The Hollow Men

T.S. Eliot

‘The Hollow Men’ presents the hollow, degenerated, and disillusioned people dealing with their meaningless existence amidst the ruins of the postwar world.


T.S. Eliot

Nationality: American

T.S. Eliot, originally American turned British citizen, is remembered today as a literary critic, poet, and editor.

His poems have had a lasting influence on a generation of writers.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Hollow men doing nothing are worst than men doing evil

Speaker: A man from the group of hollow men

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Faith, Fear, Hopelessness, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

'The Hollow Men' incredibly paints the dismal human condition in the aftermath of World War 1 by presenting the actionless people leading purposeless lives while being disillusioned from prewar ideals.

‘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 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. 

Everything around the hollow men 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.

The Hollow Men
T.S. Eliot

IWe are the hollow menWe are the stuffed menLeaning togetherHeadpiece filled with straw. Alas!Our dried voices, whenWe whisper togetherAre quiet and meaninglessAs wind in dry grassOr rats' feet over broken glassIn our dry cellar

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

Those who have crossedWith direct eyes, to death's other KingdomRemember us—if at all—not as lostViolent souls, but onlyAs the hollow menThe stuffed men.

IIEyes I dare not meet in dreamsIn death's dream kingdomThese do not appear:There, the eyes areSunlight on a broken columnThere, is a tree swingingAnd voices areIn the wind's singingMore distant and more solemnThan a fading star.

Let me be no nearerIn death's dream kingdomLet me also wearSuch deliberate disguisesRat's coat, crowskin, crossed stavesIn a fieldBehaving as the wind behavesNo nearer—

Not that final meetingIn the twilight kingdom

IIIThis is the dead landThis is cactus landHere the stone imagesAre raised, here they receiveThe supplication of a dead man's handUnder the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like thisIn death's other kingdomWaking aloneAt the hour when we areTrembling with tendernessLips that would kissForm prayers to broken stone.

IVThe eyes are not hereThere are no eyes hereIn this valley of dying starsIn this hollow valleyThis broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting placesWe grope togetherAnd avoid speechGathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unlessThe eyes reappearAs the perpetual starMultifoliate roseOf death's twilight kingdomThe hope onlyOf empty men.

VHere we go round the prickly pearPrickly pear prickly pearHere we go round the prickly pearAt five o'clock in the morning.

Between the ideaAnd the realityBetween the motionAnd the actFalls the ShadowFor Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conceptionAnd the creationBetween the emotionAnd the responseFalls the ShadowLife is very long

Between the desireAnd the spasmBetween the potencyAnd the existenceBetween the essenceAnd the descentFalls the ShadowFor Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine isLife isFor Thine is the

This is the way the world endsThis is the way the world endsThis is the way the world endsNot with a bang but a whimper.
The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot

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 existing 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 anticlimactic. There will be no big explosion. Instead, it will go out with a whisper. 

You can read more poems by T.S. Eliot here.

Analysis of The Hollow Men


Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy

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. 

Section One

Stanza One

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

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

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.

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.


Section Two

Stanza One

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.

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 of “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 reality they are unwilling to confront. 

Stanzas Two and Three

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

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. 

Section Three

Stanza One


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.

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. 

Stanza Two

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 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. 

Section Four

Stanza One and Two

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

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 physical degradation and the inability to function painlessly. 

In the second stanza, the group of speakers states 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. 

Stanza Three

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

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. 


Section Five

Stanza One and Two

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

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

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

The third and fourth stanzas of the fifth section follow a similar pattern to the second. They are other lists of ephemeral places where “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

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.

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.

Poetry+ Review Corner

The Hollow Men

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

T.S. Eliot

The creation of 'The Hollow Men' began with material discarded from Eliot's one of the best poems, 'The Waste Land,' to shorten the poem ('The Waste Land'). 'The Hollow Men' precisely portrays the spiritually and morally dead "hollow men" existing in the modern world or rather in - 'The Waste Land.' Dante Alighieri's 'Divine Comedy' and James George Frazer's 'The Golden Bough' had a lifelong impact on T.S. Eliot and his works. 'The Hollow Men' alludes largely to the three books of 'Divine Comedy' and is heavily influenced by 'The Golden Bough'.
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20th Century

Published in 1925, 'The Hollow Men' is a poem of its time. The poem presents the hopeless and pessimistic mood of the postwar world as the war led to nothing but destruction and bloodshed, leading to disillusionment with traditional values and institutes. The poem is also considered one of the seminal works of literary modernism, a movement at its peak when 'The Hollow Men' was published.
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Although the poem presents the universal or specifically the English or American postwar concerns, mood, and especially the literary environment, T.S. Eliot, in 1925, was an American citizen. He abandoned his American citizenship for the English in 1927.
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Religion is a significant theme in 'The Hollow Men' with references to salvation, redemption, heaven, and hell. Eliot uses the symbol of eyes to indicate salvation, which is impossible for morally degenerated and faithless "hollow men" living in the post-war world. The poem directly alludes to Lord's Prayer, Mary, and God. 'The Hollow Men’ was published right before Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism in 1927; the signs of his religious thoughts and conversion are evident in the poem.
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Spiritual emptiness significantly contributes to the hollowness of the "hollow men" in the poem. The poem refers to the disillusioned individuals alienated from society, faith, and moral values living actionless, meaningless, and spiritually empty lives in the modern world. Eliot also stated about such "hollow men" - "So far as we do evil or good, we are human, and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least we exist... The worst that can be said of most of our malefactors, from statesmen to thieves, is that they are not men enough to be damned."
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Describing the forever spiritually desolate and meaningless lives of the "hollow men," the poem evokes the existential anxiety of the readers living in modern society. Perceiving the awful imagery of "hollow men," the anxious reader might read the poem to find some hope for humanity, only to be saddened.
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The religious allusions hinting at the impossibility of salvation for the modern human reflect the dwindling faith of contemporaneous humanity and evoke feelings of longing for salvation and lost faith. The religious symbolism through eyes and various allusions accentuates the emotion of faith.
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The imagery of desolate "hollow men" and their barren world doomed perpetually to "fall in the shadow" or spiritually empty and meaningless existence evokes fear of existing in a meaningless modern world. The reader can feel the horror of living in such a ruined world with perpetual darkness.
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With the absence of faith and the impossibility of redemption and salvation as its central point, the poem exudes an overarching emotion of hopelessness for the future of modern humanity, which can "hope only of empty men (l - 66-67)." The poem leaves the readers with hopelessness as it ends on a dismal note stating – "This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper."
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Even in the end, without giving any hope, the poem ends on a pessimistic note for the future of degenerated humanity, evoking sadness. Sadness can be felt for the present condition of humanity with nothing to rely on except memories of lost values and faith. Moreover, the continuous reference to the impossibility of salvation exacerbates the emotions of sadness.
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Throughout the poem, Eliot refers to realms of the afterlife to suggest the impossibility of salvation and solace for the "hollow men." While referring to Dante, Eliot suggests that the "hollow men" are those shades or, as stated in the poem - "shadows" that are rejected by both heaven and hell and thus doomed to stay eternally in a limbo of meaninglessness.
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Like other poems of Eliot, 'The Hollow Men' is highly allusive, almost to the point of obscurity. The major sources the poem refers to include the historical Gunpowder Plot against King James 1 (17th Century), Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar', the three books of Dante's 'Divine Comedy' (Divina Commedia), James George Frazer's 'The Golden Bough', Jessie Weston's 'From Ritual to Romance' (1925), Lord's Prayer, and Rudyard Kipling's poem 'Danny Deever,' etc.
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Conrad's Heart of Darkness uses darkness as a motif to suggest dehumanized and morally debased humans; 'The Hollow Men' while referring to Heart of Darkness, also uses darkness as a motif to describe the "sightless (l- 61)" and degenerated modern humanity wherein on everything "falls the shadow (l - 75)" of darkness.
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While alluding to Dante's Divine Comedy and biblical myths, the poem constantly uses the eye motif to suggest the absence of faith and spirituality by directly using the word "eye," such as in - "The eyes are not here. There are no eyes here (l - 52-53)." In Divine Comedy meeting the eyes is essential for purging sins and redemption; thus, eyes also present the impossibility of salvation for the degenerated "hollow men."
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Dante in Divine Comedy's three books respectively travels through Inferno or Hell, Purgatorio - a purgatory of suffering and redemption, and finally, Paradiso - paradise, a perfect world of beauty and light. While alluding to Divine Comedy, Eliot also talks about the three kingdoms of death, and one of them seemingly refers to heaven or paradise, which is absent in the afterlife of the "hollow men."
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Eliot refers to the river place where souls wait to be ferried either to hell or heaven while alluding to the first and second books of Divine Comedy. "Hollow Men" of the modern world are not even taken into hell and are condemned to stay eternally by the river without any hope for redemption.
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World War One (WWI)

The poem raises postwar concerns while alluding to the ruined postwar world inhabited by pathless and degenerated people disillusioned with prewar values due to the widespread destruction caused by the war. The poem presents the hollowness of the meaningless lives of such people or "hollow men."
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Free Verse

'The Hollow Men' is written in free verse as it does not follow any rhyme scheme and meter. In some lines, it seems like a dramatic monologue, as if the speaker directly addresses the readers; however, the effect and the form are not sustained in succeeding verses. Thus, the poem makes good use of free verse to convey different expressions in different verses.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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