappointing, intentionally anti-climactic ending to the world.