ANALYSIS AND INTERPRETATION OF T.S. ELIOT’S
THE HOLLOW MEN
Table of contents
Description and aims of the paper.
The introductory epigraph.
Main linguistic, rhetoric and aesthetic devices used.
Interpretation and discussion.
1.1. Description and aims of the paper.
Eliot, a master of the written craft, carefully thought out each aspect of his 1925 poem The Hollow Men. Many differences in interpretation exist for Eliot’s complex poetry, since we find an extensive range of facts to consider in this work. As Eliot often intertwined his writing by having one piece relate to another, The Hollow Men is sometimes considered as a mere appendage to The Wasteland. The Hollow Men, however, proves to have many offerings for a reader in and among itself.
Following the idea above, the poem will be treated in isolation in this paper, trying to unravel all the figures, symbols and meanings that Eliot wished to transmit through The Hollow Men, reading onto and between the lines.
Firstly, we will work on an intensive analysis, describing and explaining as accurately as possible all the linguistic, rhetoric and aesthetic devices found in the text, such as repetition, foregrounding, deixis, symbols and images, rhyme and rhythm. This is something that will help us understand in a better way the deep structure of the poem and its relationship with the meaning(s) involved. At this stage we will look at the poem as a whole, since similar devices are used all along, paying special attention to the last part (section 5), which is visibly different from the rest.
Secondly, and taking into account the previous analysis, we will perform an interpretation of the poem, this time working each part in isolation, revealing their meaning as if we were dealing with five different `chapters´ of the same story, in order to obtain and discuss the main ideas and senses contained.
In the conclusion, all the ideas explained before will be put in common, tracing a final outline of The Hollow Men together with a personal approach sketching my impressions about it.
1.2. The introductory epigraph.
Now, taking a quick look at the poem, we appreciate that it starts with an epigraph, which contains two pertinent references.
Mistah Kurtz –he dead.
A penny for the Old Guy.
First, Mistah Kurtz –he dead is an allusion to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In his novella, Conrad portrays the empty nature of men. Mister Kurtz, an European slave trader who had travelled to Africa in order to go on with his business, is a character who lacks a soul, thus, a true `Hollow Man´, as we’ll see afterwards. Here, we have to highlight a couple of striking aspects. On one hand, the `phonetic´ spelling of `Mister´, which changes into Mistah. On the other hand, the ellipsis of the verb `to be´ in he dead. This proves that the speaker is probably some kind of non-native English speaker who uses a pidgin or a creole language (a slave, if we look back at Conrad’s novel). But, why a slave? Probably because he represents another kind of `hollow man´ -a passive soul, humble, but passive. What’s more, it seems that this verse is the answer for a question like `Where’s Mister Kurtz?´, as if we didn’t know that he (is) (already) dead. This idea of `ignored death´ related to `emptiness´ will be subsequently developed through the poem.
In the second quotation the epigraph alludes to England’s November 5th tradition of Guy Fawkes Day. In 1605, Guy Fawkes unsuccesfully tried to blow up the Parliament building. Eliot’s quote A penny for the Old Guy is called out on this holiday by children who are attempting to buy fireworks in order to burn straw figures of Fawkes. In this verse Old and Guy are written with capital letters, emphasising the fact that the puppet represents a `poor, old, mortal fellow´ who needs to be given a few alms. In any case, we must notice the vagueness of the sentence, as the Old Guy does not make reference to any specific character or person, and we wouldn’t have guessed who Eliot is addressing if we didn’t know the cultural background mentioned before.
Even so, what’s the relationship that these two verses have? This epigraph seems to hark back longingly for even such monstruous men who at last believed in what they were doing, however horrific the results, setting up a natural contrast to the hollowness of modern man, who fundamentally believes in nothing and is, therefore, empty at the core of his being, like a Guy Fawkes dummy, or a Fallas’ ninot, if we bear in mind the well-known celebration in Valencia (Spain). So, two different types of `hollow/stuffed men´ are presented: he who lacks a soul (Mister Kurtz) and he who lacks a real body (Guy Fawkes dummy), representing both physical and spiritual emptiness.
Within the first two verses Eliot establishes the setting and theme and begins a rythmic pattern that will hold true for at least four of the five sections of the poem.
Now let’s concentrate on the text, which is divided in five sections that immediately follow the epigraph.
2. The poem: The Hollow Men, written in 1925 by Thomas Stearns Eliot. Published the same year.
Mistah Kurtz –he dead.
A penny for the Old Guy.
1 We are the hollow men,
We are the stuffed men.
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
5 Our dried voices, when
We whisper together,
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rat’s feet over broken glass
10 In our dry cellar.
Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom
15 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
20 In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column.
There, is a tree swinging
25 And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
Let me be no nearer
30 In death’s dream kingdom.
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises:
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
35 Behaving as the wind behaves
Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom.
This is the dead land,
40 This is the 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.
45 Is it like this,
In death’s other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness.
50 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,
55 In this hollow valley,
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech,
60 Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star,
65 Of death’s twilight kingdom.
The hope only
Of empty men.
Here we go ‘round the prickly pear,
Prickly pear, prickly pear.
