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.
Continue to explore Eliot’s work with our analysis of his landmark poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and our discussion of his ‘Portrait of a Lady’. For an affordable edition of his poetry, we recommend Collected Poems 1909-62, although T. S. Eliot’s complete poems have now been published in two beautiful definitive scholarly editions edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue: T. S. Eliot The Poems Volume One and T. S. Eliot The Poems Volume Two. They include previously unpublished poems, are beautifully produced and scrupulously edited, and are must-haves for the diehard Eliot fan! We’ve offered more tips for the close reading of poetry here.