T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men"
T. S. Eliot
Introduction and Excerpt from "The Hollow Men"
One of T. S. Eliot's most anthologized poems, "The Hollow Men," offers up a dreary prospect for the speaker's generation. Art seems to be dying because of a spiritual dryness that whispers despair, loneliness, and hopelessness. More dire than his comedic drama, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," nearly as devastatingly ugly as his horror-filled "Preludes," this poem sinks itself so deep into melancholy from the hollow men-stuffed men straw-headed disasters to the final flailing attempt to pray.
The two opening epigraphs included before the poem set the tone for a soulless, tragic-comedic farce that ultimately results from the blandness against which the speaker rails. The first epigraph, "Mistah Kurtz-he dead," is a quotation from Joseph Conrad's novella, The Heart of Darkness. The second, "A penny for the Old Guy," refers to Guy Fawkes Day, when children beg for pennies to buy trinkets to commemorate that day.
Excerpt from "The Hollow Men"
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
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 . . .
To read the entire poem, please visit "The Hollow Men."
T. S. Eliot Recites "The Hollow Men"
The speaker in T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" is decrying with ugly, degrading images the bland, vapid world into which art and culture seems to be moving.
First Section: A Scarecrow Culture
The speaker describes himself and his culture as hollow yet stuffed. They are stuffed with straw. They resemble scarecrows. Their voices are dry, and when they whisper to one another, their words lack meaning, are as empty as "wind in dry grass / Or rats feet over broken glass." These men are shapeless, colorless; their life force is paralyzed, and when they move, as to gesture, there is simply no motion. Their compatriots who have died are likely not remember them as violent souls but instead as "the hollow men / The stuffed men." The ugly images have begun and will carry the message of lack of hope or any brightness on the horizon.
The contorted images of the painful yet anesthetized walking dead ignite the fire that burned into postmodernism its virtual absence of desire for beauty and truth. As art explodes into personal effusion, the culture suffers from neurosis as admirers become less and less inspired for making life worth living. The postmodern conundrum rattles its empty gourd producing only a faint whisper of anything resembling sound; night terrors embalm the living—all this while egos become more and more bloated through arrogance and false intellectual arguments.
Second Section: Non-Functioning Eyes
The speaker asserts that in this dry, dead world, people cannot look at one another. Although the eyes may function properly, they still focus only on a broken column. Voices are as the eyes, virtually useless as if they were in the winds singing. The voices are farther away than a fading star. The speaker then shifts from mere statement to a slight command, supplicating to be "no nearer / In death's dream kingdom." He also asks to wear the garb of a scarecrow. Essentially, he is praying that death does not take him yet. He is not ready for that "final meeting, / In the twilight kingdom."
The attempt to insert a prayer rings as hollow as the men described in the poem. The speaker's prayer remains a secret wish that he can outlive the present dismaying trend of emptiness that seems to be overtaking his culture. He does not desire that "twilight kingdom," but craves that life would spring up around him, instead of the desert that is forming from the dearth of sensible thought. The atmosphere seems to shed it electric color, becoming a mausoleum for dead letters.
Third Section: What to Pray to?
The speaker now turns to describing the landscape, which is dead; it is cactus land where stone images are raised. Only dead men pray here under the twinkle of a fading star. He asks, "Is it like this in death's other kingdom?" He refers to this world as death's dream kingdom and beyond death as death's other kingdom. Thus, he wonders what the soul experiences after death. Also, he wonders if the soul will be alone, if trembling with tenderness, will lips still be able to kiss and will they be able to pray, and will they pray to broken stone.
The image of praying to "broken stone" reveals the hard, harsh reality of a grand failure to pray to a living Creator. The postmodern mind virtually obliterated spirituality from life and art, to such an extent that nothing was left to seek. Full of themselves with ego-tripping maniacal arrogance, those hollow creatures made God in their own image and then with cock-sureness announced that He was found wanting.
Fourth Section: Dry, Hollow, Stuffed, Empty
Returning to the eyes, the speaker laments again that these dry, hollow, straw-stuffed men cannot see. They exist in a place where the stars are dying; they find themselves in this hollow valley, which is nothing more than this "broken jaw of our lost kingdoms." This group of hollow men meet for a last time where they "grope together / And avoid speech." They are gathered on a riverbank, and despite the river's being swollen, they remain dry and sightless. However, there may be a glimmer of hope that might reappear as the perpetual star or "Multifoliate rose," which would emerge from death's twilight kingdom—the place between death's dream kingdom and death's other kingdom, a kind of purgatory.
Despite the constant drum beat of spiritual dryness in the poem, it leaves open the possibility that true spiritual striving could open itself again in the hearts of certain seekers. Because the hollow men remain sightless, they likely will never open their eyes, even though they could, or the speaker at least seems to keep a glimmer of hope alive.
Fifth Section: A Lunatic Rant
The speaker sounding rather like a lunatic—after all, such a state of dryness, hollowness, stuffed-with-straw bitterness could lead its victims nowhere else; thus, he recites nursery-rime-like ditties, such as, "Here we go round the prickly pear," which is likely suggested to him by "Here we go round the mulberry bush," but instead of a fruit tree, the speaker chooses a cactus to further symbolize the dryness of his theme.
The speaker then makes a set of assertions that ultimately form the basis of the philosophical stance taken in the poem: "Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow." Everything on this earth is covered and disguised by a shadow. That shadow is the illusion that humankind is separated from its divine origin. This world operates as if it belongs to the kingdoms of death, but in fact, "Thine is the Kingdom." The speaker affirms that ultimately the Divine Reality is the only reality that controls all the imaginary kingdoms of humankind.
Flighty from his intoxicating philosophy, the speaker descends again into a nursery-rime-like chant, repeating three times, "This is the way the world ends," and finally claiming that it ends "Not with a bang but a whimper." Possibly serving as Fred Hoyle's motivation for the naming of the Big Bang Theory of origin, the speaker having experienced the nothingness of modern life finds it likely that the end of this drab existence is not worth so big a spectacle as would be produced by a bang, but it will probably just snivel and sob itself to death. Thus, despite the insertion of a hopeful thought and prayer, the piece concludes with virtually the exact same pessimism with which it began.
© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes