‘The Hollow Men’ is a poem which succeeds in part because of its suggestive symbolism. T. S. Eliot uses a tight and interrelated group of symbols, including deserts, rats, twilight, fading stars, and the hollow/stuffed men themselves, to summon a decaying civilisation, usually interpreted as representing Europe after the end of the First World War.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the symbolism of ‘The Hollow Men’. Analysis of the poem’s prominent images and symbols reveals a more complex and ambiguous picture of the poem’s meaning. Is it a poem about death, or life? Which is to be feared (the more)? Is it a poem about the ‘death’ of religion or the struggle to regain religious faith?
We have analysed the poem in more detail here.
Deserts and Dryness.
Continuing the desert-symbolism which we find in the final part of The Waste Land (1922), Eliot paints a picture of a land of drought and dryness in ‘The Hollow Men’. Both the grass and the cellar of the hollow men are ‘dry’, and their hollow men speak in dried voices, while ‘the dead land’ inhabited by the men (a phrase which Eliot had used at the beginning of The Waste Land) is ‘cactus land’. The hollow men spend dawn walking around the ‘prickly pear’ or cactus, in some sort of ritual, which is possibly purposeless, performed out of habit rather than hope.
As with The Waste Land before it, these images of deserts and dryness in ‘The Hollow Men’ denote a world of sterility where nothing can thrive or grow, with this lack of fecundity in the land hinting at a similar paucity of vitality in the men themselves, with their straw-filled heads (straw is dry grass, we should remember).
Of course, in a poem titled ‘The Hollow Men’, we might expect to find symbolism denoting hollowness and emptiness of various kinds: physical, moral, emotional. The critic Christopher Ricks, in his T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, invites us to reflect on the feeble exclamation uttered by the hollow men: ‘Alas!’ We cannot imagine this word being declaimed or exclaimed with much emotional force. It is a feeble protest at their desiccated state, their lack of power and vitality.
Other kinds of hollowness are found in the poem. In one of the poem’s two epigraphs, ‘Mistah Kurtz’ refers to Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), a novella about a European colonist in Africa who goes mad while ruling over the native peoples. Kurtz is described as being ‘hollow at the core’: a reference to his lack of moral scruple.
However, the poem begins with what appears to be a contradiction: can the men be both hollow and stuffed at the same time? They are stuffed with straw but otherwise empty: their hollowness is their lack of flesh-and-blood vitality, and perhaps, their humanity or humanness. They spend their time declaiming almost chantlike utterances or else engaged in automaton-like activity: going round and round the prickly pear, for instance.
‘The Hollow Men’ is a poem about death, or living death, over life and living. In this respect, too, it picks up where The Waste Land had left off. The word ‘death’ itself occurs five times in the poem. Images of rats invoke disease, plague, and decay pervade the early portions of the poem, stars are ‘dying’, and the ‘tumid river’ summons the River Styx in the Underworld of classical mythology, across which the dead were ferried to their final resting place.
At the same time, as the fifth section reminds us, ‘Life is very long’ (a quotation lifted from a lesser Conrad novel, An Outcast of the Islands). And this concluding part of the poem is haunted not by death but by life: ‘conception’, ‘creation’, ‘existence’, and ‘life’ all suggest the making of new life, or bringing life into the world, rather than death.
Eyes and sightlessness also possess powerful symbolism in ‘The Hollow Men’. It is perhaps significant that the talk of sightlessness segues into the mention of the multifoliate rose (of which more below): religion gives us ‘eyes’ in the sense that it can provide people with a deeper spiritual knowledge of the world, and thus they feel ‘awakened’ or ‘enlightened’ by it.
The problem with the hollow men – and perhaps decaying European society as a whole – is that, as in The Waste Land, it has lost its spirituality. Everything has become worldly, physical, and ultimately meaningless.
The hollow men can no longer ‘see’ the point to anything. They are praying: they form ‘prayers to broken stone’, and try and fail to utter the Lord’s Prayer in the final section. But they struggle to imbue such prayers with conviction.
The ‘multifoliate rose’, an image Eliot borrowed from the medieval poet Dante (1265-1321), is a symbol of the Virgin Mary: the hollow men imply that they will only regain their sight with the help of Christianity.
‘The Hollow Men’ is a poem about intermediary stages: ‘between’ is a key word in the poem, especially in the fifth and final section. Eliot twice describes the land inhabited by the hollow men as a ‘twilight kingdom’. ‘Twilight’ can refer to both dawn and dusk: the two times of day between daylight and night-time. And certainly, the hollow men are active at dawn, as their five o’clock perambulations around the prickly pear show.
However, given the talk of a ‘fading star’ elsewhere in the poem, we are invited to view ‘twilight’ here as referring to the fading of the light and the coming of darkness. This ties in with the idea of decadence, entropy, a world winding down, and people whose strength and power are diminishing: those hollow men who are now powerless and passive.