70 Here we go ‘round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.
Between the idea
And the reality,
Between the motion
75 And the act,
Falls the Shadow.
For Thine is the Kingdom.
Between the conception
And the creation,
80 Between the emotion
And the response,
Falls the Shadow.
Life is very long.
Between the desire
85 And the spasm,
Between the potency
And the existence,
Between the essence
And the descent,
90 Falls the Shadow.
For Thine is the Kingdom.
For Thine is
For Thine is the
95 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.
3. Analysis, interpretation and discussion.
3.1. Main linguistic, rhetoric and aesthetic devices used in the poem.
Repetition is the most important and abundant feature in this poem, which employs about 180 different words in a work 420 words long. Not only does it connect different sections of the poem, but it even appears within the same line (behaving as the wind behaves, line 35).
In lines 1-2 we see the first repetition in the poem. In this case, we’re dealing with a structural repetition (we are the hollow men; we are the stuffed men). This structure Subject + to be + copula will be used again in the first lines of part III (this is the dead land; this is the cactus land) and part IV (the eyes are not here; there are no eyes here). This proves that the author reinforces, through repetition, the description of states and existences using the verb to be in Present Simple. At the end of Part I, the first couple of verses is repeated again (as the hollow men, the stuffed men), enclosing the whole idea of hollowness and emptiness. In lines 11-12 (shape without form, shade without colour, paralyzed force, gesture without motion) the structure A without B, C without D seems to be highlighting the main themes in the poem: meaninglessness, nothingness and paralysis, in the case that we had treated shape/form, shade/colour and gesture/motion as synonyms in some way. Therefore, all these concepts are `cancelling´ each other by a system of `binary opposition´, present as well in part V (between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act falls the Shadow, etc). The lexical and semantic pattern in lines 11-12 is related to the one in part V:
Between the a
And the b,
Between the c
And the d
Falls the Shadow
In this case, the opposition between a, b, c and d (idea/reality, motion/act, conception/creation, emotion/response, desire/spasm, potency/existence, essence/descent) completes a series of structured stanzas that comprehend both `prospect´ and `fulfillment´ together with `failure´ in the last verse (Falls the Shadow). So, we appreciate again the idea of paralyzed force (line 12), unfulfillment and stasis.
Of course, the repetition of ideas and words is numerous all along the poem. The most commonly repeated items are the eyes (mentioned in lines 14, 19, 22, 52, 53 and 62) the voices (described in lines 7-10 and 25-28), the stars and many references to death’s other kingdom, which appears throughout the poem with different names (death’s dream kingdom, twilight kingdom, this last of meeting places, death’s twilight kingdom, this valley of dying stars, this broken jaw of our lost kingdoms, etc). However, we’ll see their meaning within the poem in the interpretation.
Another kind of repetition is carried out through negation (Eyes I dare not meet in dreams; these do not appear; let me be no nearer; no nearer; not that final meeting; the eyes are not here; there are no eyes here). Eliot uses negation as an expression of sorrow and guilt, trying to avoid the unevitability of death (no nearer –not that final meeting in the twilight kingdom).
Part V, however, changes in a radical way the tone of the previous sections of the poem. In it we find a children’s song the main element of which is repetition (lines 68-71). The verve of the nursery rhyme spins us round in a sinister way, since it disturbs the familiar mulberry bush replaced with the arid prickly pear, making the rhyme like some distorted survival of a primitive chant. Eliot’s substitution makes this seem an infertility dance. The sentences from the Lord’s prayer (For Thine is the Kingdom) are confused by the addition of a complaint in the same typographical form (Life is very long) and then we find a tripartite distinction of truncated verses in lines 92-94, as if we had to `fill in the gaps´ to complete them. This fact supports the idea of infertility and emptiness. The last stanza recalls the opening nursery rhyme chorus, but gives it a universal voice which seems to include all that we’ve heard before in what is now a ritual chant with an appropriately childlike sound:
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.
It has been demonstrated that repetition is the fundamental element of The Hollow Men, as it can be found from the very beginning to the very end, not only emphasising structures, words and ideas, but also giving us the impression of rituality and paralysis of the actions taking place. Everything in this poem is circular, repetitive and somewhat absurd, like a group of children dancing and singing round a prickly pear.
Foregrounding can be defined as the standing out of certain elements by several means. In The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot uses different literary mechanisms in order to foreground items. Repetition, as it’s just been explained, may be considered as a way of foregrounding, but there are many others as we will see.
If we read the first two lines (We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men), we will clearly appreciate that two words are blindlingly obvious: hollow and stuffed. These highlighted words make us see the binary opposition mentioned before and get sticked into our minds as if the rest of the words in the verses where they’re included did not exist. This way of foregrounding also appears at the beginning of part III (this is the dead land, this is the cactus land), so now we’ve just been given the image of the men and the place that the poem is talking about. The beginning of part IV is similar, but in those verses the emphasis falls on the negation (the eyes are not here, there are no eyes here). Therefore, we could affirm that this way of foregrounding is strongly linked to repetition, because the foregrounded items appear in sequences of identic utterances (see part V’s between the a and the b, between the c and the d, etc).
Nevertheless, many other devices are used to reach this effect. In line 4, Headpiece is foregrounded, as it appears at the beginning of a noun clause, emphasising the fact that it is the `headpiece´, and not another part of the hollow/stuffed men, what is `filled with straw´. The same happens in line 19, where the Eyes, functioning as a direct object, appear at the beginning of the sentence. In part II, a tree (line 26) is also foregrounded as it occupies a place we wouldn’t expect (There, is a tree swinging), after the verb `to be´ and before the continous tense.
Another mechanism of foregrounding is used when individual items or ideas appear alone in a whole verse (and voices are, line 25; in a field, line 34; no nearer, line 36; walking alone, line 47; in this hollow valley, line 55; sightless, unless, line 61; multifoliate rose, line 64). This reveals the fact that the rythm of the poem is rather slow and moves in fits and starts, due to the abundance of short, enjambed sentences all along.
The repetition –and thus, foregrounding- of deictic marks (we, those, these, us, me, there, here, this) from part I to part IV shows us the extreme importance that the subjects and places described in Eliot’s work have. Through their analysis, we will indicate in detail the setting and the `poetic persona(e)´ in The Hollow Men.
The deictic marks indicate the space, the time and the person –or persons- taking part in a textual situation. The Hollow Men is completely full of them. Let’s look back again at the first couple of verses. The We mentioned, obviously refers to the speaker, but also to other people. However, its meaning is rather vague, as we don’t really know if it refers to `me and you and others´, `me and you but not others´ or `me and others but not you´. In any case, the speaker is implied within the state of being a `hollow, stuffed man´, and so are all the rest of `subjects´ to whom We refers. In the last stanza of Part I, we find a Those which is clearly opposite to We as it says: Those who have crossed with direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom remember us not as lost, violent souls, but only as the hollow men, the stuffed men. This means that We are not remebered as lost, violent souls (Mistah Kurtz or Guy Fawkes) but just as hollow men, in relation to Those (who have crossed with direct eyes), implying as well that the hollow men do not possess those `direct eyes´. Even so, we cannot distinguish the complete meaning of We.
In part II, the first person appears (I, line 19; me, lines 29 and 31), a person who is one of the hollow men but, in this case, he/she is giving a personal, subjective vision from his/her position. That position is significantly distant from death’s dream kingdom, as it is indicated by a There, and then the speaker pleads for being no nearer (line 29).
Part III shows a different situation. Now the speaker is in death’s other kingdom, because now it is referred to as This (is the dead land) and Here (the stone images are raised), opening in line 45 a rhetorical utterance that indicates the proximity to the place (Is it like this in death’s other kingdom, ...). We could say that the speaker is not alone (at the hour when we are trembling ..., lines 48 and 49; leaning together, line 3; in this last of meeting places (...) gathered on this beach, ..., lines 56-60), however, everything looks as if the hollow men were alienated from one another; they do not interact.
Part IV again mentions the place where the hollow men are (the eyes are not here; in this valley of dying stars, in this hollow valley, this broken jaw of our lost kingdoms, in this last of meeting places), and then a last We (grope together, line 58) which clearly refers back to part I.
In part V, the we in the children’s rhyme connects back to We in parts I and IV, as the hollow men lean, gather and dance altogether in a kind of ritual meeting.
Symbols and images
The description of the symbols in The Hollow Men will be developed in depth in the interpretation. Nevertheless, we will sketch them out in order to perceive a general overview.
On the one hand, the image of the hollow men, stuffed men leaning together, headpiece filled with straw reminds us of that of standing -not walking- corpses, immobile dying bodies (let’s look at lines 11-12). This, of course, possesses a tight relationship with the image of the scarecrow (let me also wear such deliberate disguises, rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves in a field, lines 31-34), as it is an immobile, inanimate anthropomorphic figure fulfilled with straw.
On the other hand, the voices and the eyes seem to be appalingly disembodied. They appear as independent, supernatural concepts apart from the hollow men’s existence. In many literary interpretations the voices symbolise the act of speech and the expression of the thoughts, whereas the eyes have been considered as the external reflection of the soul. Taking into account these points of view, and that the hollow men’s voices are quiet and meaningless and they are soul-lacking (the eyes are not here), this interpretion has not been chosen lightly at all, but this will be deeply explained later on. In the poem, we ignore who the eyes belong to. At first, they’re a source of fear (Eyes I dare not meet in dreams, line 19); later, they might be a source of hope (sightless, unless the eyes reappear as the perpetual star (...) the hope only of empty men, lines 61-67). This conception of the eyes has to do with that of the star, first appearing as a fading star –a star which is fading either does not exist or is very distant because the only reminiscence we perceive from it is its light-, then becoming dying- and later perpetual –alive, eternal. Its connection with life and its religious interpretation in relation to after-death transcendence is clear.
The references to the realm where The Hollow Men takes place are truly symbolical. It is described as death’s other kingdom or death’s dream kingdom, meaning that there is `another´ world of death apart from the beyond itself, or that it is possible to `dream´ even when you’re dead. In both cases, it is a `Wasteland´, a place where nothing can escape from despair and sorrow (dead land, cactus land), proving there’s another kind of death which isn’t caused by the mere death of the physical body. It is also mentioned as the twilight kingdom, valley of dying stars, hollow valley –like the men themselves-. There, the eyes do not appear and the voices are meaningless, making the subject fear that realm (Let me be no nearer (...) not that final meeting, ...). We might say that it’s even a grotesque place (this broken jaw of our lost kingdoms). However, in Part V kingdom is written with a capital K and is related to the Lord (For Thine is the Kingdom), so now it refers to Heaven, and not to death’s other kingdom –whose kings are not the devil or the evil itself, but Nothingness and Despair. The beach of the tumid river (line 60) may symbolise, according to Greek mythology, the river that the souls must cross in order to reach the beyond. The Shadow –with a capital S- clearly connotes darkness, nightime and death.
At five o’clock in the morning, the only clear reference to time in The Hollow Men has a powerful symbolism. This time of midnight has always been considered as the hour of resurrection but, what has it got to do with the dance around the prickly pear? It is obvious: this is not a rite of resurrection, but of abortion and interruption of life. Concerning the prickly pear it must be said that due to its use instead of the mulberry bush, its symbolism is increased. A prickly pear (a cactus) is something sour, thorny and sinister, and reckoning on the fact that it’s also a phallic symbol, it provokes revulsion and disgust, reinforcing, once again, the idea of infertility.
Rhyme and rhythm
This is not a particulary `rhyming´ poem, but rhyme also plays an important role. In Part I, like all of other parts –except the fifth- the final line of the stanza rhymes with one of the previous lines. For example, the scheme in the first stanza is AABCABDCCB. Although the last line could have ended with the two C’s, it reverted back to a familiar rhyme ending. This tactic gives the feeling of familiarity and completion at the end of each stanza.
Partial rhymes like alas; (...)less; grass; glass with rasping, coarse sounds give the reader a sensation of the plight of the hollow men. If we bear in mind that the mentioned voices are faint, like whispers, this feeling deepens. This happens as well with the sound /∫/ in shape and shade. Most of the other rhymes are performed with consonantic, closing sounds which add an extra emotion of poetic `claustrophobia´: crossed/lost (lines 13-15), column/solemn (lines 23-27), staves/behaves (lines 33-35), tenderness/kiss (lines 49-50), alone/stone (lines 41-47), existence/essence (lines 87-88).
As regards rhythm, it must be said that the tone is that of exhaustion, yet paradoxically the words do not falter and die as we are given the impression they might; rather, the atmosphere is broken by changes in style. The punctuation in the poem makes the reader `stop´ at certain verses because a comma appears at the middle of some of them (i.e. lines 13-14) slicing a whole utterance. In other cases, we may lose our breath getting tangled up with long, non-punctuated sentences (lines 7-10; lines 24-28). As it has been mentioned before in this paper, the rhythm of the poem doesn’t have a definite pattern and travels in fits and starts, imitating the hollow men in their dazed wobbling and the swinging of the tree in line 24.
In Part V, the rhythm dramatically changes. The nursery rhyme in lines 68-71 is somehow musical and catching, breaking with the previous sections. The structured stanzas (between the idea and the reality, etc) together with the verses from the Lord’s prayer shape a liturgical tone similar to that of the (Christian) masses, in which the priest recites repetitive prayers and when he finishes the audience answers with a `summarised´ one (For Thine is the Kingdom). The last stanza is repetitive, saddening and hopeless, following the general impression of the poem.
3.2. Interpretation and discussion.
We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men. The first verses of the poem indicate a contradiction that surprises us. Hollow means “having a cavity within”, implying the idea of `emptiness´. It also has a figurative meaning, that of “lacking real value or significance”. Stuffed, however, means “filled by packing things in (to the point of overflowing)”. So now we appreciate the difference between the ideas of lack and abundance. But what do the hollow/stuffed men lack and what do they have in great quantities? If we look at line 4 (Headpiece filled with straw) we’ll notice the author highlights this part of the body as the one `stuffed´, and considering the headpiece as the representation of the mind, we’ll assume that these two verses have a symbolic, figurative meaning: the hollow men –who the speaker belongs to (We are)- are fulfilled with absurd, non-sense ideas and thoughts, causing them to be –in a contradiction in terms- empty and futile (let’s look back at the second meaning of hollow).
Leaning together (line 3) works in the text as an adjective because of the absence of the verb `to be´. `To lean´ means “to incline or bend from a vertical position”. This indicates submission or even surrender (Alas!, line 4, expressing unhappiness and pity), and it might also mean that the hollow men are praying in their knees. This idea is supported by the followng description of their voices: Our dried voices, when we whisper together are quiet and meaningless. Their voices are not dry but dried, connoting that they’ve been dried by something or someone, but what or who? That’s something we still ignore. When the hollow men in their leaning –praying- whisper together, in group, their voices have no sense, they don’t even exist –another contradiction, can a voice be quiet?-, they’re hollow, like the men themselves. In lines 8-10 the voices are compared with wind in dry grass or rat’s feet over broken glass in our dry cellar. In both cases, we could argue that wind `doesn’t affect´ dry grass –if it were humid, the wind would dry it anyway- and rat’s feet `aren`t affected´ by broken glass, because of their size. What’s more, a cellar –a basement- is supposed to possess humidity, but it is dry, like the grass and the voices. This comparison greatly accentuates the `meaninglessness´ of the voices, which is, by generalisation, applicable to the men as well.
