T. S. Eliot: "The Hollow Men"

I had not thought death [criticism] had undone so many.


I think it somewhat unseemly for a critic to take issue with his own criticism. Nevertheless, my first critical essays were devoted to the concept of logopoetry, an attempt to define what elements combine to make for a good poem. Below I wish to address an apparent contradiction between my theory and my admiration of Eliot. (Readers only interested in "The Hollow Men" (THM) should freely skip this apologia.) I should also remind the reader that Eliot’s technique bears little resemblance to his own most cherished poetic model, Dante, who is as direct as direct can be while Eliot is by nature evasive.

In selecting two quotes from "Logopoetry II" to illustrate my dilemma, Eliot is hardly the first poet who comes to mind, as all his work through "Ash Wednesday" (AW) rarely conforms to my ideal:

"My antidote for this [the declining popularity of poetry and fear of its academic mystique] is, quite simply, that poetry should be intelligible without footnotes, explanations of technique or other intermediary bells and whistles."

"The first concern of logopoetry is that art be intelligible. By this I mean a poem should be comprehensible enough on first reading to yield a sense. Practically, this means that after one reading the audience should be able to say, ‘The poem was about this or that" and have some general agreement.’"

Later, in "Logopoetry IV," I expanded my definition:

"I recently saw the need to raise the threshold for logopoetry, that is to say, make room for the secondary and tertiary cognition many pieces require. This need for widening of the definition of intelligibility (the first principle of logopoetry) was triggered by a remark from Mark Strand, writing as an editor: ‘In cases where I had to choose from many poems of the same length, as in the sonnet sequence of Spenser or Shakespeare, or in the poems of Emily Dickinson, it was difficult, and the determining factor became the relative accessibility of the particular poem on a first or second reading’" (Preface to the Golden Ecco Anthology, 100 Great Poems of the English Language, edited by Mark Strand).

These statements beg the question as to why I am so enamored of a poet who, excluding his plays, would not qualify for my ideal until his Four Quartets (4Q). I admit most readers today need help in appreciating Eliot and likewise admit that Eliot’s poems, especially his pre-Christian works, are more difficult than poetry ought to be. However, his principle of "the objective correlative" and his statement, "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood," offer me a way out of this apparent contradiction with my general view, and I trust my explanation is more than idle ratiocination (though I do like to remind readers that I will not be held hostage to my criticism, whether in my own poetry or the enjoyment of others’).

In my first essay on Eliot, "The Early Poems," I described how the suprarational experience of Eliot’s poetry, especially "The Waste Land" (TWL), captured me in a way no poetry had before. Further, Eliot admits, especially in 4Q, that his ultimate goal in poetry was to go beyond language in the way he considered Beethoven went beyond music in his late quartets. I think Eliot achieved this more nearly than any poet in English, creating original poems with an organic power that imparts a sense of meaning before we can say exactly what it was that moved us.

Yet here’s a another quote from "Logopoetry IV" :

"Whoever thinks to go ‘beyond language’ is still slave to its conventional expectations and effects: subject, verb, object, narrative, unity, theme, and all the other categorical imperatives we project on language that the very structure of our brain seeks."

To this I reply that in what Eliot considered his Meisterwerke, 4Q, he reverts to the rational use of language, even mocks his own poetic flourishes, abandoning, for the most part, his earlier allusive method. Thus I think it fair to say that Eliot grew toward my ideal although he began at a point distant from it.

In Eliot’s development one witnesses a great mind struggling to say what cannot be said in words, pushing the envelope, even the function of language, beyond what had come before in any language. As part of this experiment, in his earlier work, he employed extensive allusions for impact and compression, as well as primeval images not necessarily related on a conscious level to his narrative. Yet he finally makes a kind of peace with the limitations of language in 4Q, especially in this passage from "East Coker V":

"So here I am, in the middle way,…
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling."

If one compares the direct address above with the worst obscurities of TWL, one can see how far Eliot came in his evolution as a poet. One might view his poetic journey as an anamnesis, or a return to Ithaca—which by no means devalues his odyssey.

It is said of Einstein that he struggled to disprove quantum mechanics not only because he liked to say "God doesn’t play dice with the universe," but also because he was likely the only man who could have disproved it. Likewise Eliot’s grand experiments prior to 4Q could likely only have been achieved by Eliot, the inveterate cultural polymath, and ought to be viewed as a sincere attempt to re-invigorate the language by any means. The lesson of 4Q, among many others, is that later in life Eliot came to accept, as a poet, that words must communicate rationally as well as suprarationally, that Imagism, Symbolism, the objective correlative and the allusive method were not sufficient to evade the necessary function of language as communication.

We may rightly accuse Eliot and Pound of being the fathers of academic poetry, but this is not what they intended. That their experimental works exceeded the capacity of most readers can be forgiven in retrospect, because who else could have stretched the limits of language like these gifted revolutionaries? On the other hand, I do not think their experiment need be repeated, since, as I have before remarked, there has been nothing really new in poetry since TWL, only splinter schools.



The Poem

When discussing a poem I like to think my audience reads it before considering my comments, but given human nature I know this to be suspect. Luckily, "The Hollow Men" is short enough to include at the outset of my deliberations, not to mention the fact that its copyright has expired.




Mistah Kurtz—he dead.



A penny for the Old Guy



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.




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 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.




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.




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 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.


I On the Poem’s Genesis

"The Hollow Men" forms a convenient dividing line between Eliot’s pre-Christian and post-conversion, or "Christian" poetry. It links TWL to AW, containing much of the despair of the former while presaging the hope of the latter. Although the shortest of his major poems save "Preludes," it is by no means the easiest.

Since I often refer to Eliot’s major poems, I’ll list them for convenient reference:

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

"Portrait of a Lady"


"Rhapsody on a Windy Night"


"The Waste Land"

"The Hollow Men"

"Ash Wednesday"


Four Quartets:

"Burnt Norton"

"East Coker"

"The Dry Salvages"

"Little Gidding"



Let’s then look at the genesis of THM.

According to Jeff Willard’s essay, "Literary Allusion in "The Hollow Men" (Spectrum Volume III, Kapi‘olani Community College 2000),

"The Hollow Men" was originally composed as several different poems, which the poet gradually came to think of as sequenced. Part I, "We are the Hollow Men," was originally published in the winter of 1924. Part III, "This is the dead land," was published as the third part of "Doris’s Dream Songs" in November 1924. Parts I, II, and IV were published together for the first time in March 1925. The whole poem, with Part V, the final addition, appeared in Poems 1909-1925 later that same year… Eliot himself recognized this [emphasis added]. As late as October 1925, a month before the poem's publication, Eliot still had doubts about the poem. He wrote to his editor, "Is it too bad to print? If not, can anything be done to it? Can it be cleaned up in any way? I feel I want something of about this length (I-V) to end the volume (Poems 1909-1925) as post Waste" (Southam, 202)."


No need to repeat Mr. Willard’s research. As to the poem’s spiritual genesis, he has more to say:

"It should also be noted that while Eliot did not actually convert from staunch atheism to Christianity until 1926 [other sources claim Eliot officially entered the Anglican communion in June of 1927, though his conversion could have preceded the official act], he began frequently visiting churches as early as 1921 (Gordon, 211)."

Here we see Eliot, as in "Prufrock" and "TWL," again using his patchwork method of creating a longer poem, one I presume he used in all his major poems, usually written over years rather than months and cobbled together later (with the notable exception of TWL). That he published virtually no other poetry of merit in the years between TWL and THM may be testimony either to overwork or a certain spiritual aridity which he addressed in TWL and was still earnestly trying to assuage.

In contradistinction to the overt pessimism of the poem, the year of THM’s publication was actually a bellwether year for Eliot. Not only was his collected Poems, 1909-1925 published in 1925, but that same year he also received an appointment as an editor at the prestigious publishing firm of Faber and Faber, finally sparing the beleaguered bank clerk, editor and writer from "the wolf at the door" with a secure (and better-paying) position more suited to his talents.

