The Hollow Men

‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) is a poem by T.S. Eliot that explores themes of religious confusion, despair, and the state of the world in disarray following the First World War. These are common themes in Eliot’s other works, including ‘The Waste Land’ (1922). With ‘The Hollow Men,’ Eliot wrote some of the most quoted lines in poetry: ‘This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper’ (97-98).

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Table of contents

    ‘The Hollow Men’: Summary

    Shorter than some of Eliot’s other poems like ‘The Waste Land’ and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ ‘The Hollow Men’ is still quite long at 98 lines. The poem is divided into five separate, unnamed sections.

    The Hollow Men: Part I

    In this first section, the speaker describes the plight of the titular ‘hollow men.’ He speaks for this group of people who are empty, lacking substance, and spiritless. He describes them as "the stuffed men" (18), likening them to scarecrows, filled with straw. This is a seeming contradiction with the idea that the men of the poem are both 'hollow' and 'stuffed,' Eliot begins the allusion to the spiritual decay of these men, stuffed with meaningless straw. The men try to speak but even what they say is dry and meaningless.

    The Hollow Men, Scarecrow with bags, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The speaker likens hollow men to scarecrows.

    The Hollow Men: Part II

    Here, the speaker extrapolates upon the fears of the hollow men. He dreams of eyes but cannot meet them with his own, and in ‘death’s dream kingdom’ (20), a reference to heaven, the eyes shine upon a broken column. The speaker does not want to get any closer to heaven and would disguise himself fully as a scarecrow to avoid that fate. The section ends with the speaker reiterating his fear of “that final meeting/In the twilight kingdom” (37-38)

    The Hollow Men: Part III

    In the third section, the speaker describes the world he and his fellow hollow men inhabit. He calls this land they inhabit “dead” (39) and implies that death is their ruler. He questions if the conditions are the same “In death’s other kingdom” (46), if the people there are also filled with love but unable to express it. Their only hope is to pray to broken stones.

    The Hollow Men: Part IV

    The speaker explains that this place was once a magnificent kingdom; now it is an empty, dry valley. The speaker notes that the eyes do not exist here. The hollow men gather at the shores of an overflowing river, unspeaking as there is nothing more to say. The hollow men themselves are all blind, and their only hope for salvation is in the multi-petaled rose (a reference to heaven as portrayed in Dante’s Paradiso).

    The Hollow Men, Barren valley, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The prosperous kingdom has given way to a dry, lifeless valley.

    The Hollow Men: Part V

    The final section has a slightly different poetic form; it follows the structures of a song. The hollow men sing a version of Here we go ‘round the Mulberry bush, a nursery rhyme. Rather than Mulberry bush, the hollow men go around the prickly pear, a type of cactus. The speaker goes on to say that the hollow men have tried to take action, but they are blocked from turning ideas into actions because of the Shadow. He then quotes the Lord’s prayer. The speaker continues in the next two stanzas describing how the Shadow stops things from being created and desires from being fulfilled.

    The penultimate stanza is three incomplete lines, fragmentary sentences that echo the previous stanzas. The speaker then ends with four lines that have become some of the most famous lines in poetic history. “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper” (97-98). This recalls the rhythm and the structure of the earlier nursery rhyme. Eliot posits a bleak, anticlimactic end to the world—we won’t go out with a blaze of glory, but with a dull, pathetic whimper.

    When you read those final lines, what does it make you think of? Do you agree with Eliot's view of the end of the world?

    Themes in ‘The Hollow Men’

    Eliot expounds upon what he sees as the moral decay of society and the fragmentation of the world throughout ‘The Hollow Men’ through themes of faithlessness and societal emptiness.

    The Hollow Men: Faithlessness

    ‘The Hollow Men’ was written two years prior to Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism. It is clear throughout the poem that Eliot perceived an overall lack of faith in society. The hollow men of Eliot’s poem have lost their faith, and pray blindly to broken stones. These broken stones represent false gods. By praying to something false and untrue rather than practicing a proper faith, the hollow men aid their own decline. They strayed from the true faith and as a result, found themselves in this never-ending wasteland, shadows of their former selves. The “Multifoliate rose” (64) is an allusion to heaven as portrayed in Dante’s Paradiso. The hollow men cannot save themselves and must wait on salvation from heavenly creatures, which does not appear to be coming.

    In the final section of the poem, Eliot pens multiple allusions to prayer and the Bible. “For Thine is the Kingdom” (77) is a fragment of a speech given by Christ in the Bible and is also part of the Lord’s Prayer. In the penultimate three-line stanza, the speaker attempts to repeat the phrase again, but cannot say it completely. There is something blocking the speaker from speaking these holy words. Perhaps it is the Shadow, mentioned throughout this section, that similarly blocks the speaker from speaking words of prayer. As a result, the speaker laments that the world ends with a whimper, not a bang. The hollow men long for the restoration of their faith but it seems impossible; they stop trying, and the world ends in a pathetic, dissatisfying fashion. Their society decayed to the point where they became faithless, they worshipped false gods and put the material over the holy. The broken stones and the fading stars are representative of the lowly place to which the hollow men's society has sunk.

    The Hollow Men, Painting of Christ, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The poem is largely concerned with a lack of faith and society's turning away from God.