The next stanza is configured by two verses. The first one is Shape without form, shade without color. What may it mean? At first glance, we could say that, for instance, shape and form are synonyms and shape without form is another contradiction that confirms the previous ideas about the poem. But the truth is that they’ve got a slight difference in meaning: a shape is the visible, external form of something, whereas a form is the shape and structure of something as distinguished form its material or content. So, we’re dealing with an element that can be distinguished by its external configuration but not by its inside. Shade without color has a similar meaning. A shade is a partial darkness caused when something covers the light, but it’s without color, that is, it doesn’t cause any visual sensation, it cannot be perceived. The whole verse gives us the idea of vanity and futility, as things can only be perceived indirectly through their external appearance. The second verse in this stanza is Paralyzed force, gesture without motion. Now we’re not in front of a fact of perception, but of movement. It’s supposed that a force is a mobile energy or power, but here it’s paralyzed, and a gesture, which can be static or not, is obvously motionless. This verses emphasises the concept of paralysis and stasis: everything is hollow and the situation won’t change. Furthermore, if we take into account both verses together, we obtain the image of a `dead corpse´: it’s just something material, static, completely soul-lacking and absent of life.
The last stanza makes reference to people apart from the hollow men (Those who have crossed with direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom remember us). In this sentence, the use of the present perfect instead of the present simple used so far gives us the idea of a past action recent in time, or even a remote action with a present consequence. It’s said that they’ve crossed –indicating movement- with direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom. Direct eyes do not hesitate, move or close, they’re always staring at the same point without blinking. Death’s other kingdom implies the existence of another reality belonging to death. So those either knew where they were going or they have simply not crossed to the beyond itself on their own, it seems that they’ve had some kind of guidance to one of its `parallel worlds´; they’ve been led. Those have a strong connection with us (the hollow men), as they remember them, they knew who they were, but if at all (line 16) -without necessity or just as a simple anecdote- the hollow, stuffed men are remebered by those as such, and not as lost, violent souls. The hollow men might be lost and violent, like Mister Kurtz or Guy Fawkes, but they’re remembered as non-lost, pacific, hollow, stuffed creatures.
Part I brings the title and theme into a critical relationship. We’re like the `Old Guy´, effigies filled with straw. The first stanza –as well as Part V- indicates a church service and the ritual service throughout. The erstwhile worshippers disappear in a blur of shape, shade and gesture to which normality is attached. Then the crucial orientation is developed, towards death’s other kingdom. We know that we’re in a kingdom of death, not as violent souls but as empty effigies of this religious service.
The first stanza quickly mentions one of the most important symbols in the poem: the Eyes. In line 19, they function as a direct object and appear at the beginning of the verse. This symbol remains completely disembodied, it’s an element of its own and doesn’t belong to any being. However, through repetition and poetic diction we could say that the speaker (I) is referring to the direct eyes in line 14. What we appreciate is that the eyes are a source of fear, accentuated by the fact that the `hollow man´ who is speaking dares not meet them in dreams, so that they produce in him a sensation of horror. And why are the eyes so terrible? Maybe because they have witnessed the secret path –the path to death’s other kingdom, a track full of horror and despair. Fortunately, the eyes –those eyes- (mentioned with the deictic These) are not in death’s dream kingdom. Now other has been substituted by dream, meaning that the kingdom where the action takes place is not entirely real, but surreal, and it can only be perceived or imagined through a different stage of conciousness. What we can guess is that that kingdom is distant to the speaker, since it’s mentioned with the deictic There. Thanks to the metaphor in verses 22-23 (There, the eyes are sunlight on a broken column) we find out that the eyes do indeed appear, but in an indirect way, just as a reflection of themselves. What’s more, the sunlight –a symbol of greatness- and the broken column –a symbol of ancient glory- seem to have a connection with the description of the voices’ meaninglessness in Part I. The sunlight doesn’t produce an effect on the broken column, it just bounces off it, it’s a paralyzed force. The adjective broken even emphasises the distortion of the reflected light.
In line 24 there is another element of death’s dream kingdom (There, is a tree swinging). What catches our attention is that a tree doesn’t swing, it could sway at the most. But why swinging? The verb means to “move freely to and fro when hanging from a support”. Now it makes sense if we link it to the new metaphor about the voices (lines 25-28): And voices are in the wind’s singing more distant and more solemn than a fading star. The wind’s singing -its movements- is like the tree’s swinging, they don’t have a particular direction, they’re meaningless. Furthermore, if the voices are whispers and are distant within the wind’s singing, they become unfortunately inaudible. And not only that, they’re more distant and more solemn than a fading star. Something solemn is serious and has an established form or ceremony, whereas a fading star is a decaying, dying element, because the light it produces is weak and stars are so far away that their light is the only thing we can perceive from them. Therefore, in death’s dream kingdom the voices –like the tree- are even more meaningless and quieter than they were before, and what’s worse, they’re barely inaudible, meaning that the hollow men’s prayers are unuseful -even unnecessary- in that place.