Thus THM is a singular marker in Eliot’s journey, a dolmen set up between the desert asylum of TWL and the tentative faith of AW. THM divides the sometimes agonizing, often satirical pre-Christian poetry from his subsequent Christian poems, though they contain a good deal of agony as well. (One cannot expect Eliot to have had an easy time with faith any more than he had with life!)


II About the Allusions

As we know, Eliot insisted his poems could stand on their own, though I have before said that he likely overestimated his audience—including this writer. Yet because of THM’s relative brevity its allusions are actually more important for its understanding than the allusions of TWL. Some think the title of the poem, which is also the subject, pays homage to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as in these lines spoken by Brutus when he learns Cassius may not be as fondly disposed towards him as he thought:

"But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle;
But when they should endure the bloody spur,
They fall their crests, and, like deceitful jades,
Sink in trial."

Julius Caesar VI.ii


On this question Heather Van Aelst writes:

"Eliot claimed to have made up the title, "The Hollow Men" from combining "The Hollow Land", the title of a romance by William Morris with Kipling's title, "The Broken Men".  Many scholars believe this to be one of Ol' Possum's many false trails, instead believing it comes from a mention of 'hollow men' in Julius Caesar or any of several references to Joseph Conrad's Kurtz as hollow in some way (a 'hollow sham', 'hollow at the core'). 

"T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men": "A Hypertextual Study of Allusion,"


Whether Eliot intended the allusion in the title or not, I think the connection to the conspirators against Caesar a little off the mark. In Shakepeare’s treatment Brutus was considered the most noble of Romans, and though Cassius may appear a little power-hungry, the conspirators nevertheless convince themselves that Caesar’s death is necessary for the preservation of the Roman Republic. They fear the establishment of a hereditary dictatorship which would turn the Senate into a rubber stamp. The plotters subsequently risk their lives for this principle, stabbing Caesar with multiple knives to secure their joint and bloody oath. And at play’s end, Generals Brutus and Cassius lose their lives in battle against Caesar, never deserting their loyalty to the principle that propelled their actions. One can hardly call such decisive behavior a province of hollow men. It is the exact opposite, just as we shall see that Mr. Kurtz and Guy Fawkes, though on the surface hollow, are really not hollow men at all.

The first epigram, "Mistah Kurtz—he dead," refers to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where Kurtz, a model of English civilization, descends to savagery as an ivory trader. The narrator of the book, Marlowe, encounters other "hollow men" involved in trade along the Congo, and though these may be lazy and immoral functionaries, none descends from the height of Kurtz’s enlightened background to the depths of his "going native." But is Kurtz a hollow man? His ideals, inherited from the Kipling school of the British Empire, turn out to be hollow because they fail to sustain themselves in the presence of what C. S. Lewis called "the gods of the blood." (I should mention in this regard a hilarious essay by Aldus Huxley, "Wordsworth in the Tropics," which concludes that had Wordsworth grown up in equatorial Africa he would more likely have believed in demons than a benevolent God.) Even if Kurtz loses faith in his inherited idealism (thus rendered "hollow"), his descent to savagery is hardly hollow. It is the crash of Icarus, it is Satan being thrown into hell, hardly the sort of descent a hollow man might make.

The second epigram, "A penny for the Old Guy" refers to the English celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Day (November 5), when children beg for pence while the English hang straw-filled effigies of the traitor caught trying to blow up Parliament in 1605. "The Gunpowder Plot," as it was named, involved Catholic conspirators who felt their numbers were suffering persecution under James I. Yet only Fawkes was caught red-handed in the basement under Parliament with a pile of gunpowder sufficient for the deed. So again, as with Mr. Kurtz and Brutus and his fellow conspirators, although the stuffed effigy of the Old Guy is filled with straw, or hollow, Fawkes was actually a passionate Catholic revolutionary who was tortured and died for his convictions. So with regard to these three introductory allusions, then, the obvious is not the apparent. At first glance the figures alluded to may appear hollow, but upon closer examination we see men of passion and action.

