The Hollow Men by T.S Eliot: An Analysis

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at 2016.11.01
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The Poem

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

I

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.

II

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

III

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.

IV

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.

V

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.

Starting With the Poem

The Hollow Men published in 1925, is often cited as being an appendage to Eliot’s monumental work, The Waste Land, for both poems written exclusively post World War 1, revolve around his dismay and disillusionment regarding the depletion and speedy mutation of religious hope and love.

The Background

The disintegration of Victorian ideals, the ordeal of World War 1and the subsequent collapse of the British Empire resulted in the emergence of a fragmented world where nothing seemed real; men with fractured hopes, crumbled notions appeared to be empty or “hollow.” The modernist writers made a bid to capture this incoherence and flux through their verse and thus we have masterpieces as “The Hollow Men,” where Eliot presents the agitated psyche of the generation using a collage of terse dialogues, poignant images, and scholarly ideas. Now, if you need to know more, you may read the summary of the poem.

Meaning of the First and Second Epigraphs

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

This epigraph, a quote uttered by a servant in Conrad’s celebrated novel, “Heart of Darkness,” is a revelation of the death of one of the prominent characters, “Kurtz,” who in the novel gains prosperity by amassing the continent’s vast natural resources. Eliot’s deliberate invocation of vile Kurtz thus serves as a fitting precursor of his exploration of the complex, soul¬ less characteristics of his subject, the Hollow Men; Kurtz is amoral just as the Hollow Men are.

A penny for the Old Guy

This particular epigraph can be explained in two ways. Apparently, the poet refers to the usual question asked by English children concerning Guy Fawkes Day celebration (Nov 5), when they need money to burn the straw figures of Guy Fawkes (a Roman Catholic, whose attempt to blow up the Parliament building in 1605 was discovered). But going by ancient Greek Myth, this question seems to be the optimistic expression of a soul, anxious to pay a coin to the ferryman of the underworld, “Charon,” who would aid him to progress through the world of the dead.

Interpretation of these two epigraphs

If the first prepares the reader towards a band of spiritually sterile hollow men (as Kurtz), the second one suggests that they are also physically empty.

Central Idea

The Hollow Men are a group of emotionally and spiritually sterile figures who inhabit an arid land and avoid the “Eyes” of souls that dwell in Heaven. Their feeble wish to gain access to “death’s twilight kingdom” is in vain as they are doomed to perish between life and death. As such, they look forward to a termination that is ignominious and insignificant.

Critical Analysis

The Themes

Living transformed to mere survival

It is through the depiction of the Hollow Men’s miserable existence that Eliot poignantly advocates the riveting truth that modern life post World War 1 scenario wasn’t living in the truest sense, but commonplace compromise with fragmented beliefs and ideals. Consequently, the Hollow Men inhabit an arid land (dead land), where nothing grows except cacti. They are neither audible (dried voices, whisper) nor can they say anything with reason (Are quiet and meaningless) except a deeply rooted bemoaning of their fallen state through the solitary ejaculation, “Alas.”

Man’s crippled state

There are numerous depressing key traits of modern man that Eliot exposes through the groaning of the choric speakers such as:

  • The Hollow Men’s faintheartedness in not daring to confront the “Eyes” not having the strength to stand alone (Leaning together)
  • His apathy in remaining content with wearing “Such deliberate disguises/Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves.”
  • His sexual incapacity (Lips that would kiss/Form prayers to broken stone)
  • His dominant indecisiveness due to the all-pervading “shadow.”
  • Finally, his resignation that prepares him to face a pathetic end (Not with a bang but a whimper.)

One last hope of resurrection

Even knowing that there’s hardly any escape, the Hollow Men desperately hope that “The eyes reappear/As the perpetual star” and offer them access to “death’s twilight kingdom.” Thus Eliot perhaps had a fleeting hope of the salvation of modern man.

An inglorious end

Such a meaningless survival is naturally expected to have a paltry exclusion. There is no celebration of life’s triumphed obstacles, no satisfaction of a life well spent; it is only an inconsequential “whimper.”

Prominent Literary Devices

Image and Imagery

Throughout the poem, the employment of befitting imagery and images create a sense of hopelessness. The very words, “hollow men” create an image of men who resemble corpses since they are vacant or “empty.” The vivid imagery of “meaningless whispers” being compared to “winds in dry grass” or “Or rats’ feet over broken glass/In our dry cellar” presents a picture of their limitations and evokes a sense of decay.

The lines,“Shape without form, shade without colour,/Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;” intends to intensify the pitiable picture of modern man
The imagery of, “crossed staves/ In a field/ Behaving as the wind behaves” brings to mind the nondescript scarecrows that aimlessly swing according to the wind’s movement.

The mentioning of the “dead land” with “stone images” evokes the picture of a desolate landscape where nothing can live.

Finally the concluding image, “Not with a bang but with a whimper,” refers to man’s steady descent towards darkness.

Symbols

The “Eyes” initially symbolise something fearful but later they may stand as a source of hope.

The “star” that appears to be sometimes “fading,” sometimes “dying” seems to symbolise the prevailing condition of the Hollow Men.

The mentioning of “death’s other kingdom,” “death’s dream kingdom,” “twilight kingdom” possibly symbolises another realm where dead men with souls reside.

The significant reference to time as at “At five o’clock in the morning” symbolises the Hollow Men’s complete dissolution into obscurity. It is in fact, a deliberate contradiction of the traditional hour of resurrection.

Ultimately, “prickly pear” stands for something painful and sinister.

Structure of the Poem

The poem does not seem to have any definite meter or rhyme scheme. All the five sections have varying lengths.

Figures of Speech Used

Allusion

  • The first epigraph alludes to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”
  • The second alludes to the Gunpowder plot and perhaps to the Greek myth of Charon
  • The idea of Hollow Men alludes to Canto 3 of Dante’s “Inferno” describe a group of people (whom Dante encounters at the gate of Hell) that roam about aimlessly and cannot even hope of death.
  • “Direct eyes” allude to the other two parts of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” where in describing the eyes of his great love, “Beatrice” he mentions that she (being a heavenly soul) can directly look at God.
  • The “final meeting” seems to allude to the Last Judgment in Christian thought.
  • The idea of “Lips that would kiss/Form prayers to broken stone” alludes to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” but the concept is reversed. Whereas in the drama, “Juliet” claims that pilgrims use lips to chant prayers, the Hollow Men have prayers that are vile and corrupt.
  • The “Multifoliate rose” alludes to Dante’s “Paradiso” where paradise is viewed as a flower with saints and other virtues.
  • “For Thine is the Kingdom” refers to Lord’s Prayer.

Simile

  • The “whisper” of the Hollow Men is compared to “wind in dry grass/Or rats’ feet over broken glass.”
  • The Hollow Men wearing the disguises are said to behave “as the wind behaves.”

Anticlimax

The final predicament, “not with a bang, but with a whimper” is an anticlimax.

Repetition

There is ample repetition such as the lines, “We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men” or “This is the dead land/This is cactus land” or “Behaving as the wind behaves.”

Opposition

Striking oppositions are apparent such as “idea”/ “reality,” “motion”/”act,” “conception”/”creation” and much more

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