The next stanza shows us a desire (Let me be no nearer) of the speaker, who is not addressing to anyone in particular, but expressing the deepest will of his soul –he knows that death’s dream kingdom is approaching, and doesn’t want to come any closer (no nearer), because he’s afraid of meeting the eyes (not that final meeting in the twilight kingdom, line 37). Here is another description of the place, now it is twilight itself, because that word is not an adjective as it appears in the verse, but a noun. The relationship between twilight and fading star is obvious: they represent a gradual reduction of light. Not only is the kingdom surreal, but decadent and darkening as well.
Verses 31-32 describe another desire (Let me also wear such deliberate disguises). Also indicates either that the speaker is wearing other clothes apart from the ones below (line 33) or that pleads for wearing them in addition to being no nearer (line 29). Deliberate proves that those clothes have been chosen in an intentional, wilful way, being aware of their nature, as if the `hollow man´ were preparing his clothes for a special journey, as if he knew that the Darkness is near. However, they are disguises, making us understand that he wants to go unnoticed so that the eyes don’t recognise him. And which are those clothes? Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves. What we obtain is the image of a `scarecrow´ that, together with the animal furs it’s dressed up with –a rat and a crow, symbolising the plague and the death- gives off an obscure, grotesque image of itself. The Hollow Men are compared with scarecrows –immobile, soul-lacking puppets filled with straw, human only in appearance. The complement In a field (line 34) adds solitude to the utterance. Besides, the speaker wants to be like the wind (behaving as the wind behaves, no nearer-, lines 35-36), that is, moving to and fro, going ahead and back –swinging, like the tree- so that he can’t get any closer to death’s dream kingdom.
In this section of the poem we’ve seen a progress from flickering to darkness, from evening sun to dusk, from false greatness to decay, from illness to death: `indirectness´ of the light (line 23), fading (line 28) and partial obscurity (line 38). Is death’s other/dream kingdom approaching? We’ll try and answer that later on. We’ve also depicted an expression of fear towards the eyes and a sensation of distance, paralysis and worthlessness due to the description of the voices, the tree and the scarecrow.
Part II defines the hollow men in relation to the reality that the direct eyes have met. Luckily, they are only reflected through broken lights and shadows, all is perceived indirectly. From this point of view, the speaker could not be any nearer, any more direct, in that twilight kingdom. Anyway, he fears the ultimate vision (line 37).
In Parts III and IV, the poetic persona is in death’s other kingdom and speaks from there, or at least he’s had some kind of revelation. From now on, it won’t be There anymore, but Here (lines 41 and 42). At the beginning of the stanza there’s a description of the place from a perspective of proximity: This is the dead land, this is the cactus land. In this pair of verses, as in the first couple in Part I, the speaker offers a specification of the element described –he doesn’t say a dead land or a cactus land, but uses the to refer to them, so we’re not dealing with whatever arid land, but with the dead and cactus land par excellence. The author uses cactus as an adjective, making the land desert-like, desolate and dry –like the voices and the grass in Part I. It is, of course, lacking in life, like the ever standing stone images (line 41). These images, that we could consider as statues representing the divine reality on earth, are raised –we ignore who’s raised them, as we ignore who dried the hollow men’s voices (line 5)- and are somehow personified as living altars for dead people (here they receive the supplication of a dead man’s hand, lines 42-43). The whole sentence has a powerful meaning, symbolising the absence of hope and the worthlessness of the supplication due to the nature of the pleading corpse that, here, represents a lost, violent soul. Moreover, the dead man’s hand, which is the real imploring element, is disembodied like the eyes and the voices, they all seem to act completely on their own.
The hopeless description above is framed by the last verse (Under the twinkle of a fading star), which inescapably underlies the nursery rhyme “twinkle twinkle little star”. This childlike connotation will be better explained in Part V.
The fading star appears again, but now not as one of the terms in a comparison, but as a visible element in the landscape. Twinkle means “a flickering light” and is related to twilight, but it can also be applied to a person’s eyes. Under the twinkle puts us in a situation of inferiority, as if we were being `spied´ by some supernatural force –maybe the star, maybe the eyes, maybe God.
The next stanza opens with a `rhetorical utterance´ as if the speaker were contemplating the landscape and could not assimilate so much desolation (Is it like this in death’s other kingdom). Verses 47-49 tell us again that the hollow men gather altogether but they’re detached from one another (alone), however, a striking feature suddenly appears: when we are trembling with tenderness. The hollow men are frightened and feel cold (trembling). Even so, this action is performed with tenderness, introducing a new element of fondness and affection that did not exist so far. This is the first appearance of the hollow men’s emotions, as if the desolation of the landscape had aroused certain sensibility inside them. This feeling is better explained in the next verses (Lips that would kiss form prayers to broken stone). The Lips are disembodied, following the pattern of the poem, and it’s said that they’d even kiss –love- inanimate, earthly items like prayers or stones. These verses represent a moan, a need of giving love, a desire which cannot be acomplished because of the physical and spiritual devastation of the place. It is, in fact, another paralyzed force.