It is no surprise that the greatest number of allusions in the poem refer to Dante. It is, indeed, hard to name a major poem of Eliot’s that does not show Dante’s influence in some respect. In Dante’s Inferno, the souls after which the hollow men are patterned do not even qualify for the first circle of hell where virtuous pagans abide, but are stuck in hell’s vestibule, on the other side of the River Acheron ("gathered on the beach of this tumid river" THM IV, 9) because their lives were of no consequence. As Virgil says of them in Canto III, 34-36, "This wretched state of being / is the fate of those sad souls who lived a life / but lived it with no blame and with no praise" (The Portable Dante, Mark Musa, Penguin Books, New York, NY 1995, p. 15) Recall that this phrase is quoted in the epigram to "Prufrock" as well.

As for references to the Paradisio, Dante could not bear to look into the eyes of Beatrice upon entering paradise, which explains Eliot’s references to "eyes," as in "Eyes I dare not meet in dreams" (II, 1), or "The eyes are not here / There are no eyes here" (IV, 1-2). Beatrice, as an agent of Mary, naturally shares Mary’s symbol, the rose, which Dante develops into an extended metaphor for the ranks of the saved according to heaven’s nine spheres ("As the perpetual star / Multifoliate rose" (IV, 12-13). One can hardly resist noting that the same image is employed in the final verses of Eliot’s "Little Gidding":

"All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one."

Thus Shakespeare (though Eliot did not admit it!), Conrad, Guy Fawkes and especially Dante comprise the more important allusions in the poem. Yet I should mention another source of discussion, namely the epigrammatic passages beginning with V, 4: "Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow." For those versed in classical Greek philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, this passage and the subsequent two similar stanzas excite some interest as to philosophical fine points. I don’t think a knowledge of these adds much to the poem’s appreciation, though I will touch on them briefly later in my explication.



III In the Context of Eliot’s Other Poems

The first striking thing about THM is the directness of its title. Of Eliot’s major poems only two compare: "Portrait of a Lady" and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." His other titles are at best somewhat obliquely related to content, just as the original title of TWL was changed from "He Do the Police in Different Voices" to something less descriptive. And I can think of no other poem by Eliot in which the title is repeated in the first line: "We are the hollow men." Does this indicate an exhaustion of the poet’s imagination? Or does the title reinforce the repetitive sterility of the hollow men’s dilemma? In either case the title is a departure from the author’s usual practice, more a whimper than a bang.

THM also consists of short lines, departing from Eliot’s frequent use of pentameter (excepting the lyrical flourishes he inserts in his longer poems for variety). "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," another metrical exception, is written mainly in tetrameter, but THM leans most towards trimeter, interspersed with dimeter and tetrameter and very rare pentameter. Scan these lines from the close of part THM IV, for example (the number of beats is noted in parentheses):

"Sightless, unless (2)
The eyes reappear (3)
As the perpetual star (3)
Multifoliate rose (3)
Of death's twilight kingdom (3)
The hope only (2)
Of empty men." (2)

This truncated, almost staccato rhythm lends a chant-like power to THM, further strengthened by Eliot’s practice of eschewing punctuation at line breaks whenever feasible (sometimes even when not feasible).

So much for obvious differences from his other major poems. Now for a few similarities.

THM’s employment of nursery rhymes is not new, as Eliot had before incorporated (and invented) comic rhymes, even if intended sardonically, in other works. Recall from "Prufrock": "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo"; or from TWL: "O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag— / It’s so elegant / So intelligent."

Eliot’s continuing fondness for anaphora is also clearly present in THM:

"For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the" (V, 24-27)

Compare this with a passage from TWL V, for instance:

"If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring" (346-51)

Or with the opening of AW:

"Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn"

The example from THM one might call "decaying anaphora," just as Eliot was always fond of Shakespeare’s phrase, "a dying fall," both literally and metrically. And whereas in TWL and AW these anaphoric deliberations seem faltering, they do progress to something larger, while the almost infantile repetition of the Lord’s prayer in THM, quoted above, mimics the onset of Alzheimer’s (a blessing for the hollow men?).

Lastly, in structure, THM resembles TWL and 4Q in its five movements. AW is the only of Eliot’s major poems after TWL that differs from this schema, with six movements. THM is also Eliot’s last major poem to employ epigrams (though thankfully in English).


