T S Eliot – The Hollow Men (Poem Summary)

T. S. Eliot and his work were at the forefront of the modernist poetry movement. His lengthy poem ‘‘The Hollow Men’’ was written at the height of his career. Indeed, it was published only three years after the release of Eliot’s most famous epic poem, The Waste Land (1922). Parts of ‘‘The Hollow Men’’ were published in the periodicals Chapbook, Commerce, Criterion, and Dial from 1924 to 1925. The poem then appeared in its final cohesive form in Eliot’s 1925 collection Poems, 1909–1925.

‘‘The Hollow Men’’ largely builds on the themes in The Waste Land, specifically the need for death to take place as a means to make way for the new. Both poems additionally share the same source of inspiration: Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novella Heart of Darkness. ‘‘The Hollow Men’’ also alludes to or is heavily influenced by several works, including Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century masterpiece Divine Comedy and William Shakespeare’s 1599 play Julius Caesar. A historical allusion to Guy Fawkes Day (a British holiday) also appears in the poem.



 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.

In a ten-line verse, the speakers claim to be empty yet full, evoking references to the straw men burned in effigy in England on Guy Fawkes Day (a holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy to blow up the British Parliament and King James 1st on November 5, 1605).Made of straw, these men are without depth and significance, like the grass in the breeze, or like the movement of rodents over debris in the basement.
The next verse is a couplet in which numerous contradictory terms (such as the idea of being colorless, yet possessing a hue) are introduced. Notably, there is no concrete indication of what these paradoxes are referring to.
In the following six-line stanza, references are made to those who have died and passed on to the afterlife. The speakers declare that the dead may think of them, and if they do, they think of them as empty yet full.


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 section appears to be narrated by a singular speaker as opposed to the plural speakers in section I. In the first ten-line stanza, the speaker states that in his fantasies of the afterlife, there are eyes he cannot bring himself to look at and that are not present. But in the afterlife, those eyes are like the daylight and there is also a tree that moves. There are words in the breeze that are as somber as a dying star.
In the next eight-line stanza, the speaker says he does not want to get any closer to the afterlife and wants to wear costumes to hide himself from it. He wants to be as elusive as the breeze.
In the section’s final couplet, the speaker again notes that he wishes to avoid the ultimate assembly that will occur in the afterlife.


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.

In this section, the narrator reverts to the plural voice, but the verses again refer largely to the land of death. In the first six-line stanza of the section, reference is made to that land as a desert. There are also stone statues there, elevated and worshiped by the dead. All of this takes place beneath a dying star. (Here, the reference to the dying star is repeated from the first stanza of section II).
Then, in the second (seven-line) stanza, the speaker indicates that there is another afterlife, and that the previous stanza refers to it. Furthermore, in this second afterlife the dead awake without company, just when they are filled with affection, like mouths meant for kissing. Instead, those mouths beseech the crumbling statues.


 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.

The speakers open the section with a five-line stanza that again refers to the eyes that are absent (this image is initially mentioned in the first stanza of section II). In fact the eyes are missing from a vale filled with fading stars. The vale is as empty as the stuffed men (indeed, the same words used to describe them are used to describe the gorge). The vale is also described as the broken jaw of vanished empires.
In the following four-line stanza, this gorge is the final assembly place where the straw men feel their way as one. They do not speak and they come together on the shore of a swollen waterway.
The section’s third stanza is comprised of seven lines. In it, the speakers state that without eyes, there is no sight. Should the eyes become present again, they will be an undying star, and a special type of rose representative of the church. This rose is also a reference to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In Dante, the rose symbolizes heaven. For the speakers in Eliot’s poem, this rose is the only hope of the hollow 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.

This section opens with a four-line italicized stanza of a nursery rhyme, an alteration of ‘‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.’’ The mulberry bush, however, is replaced by a cactus plant, again referencing the desert imagery initially introduced in the first stanza of section III.
In the next five-line stanza, the speaker (or speakers, as this is unclear in the poem’s final section) says that a shadow lies in the space separating theory and practice, movement and deed.
Between the stanzas an italicized quotation from the Lord’s Prayer is set flush with the right margin.
The section’s third stanza is made up of five lines. Here the speaker states that the shadow falls in the space separating the idea and the creative act, the feeling and the reaction to it.
An italicized line declaring that life is not short follows, again set flush with the right margin.
In the following seven-line stanza, there are more descriptions of the shadow. It lies amidst the space between yearning and paroxysm, power and being, the core and the fall.
The single line from the Lord’s Prayer is repeated.
The section’s (and the poem’s) penultimate (next to last) stanza is three lines long. Each line is comprised of fragments from the three offset italicized lines that preceded it.
The final stanza is four italicized lines. The first three are identical, and the speaker says that this is how the apocalypse will be. Then, in the final line, the speaker says that the apocalypse will not take place with a great crash but with little more than a quiet moan.

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