Part III defines the representation of death’s kingdom in relationship to the worship of the hollow men. A dead, arid land, like its people, raises earthly images of the divine, which are implored by the dead. The image of frustrated love is a moment of anguished illumination suspended in death’s other kingdom. Furthermore, the broken stone unites the stone images and the broken column, which bent the sunlight and, by generalisation, reality.
In this section, the absence of the eyes is repeated and highlighted by the first two verses (The eyes are not here, there are no eyes here). The hollow men are still in death’s other kingdom (here) and not only do they assume that the direct eyes do not appear (The eyes are not), but they’ve also found out that any kind of eyes exist in this place (There are no eyes), not even theirs, or anyone else’s. In this moment, they’re blind and cannot perceive the surrounding su-reality (Sightless, line 61).
Verses 54-56 add more dramatism to the place, this time depicting it as a valley of dying stars. This valley –which implies the existence of mountains or a river (tumid river, line 60)- possesses dying stars. The fading star has now become dying, indicating the progression towards darkness, disappearance and death. The valley, how not, is hollow like the men, and it is also described as the broken jaw of our lost kingdoms. From a literal vision of the verse, we could say that broken jaw is related to the men’s inability to speak, but it has a figurative sense: it is like the black sheep of the universe, the most scornful place anybody has ever set a foot on. Our lost kingdoms emphasises its remoteness, as if it were a land that cannot be easily discovered and explored.
The end is nigh, and this kingdom will become this last of meeting places (line 57), meaning that the hollow men have met in different places, but this one, without any doubt, will be where they will eventually have to say goodbye to each other. The next verse explains the hollow men’s blindness and silence (We grope together and avoid speech). Grope means “to search blindly with the hands”, but it also has a sexual connotation: “to fondle for sexual pleasure”. The first definition is clear within the meaning of the text, but the second one is harder to explain. Maybe they’ve realised they won’t be together anymore and decide not to talk and let their instincts flourish, but perhaps this is going too far. The eroticism of the image is also manifest with the appearance of the beach of the tumid river (line 60). On one hand, the river’s volume has increased and it might overflow at any moment, like in an explosion of sexual impulse. On the other hand, the river, in relation to verses 13-14, might symbolise the one that wandering souls must cross to reach the beyond, accompanied by Acheron, the boatman in classical mythology. In any case, the hollow men are doomed.
Later on, a terrifying element transforms into the only source of their salvation (Sightless, unless the eyes reappear as the perpetual star, multifoliate rose of death’s twilight kingdom). It doesn’t say, for instance, reappear as the `fading/dying star´ or `sunlight on a broken column´, but as the perpetual star, multifoliate rose. We may also say that the eyes could be Acheron’s, meaning that depending on their appearance, they will be a guide either to paradise or to hell. Anyway, here we understand perpetual as `eternal, ever shining´ and the multifoliate rose as life, freshness and youth. So the hollow men wish the eyes to return as something alive and creative, not frightening or deceasing, but we already know that this desire will not bear fruit.
The last verses of this section (The hope only of empty men) make us wonder: are the eyes their only hope, or is the salvation they bring only applicable to the hollow men? The truth is that the sentence is rather ambiguous. Both could be thought as correct. And not only that, the men become empty, gaining a much more literal significance –they’ve lost the straw fulfilling them, now their hollowness is complete.
Part IV explores the loving impulse in Part III in relation to the land, which now darkens progressively as the valley of the shadow of death. Now there are not even hints of the eyes, not even the hollow men’s, and they are without any vision, unless the eyes come back as a source of life. But for them, this is only a futile hope.
As it had been said before in this paper, the last section of The Hollow Men opens with a nursery rhyme substituting the `mulberry bush´ by the `prickly pear´. This element alludes to the cactus (land), summarising all the features of death’s other/dream/twilight kingdom: dryness, aridity, solitude, repulsion and immobility. The hollow men go ‘round it at five o’clock in the morning. This circular movement depictes an image of children dancing hand-in-hand and singing like in a traditional, ritual game. The time when this happens, when nightime and darkness dissipate and the sun begins to shine, also has an outstanding significance. That is the time of resurrection, of returning to life, of hope for the empty men. However, all the elements explained seem to mock the hollow men’s situation, as if the children’s song did not have to welcome the sunlight, but to scare it away and bring obscurity again. This ritual of `interruption of life´ is developed within the remaining verses of Part V.
The Shadow (darkness, fear, nothingness) falls in the very middle of pairs of (abstract) concepts (each one of them with a defining the) which represent `prospect´ and `fulfillment´, interrupting creation at all levels. In the second stanza, it breaks the `bridge´ between the conceptual world and the referential world (idea/reality) and stops a change of posture (motion/act). In verses 78-81 it interrupts fertilisation and physiological processes (conception/creation); (emotion/response). In lines 84-89 disconnects voluntary and reflex actions (desire/spasm), what “is” and what “could actually be” (potency/existence) and finally destroys the link between the past and the present, the Beginning and the End, the `alpha´ and the `omega´ (essence/descent). The Shadow becomes the God of anti-creation, it stops time and aims for an eternity of hollow abstraction and nothingness. Now it has been demostrated the objective of the hollow men’s ritual: if they cannot avoid their tragic destiny, nothing in death’s other kingdom will do.