IV Which Kingdom?

From the time I first read THM until now, my chief difficulty and what I considered the key to the poem was the various references to "death’s kingdom." Below, a list of phrases that include "kingdom" from the poem in order, not excluding repetitions:

Death’s other kingdom

(Death’s dream kingdom)

(Death’s dream kingdom)

The twilight kingdom

Death’s other kingdom

(This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms)

Death’s twilight kingdom

For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is the Kingdom

I first wondered how many states of consciousness or visions of an afterlife these kingdoms represented, and how closely we should divide their sense. Does one refer to a dream state, for instance, a kind of life between sleep and waking? How many refer to Dante’s vision of the three habitations of the afterlife, and if they do, which refer to which? Are there false afterlives posited in opposition to true ones? And so on.

I have since come to "a condition of complete simplicity" on this question, namely that there are only two kingdoms in the poem, however nuanced: that of an imagined afterlife and that of this pointless world. The phrases in parentheses above, I believe, refer to "the cactus land" of this world, while the rest refer to an imagined afterlife (or at least some kind of post-mortem existence).



V A Brief Explication

As a reader I always find line-by-line explications tedious, so in surveying THM I shall try to restrict myself to some general comments about each of its five divisions, referred to by their Roman numerals.



First note the point of view (POV) of the first stanza, the magisterial "we," even if the voices that utter it are hardly magisterial. How many poets today feel empowered to speak in the first person plural? Any attempt to do so would almost inevitably be greeted with charges of presumption, since poetry has long since degenerated into the sacred observance of the individual. (Only in Part II of THM does Eliot employ the first person singular.)

The first stanza introduces the subject of THM, which we already know from the title and epigrams: "the hollow men, the stuffed men" and concludes with an obvious reference to lines from TWL:

"Our dried voices….
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar." (5-10)

Compare TWL III, 194-5:

"And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year."

The couplet which follows, or second stanza, by paradox ("shape without form") and oxymoron or antinomy ("gesture without motion") defines the paralysis of the "stuffed men."

Stanza three further elaborates the dilemma with an obvious reference to Dante, telling us that those shades who have actually passed over the river to hell, else proceed to purgatory or paradise, do not look back at the hollow men as "lost, violent souls," but simply as inconsequential.




II begins by acknowledging the fear of any contact with more eminent souls who have crossed over, like Beatrice, because "Eyes I dare not meet in dreams / In death’s dream kingdom / These do not appear." "Death’s dream kingdom" refers to the world of the hollow men, as the vestibule of hell is in fact "death’s dream kingdom," since its vapid inhabitants don’t even qualify to enter Dante’s Inferno. Afterwards in the same stanza comes the wistful imagining of the very paradise the speaker won’t face, a place with swinging trees, singing wind, and perhaps destruction of idolatry by light: "Sunlight on a broken column," forming the most hopeful passage in the poem until stanza three of part IV.

The collective speaker retreats from such overwhelming exposure to spiritual hope in II’s second stanza, asking "to be no nearer" and to wear "deliberate disguises" in order to protect himself in this world, as the concluding couplet puts it, against "that final meeting / In the twilight kingdom."


III begins by reminding us, in the first stanza, of the land where the hollow men dwell, using desert imagery ("the cactus land") to reinforce the sense of lifelessness, along with a sterile echo from TWL V with a new twist, the suggestion of idolatry: "Here the stone images / Are raised, here they receive / The supplication of a dead man’s hand" (III, 3-5). What religion the hollow men maintain is useless, while the faith that terrifies them is beyond their capacity to risk.

III’s second stanza is perhaps the most moving in the poem, where the collective speaker wonders existence might be just as bad in heaven, where "Trembling with tenderness / Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone." For hollow men even to imagine "trembling with tenderness" is quite an achievement, but the shadow quickly falls, as no kiss, no contact occurs, only "prayers to broken stone." And no doubt these prayers are "quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass" (I, 7-8).



IV’s first two stanzas again retreat from exposure to the threat of faith, or life after death, as the hollow men remind themselves "The eyes are not here… / In this last of meeting places / We grope together / And avoid speech." Not only is the club of the unsaved (and uncondemned) incapable of action, they can hardly talk.

Hope is once again introduced in the third stanza, if only the hope of an "if": "Sightless, unless / The eyes reappear / As the perpetual star…. / The hope only / Of empty men." I should mention that a star occurs twice in the poem prior to its appearance here, once in II, 9-10, where it functions as a symbol of hope, or the afterlife: "And [where] voices are… / More distant and more solemn / Than a fading star." Used again in III, 6, the star appears in the cactus land, where "images…. receive / The supplication of a dead man’s hand / Under the twinkle of a fading star," though again one may infer that the fading star, even in the dead land, symbolizes a faint hope. But the "perpetual star" of part IV may rightly be interpreted as the evening or morning star—at once Christ, Venus, and Love, not to mention its association with the "multifoliate rose," Dante’s vision of the circles of heaven.



If part IV comes nearest to salvation, part V forms the most convincing retreat from it, just as Prufrock flees from tea with a lady back to his inner world. In V the hollow men devolve into a hopeless, repetitive state, beginning with a fittingly inane bastardization of a childhood rhyme: "Here we go round the prickly pear."

(I have incidentally eaten prickly pears, and if one scrubs off the fine sharp fuzz that covers them they are quite delicious. Perhaps Eliot’s knowledge of survival in the outdoors does not extend to mine, but why did he pick a cactus with edible fruit? Is this another hidden hope or simply Eliot’s ignorance of botany? More likely it is because the cadence of "prickly pear" substitutes nicely for "mulberry bush.")

The three stanzas following the rhyme belabor existential paralysis with some nifty epigrammatic formulations that belie Eliot’s training in philosophy. Each of these stanzas also concludes with an italicized admission of helplessness, or separateness from any hope of salvation: "For Thine is the Kingdom" (obviously the hollow men can’t share it) and "Life is very long" (because living as they do is quite the bore).

In these stanzas Eliot emphasizes the difference between the Platonic world of the idea and the more Aristotelian world of action, or matter. But a simpler way of defining where "Falls the Shadow," given Eliot’s earlier struggles with his animal nature and new struggles with the possibility of faith, is the gap between theory and incarnation.

"Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow." (V,17-23)

Something fundamental prevents the hollow men from translating thought, however tepid, into action. Faith, "the substance of things hoped for," is beyond them. It is this shadow, the inability to believe in anything to the point of sacrifice, that prevents them from any action that might earn them entrance in to the next world. The whole discussion breaks down in the fifth stanza, "For Thine is / Life is / For Thine is the," indicating exhaustion and an end to deliberation, these verbal fragments reaching out to an impossible afterlife much like electromagnetic signals sent out to a silent universe in the SETI project.

One note I have not come upon in my reading concerns Eliot’s use of the Lord’s prayer in V. The phrase, "For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, Forever and Ever, Amen," does not appear in the earliest and most trustworthy manuscripts of the Gospels. It was appended later by some well-meaning scribe. Is it just coincidence that Eliot chose that part of the Lord’s prayer which is actually a textual corruption?

Finally we come to stanza six, the most famous lines of THM:

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

Clearly, this forms an admission of the acceptance of defeat, or better, a hopeless stasis, since defeat would have to be earned.

So, although the lost souls of this static drama play ever so briefly with the idea of salvation, at its conclusion they are more in step with Prufock’s flight from human intimacy (here in the form of either damnation or salvation) than the partial restoration of The Fisher King at TWL’s conclusion. Thus one might say THM is actually a step backward from TWL spiritually, except that the stakes are higher. It is no longer a question of personal sterility vs. fertility. It is rather the question of having no personality whatsoever—(if will, or the ability to act, best defines man’s being)—vs. the inconceivable commitment that damnation and salvation require.

One might characterize THM as a liturgy for the unredeemable, for those banned from heaven and hell by an absolute lack of gumption; yet they may still glimpse, as if through a dusty stained-glass window, what the sanctuary or crypt might look like. But they cannot enter in unless they take some action, whether belief or unbelief, fighting for or against Caesar, or going native like Mr. Kurtz. Even blowing up Parliament is better than doing nothing. Anything but nothing.

