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The Hollow Men

"The Hollow Men" (1925) is a poem by T. S. Eliot. Its themes are, like many of Eliot's poems, overlapping and fragmentary, but it is recognized to be concerned most with post-World War I Europe under the Treaty of Versailles.

Background information

“The Hollow Men” is a poem written in 1925 by T.S. Eliot. The first section of the poem opens to a group of Hollow Men. Everything about them is dry, from their bodies to their voices. Everything they do is meaningless. In the second section, one of them is afraid to look at the people who made it into death’s dream kingdom, something the Hollow Men cannot do. The third section finds them in a barren land where they are unable to do the things they desire. In the fourth section, the Hollow Man from section two talks about the desolate setting they are in, afraid to look at people or have people look at them. Finally, in the fifth section, children sing a nursery rhyme while they skip around a cactus. A shadow has gained control of them, rendering them unable to think, create, act, or respond. The poem ends describing the end of the world as a whimper.

Themes of The Hollow Men

One of the major themes prevalent in “The Hollow Men” is the struggle to maintain hope. The Hollow Men hope that they will be rescued from their stagnant state, but this seems unlikely, as they cannot even bring themselves to look at any of the souls who pass through. The stars represent their hope, both of which grow dimmer as the poem continues. 

Another theme that is interwoven into the poem is the concept of identity. When the Hollow Men speak, they speak in unison because they do not have identities separate from each other. Rather than real people, they are empty voids. While they do emotions, like fear and sadness, Eliot wrote them to be incapable of regular human reactions. They truly have no identity.  

A third theme of “The Hollow Men” is the theme of exile. The Hollow Men are stuck on the banks of the River Acheron, and though they are dead, they cannot cross into the realm of death. In Dante’s Inferno, it is explained that some souls can be accepted into neither Hell nor Heaven. They are not evil, but they are not inherently good, either. Instead of taking a stance for one side or the other, they were only concerned with their own affairs and did not care enough about the world around them to choose good or evil in the first place. While Dante felt that the majority of humanity fell into this category, it seems as though the Hollow Men did, too.

Related literary works: Click here to read about All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel about the first world war.

Eliot's inspiration for the work

Eliot said that he came up with the title of the poem from William Morris’s “The Hollow Land” and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Broken Men”, though many believe that this is yet another of Eliot’s carefully constructed allusions, as it is suspected that the title was inspired by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the character of Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Divided into five separate parts, the poem consists of ninety eight lines, with the last four being one of the most quoted lines of any 20th-century poet: “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.”

The poem can be seen as told from three different perspectives. Each one represents one of the phases a soul goes through whilst passing from of death’s kingdoms to another; the ‘dream kingdom’, the ‘twilight kingdom’, and the ‘other kingdom’. In the poem, Eliot says that the living will be judged by the dead, the ‘hollow men’, who will see us as we truly are, deep in our souls.

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