In addition to that, the sentences from the Lord’s prayer now get a new meaning: are the prayers addressing to God? Or to the Shadow? If we compare the prayer `Thy Kingdom come´ to verse 29 (Let me be no nearer), then Part V and the whole poem shape some sort of `Anti-Lord’s prayer´, because its goal is just the other way round. Line 83 (Life is very long) is a complaint that justifies this ritual, liturgical event. Perhaps the most appropriate thing to say would be `life is too long´ and it should be cut off right now. The truncated utterances (92-94) are probably the elements which best exemplify the advent of the Shadow, meaning that the act of speech has already been interrupted.
The last stanza, describing the incoming Apocalypse, is completed by an ironic excuse with a negation at the beginning (Not with a bang but a whimper). The destiny of humankind is not to disappear in a grand, spectacular way, but in a pathetic, humiliating manner full of sorrow.
But the most devastating irony is formal: the extension of game ritual in liturgical form.
The Hollow Men portrays a poetic conciousness in which intense nostalgia for a state of heavenly purity conflicts with the paradoxical search for a long-lasting form of order through acts of denial and alienation. 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.
The Hollow Men is an episodic free verse poem. Eliot constructs a desolate world, death’s dream kingdom, to explore humankind’s evasion from spiritual intention. The focus of the poem is on the hollow men’s inability to interact with each other and with the trascendental spirituality that is their only hope. The form and range of techniques employed by the poet foreground this predicament and highlight its broad aplicability. The title of the poem draws our attention to the importance of the collective personae. The hollow men represent all humankind, and their tragic existence –the poem suggests- concerns us all.
The poem’s despair and disillusionment are no illustration of weakness; they are perfectly objective, because they are essential moments in the progress of the soul, as in the progress of traditional Christian mystic. Principles of intellectual order control the despair of The Hollow Men as well, in the way the text conciously evaluates experience in abstract terms, distinguishes between antithetical states of being and establishes, both in form and subject matter, the archetype of the Negative Way as an alternative to disorder as well as to the illusory order of visionary experience.
The formal strategy of The Hollow Men, like its thematic content, seems designed to demonstrate how effectively the Shadow of the inarticulate falls between the conception and the creation of an artistic work. Formal aspects of the poem imitate the characteristics of the hollow men it portrays. For example, their desire to avoid speech finds a counterpart in the poem’s paucity of utterance: the technique of constant repetition and negation manages to employ only about 180 different words in a work 420 words long. The Paralyzed force, gesture without motion applies not only to the men themselves but also to the poem as a whole, which exhibits little narrative progression in the conventional sense and avoids verbs of direct action.
As the hollow men grope together and whisper meaninglessly, so the poem itself gropes toward a conclusion only to end in hollow abstraction, broken prayer and the meaningless circularity of a children’s rhyme. The conscious reduction of poetic expression to a bare minimum does away with metaphor and simile and produces a final section of the poem almost completely devoid of modifiers. The poem avoids capitulation to the silence of the inarticulate by relying on a highly structured syntax that tends to order experience in terms of binary opposition: Shape without form, shade without color or Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act. The quality of a poetic style marked by verbal austerity and relentless negation forms a structural counterpart to a thematic strategy that repudiates the validity of human experience at every level. In modern existential terms as well as those of traditional Christianity, the Negative Way leads ultimately to an encounter with the nothingness which, paradoxically, can inspire the individual with faith in God.
The central images of the poem are death’s kingdoms and the eyes. The first mention of the eyes serves to foreground the lack of direction of the hollow men. Those who have crossed... to death’s other kingdom do so with direct eyes –the very guidance which the hollow men refuse to acknowledge. In their land, The eyes are not here, yet their hope rests on the prospect of these shy eyes reappearing as the perpetual star, multifoliate rose. The star is another recurrent symbol which draws attention to the plight of the hollow men. Their landscape is one of fading stars which twinkle barely enough to illuminate the image of a dead man’s hand. We are given the impression that soon their landscape will silently descend into darkness. The images of this landscape construct the hollow men as being resigned to a state of suspension, paralysed by their own inability to turn conception into creation, emotion into response; spiritual redemption into their only hope. The poem privileges these supernatural symbols –eyes, stars, death’s kingdoms- over the natural. The hollow men are sightless, colourless, immobile and barely able to speak, while at the same time divine images linger in the landscape. The effect is to highlight a man as a finite creature distinct from the trascendental. The deliberate disguises that man makes for himself fail to hide the ultimate truth about our tragic existence.
The Hollow Men explores this boundary situation in its images of finality or extremity and in a thematic structure comprising two different states of being. The poem’s speaker anticipates with dread that final meeting; the men grope together in this last of meeting places; the final section, in its generalised abstraction of all that has gone before, tells us that This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. Our condition as human beings is doomed, our fate is unfortunately tragic, but the only guilties will be us if we cannot prevent ourselves from being the hollow men, the stuffed men.
· T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
· Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Harvard University Press, 1965.
· Conflicts in Conciousness: T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
· The Savage and the City in the Work of T.S. Eliot. Clarendon Press, 1987.
· Williamson, George. A Reader’s Guide to T.S. Eliot: A Poem by Poem Analysis. New York: Octagon Books, 1979.