VI A Critical Debate

Is THM a bald admission of hopelessness or does it lend some faint hope both to Eliot and the age in which he lived? This is the crux of the debate over THM in my readings. Below, some quotes from other critics to give the reader a sample of the range of opinions on this question:

"Although "The Hollow Men" is not a mere appendage to The Waste Land, it may most profitably be read as an extension of the same design of quest and failure."

"The main parallel between "Heart of Darkness" and "The Hollow Men" consists in the theme, implicit throughout the latter, of debasement through the rejection of good, of despair through consequent guilt."

—Grover Smith, From T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1956.

Now for a stronger opinion:

"The Hollow Men" is an eloquent analysis of the vacuity of subjective idealism, and the state of the hollow men appears in Eliot's later work as the "distraction, delusion, escape into dream, pretence" (Complete Poems and Plays, 210) of the unenlightened people in his plays, each one of whom is a "fugitive from reality" (ES, 70), or as that horrid form of hell described in Murder in the Cathedral, the hell of "the Void," of "emptiness, absence, separation from God" in "the empty land / Which is no land," where "there are no objects, no tones, / No colours, no forms to distract, to divert the soul / From seeing itself, foully united forever, nothing with nothing" (CPP, 210).

—J. Hillis Miller, From Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Harvard University Press, 1965.

Here’s one of my favorite takes from a little-known but certainly unequivocal critic:

"The Hollow Men" by T. S. Eliot is a commentary, or rather an attack on twentieth century society. Eliot portrays contemporary life as a living hell on earth where humankind is void of relationships and physical contact."

—Hannah Temple (I could not find the original source for her short essay, only a post by one Jes at the following site: Here  )

Now for a softer touch:

"To the common observation that The Hollow Men expresses the depths of Eliot's despair, one must add that the poet in a sense chooses despair as the only acceptable alternative to the inauthentic existence of the unthinking inhabitants of the waste land."

—David Spurr, from Conflicts in Consciousness: T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism. University of Illinois Press, Urbana: 1984.

Now for something hopeful, again from Mr. Willard’s essay:

"Salvation. This is what the "Hollow Men" seek. Rising from the memory of Dante's Divine Comedy, "The Hollow Men" by T. S. Eliot draws us back into the world he created in "The Waste Land," this time to examine the nature of enervation as it seeks salvation."

Lastly, the critic I most enjoyed while preparing this piece, who rides Eliot’s faith rather hard and has the audacity elsewhere to state, "‘Gerontion’ is a failure." His criticism seems driven by a mainstream Christian prejudice against Eliot’s eccentricities of faith in his writings, which I think unfair, as it applies theological standards to questions better left to the art of self expression. Nevertheless I highly recommend his essay, though I think he grossly underrates Eliot’s commitment to Christianity.

"The Hollow Men" (1925) forms a coda to The Waste Land, for in "The Hollow Men" Eliot purifies in the desert's dry furnace his obsessive anxiety with death and his obsessive anxiety with decline. But he purifies as well his knowledge of the single origin of these anxieties in the absence, not exactly of faith, but of the God in Whom faith would believe—if only we had faith. The philosophically trained Eliot sees that without God, nothing may be beautiful, or true, or good. And here in "The Hollow Men," two years before he entered into Christian communion (on June 29, 1927), Eliot makes the mistake that cripples the spirituality of all his later work.

—J. Bottum, from "What T.S. Eliot Almost Believed," First Things, The Journal of Religion and Public life Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 55 (August/September 1995): 25-30.


Is "The Hollow Men" then a dim window to salvation or a broad road to hell, or both, or neither? A "failure of subjective idealism?" Is it a "mistake that cripples the spirituality of all his [Eliot’s] later work?" Is it "a living hell"? Is it a choice of authentic despair that long pre-dates the Existentialists?

If the reader will excuse a very worn trope, but one appropriate for a poem that employs old nursery rhymes, we might call THM a very dark cloud with a faint, faint silver lining—a lining that might well be hard to see (as demonstrated by critics above) if we did not know that "Ash Wednesday" were certain to follow.