    Another religious tradition is referenced in the poem as well. Toward the end of the poem, the hollow men stand on the banks of the "tumid river" (60), tumid meaning overflowing. They stand at the banks but are unable to cross "unless/the eyes reappear" (61-62). The river is a reference to the River Styx in Greek mythology. It was the place that separates the realm of the living from the dead. In Greek tradition, people must trade a penny to get across the river and pass peacefully into the underworld. In the epigraph, the "penny for the Old Guy" is a reference as well to this transaction, wherein the penny refers to the sum of a person's soul and spiritual character. The hollow men cannot cross the river because they do not have any pennies, their spiritual selves are so decayed that there is nothing that they can use to cross into the afterlife.

    In section V of the poem, Eliot makes use of direct quotations from the Bible. They appear in a different format than the regular lines of the poem. Italicized and shifted to the right, "Life is very long" (83) and "For Thine is the Kingdom" (91) come directly from the Bible. They read like a second speaker has entered the poem, saying these lines to the original speaker. They are fragments of full Bible verses, mimicking the fragmentation of society and the thoughts of the hollow men as they lose their sanity in the wasteland. The following lines show the hollow men trying to repeat the Bible verses, but they cannot repeat the lines in full— "For Thine is/Life is/For Thine is the" (92-94). The second speaker tells the hollow men that this purgatorial wasteland into which they have brought themselves is now their kingdom to rule.

    As explored further in the symbolism section, the hollow men are unable to gaze directly into another's eyes. They keep their gazes averted, out of shame as it is their own actions that have led them to this hollow wasteland. They forsook their faith, and though they are aware of the heavenly afterlife—the presence of "sunlight" (23), the "tree swinging" (24), and the "voices../..singing" (25-26)—they refuse to meet one another's eyes and acknowledge the sins they've committed.

    The Hollow Men: Societal emptiness

    Eliot establishes from the beginning of the poem the central metaphor of the hollow men themselves. While not physically hollow, the hollow men are a stand-in for the spiritual emptiness and overall decay of modern European society. Published a few years after the First World War, 'The Hollow Men' explores Eliot's disillusionment with a society capable of extreme brutality and violence that immediately tries to go back to normal life. Eliot was in Europe during the War and was deeply affected. In the aftermath of World War I, he perceived Western society as hollow following the atrocities of the war.

    The hollow men of his poem live in a desolate environment as dry and barren as they are. Like the actual terrain of Europe that was destroyed by the war, the environment of the hollow men is desolate and destroyed. Covered in "dry glass" (8) and "broken glass," (9) it is a harsh terrain hostile to any life. The land is "dead" (39) the valley is "hollow" (55). The barrenness and decay of this land is replicated in the mentalities and spirits of the people who inhabit it, both the Europeans and the 'hollow men.'

    The hollow men are empty and anything they manage to say is meaningless. Eliot likens this to the emptiness of European society and people’s lack of agency. What can a person do in the face of complete devastation and countless deaths? They were unable to stop it during the war, just like the Shadow stops the hollow men from turning any ideas into action or seeing any desires fulfilled.

    The “broken column” (23) is a symbol of the cultural decline post-World War I, as columns were symbols of high Greek culture and Western Civilization. The hollow men are unable to engage with another or the world. Their actions are meaningless, as is anything they have to say with their "dried voices" (5). All they can do is wander the desolate wasteland of their making, unable to take action—positive or negative—against their fate.

    The Hollow Men,Crumbling Greek columns, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The broken column symbolizes society's deterioration after the war.

    At the beginning of the poem, Eliot oxymoronically describes how the hollow men are "the stuffed men" (2) with heads full of straw. This seeming paradox points to them being both spiritually hollow as well as stuffed with meaningless substance; rather than filled with vital blood and organs they are filled with straw, a worthless material. Much like society, which gilds itself with glamor and technologies to appear full and meaningful, at the end of the day it is as hollow and spiritually empty as the hollow men of the poem.

    Symbols in 'The Hollow Men'

    Eliot utilizes many symbols throughout the poem to illustrate the strange world and miserable plight of the hollow men.

    The Hollow Men: Eyes

    One symbol that appears throughout the poem is that of eyes. In the first section, Eliot draws a distinction between those with “direct eyes” (14) and the hollow men. Those who had “direct eyes” were able to pass into “death’s other Kingdom” (14), meaning heaven. These were people who are cited as a contrast to the hollow men, like the speaker, who is unable to meet others’ eyes, like in his dream.

    Furthermore, the hollow men are described as “sightless” (61). The eyes symbolize judgment. If the hollow men were to look into the eyes of those in death’s other kingdom, they would be judged for their actions in life—a prospect none of them is willing to undergo. Conversely, those with “direct eyes” who entered the kingdom had no fear of what truth or judgment the eyes would pass upon them.

    The Hollow Men: Stars

    Stars are used throughout the poem to symbolize redemption. The speaker refers twice to the “fading star” (28, 44) far away from the hollow men. This shows that there is little hope for redemption left in their lives. Furthermore, in the fourth section, the idea of the “perpetual star” (63) is presented in tandem with the “Multifoliate rose” (64) representative of heaven. The only hope the hollow men have for redemption in their lives is in the perpetual star that could restore their sight and fill their empty lives.

    The Hollow Men: Crossed staves

    Another symbol in the poem comes in line 33, of the "crossed staves" worn by the hollow men. This references again, the two crossed pieces of wood that would prop up both a scarecrow and an effigy such as a Guy Fawkes made of straw. Yet at the same time, there is deliberate reference to the Crucifix Jesus hung upon. Eliot draws direct lines from Jesus's sacrifice to the degradation of these men who have squandered his gift.

    Metaphor in 'The Hollow Men'

    The title of the poem refers to the central metaphor of the poem. The ‘hollow men’ refers to the societal decay and moral emptiness of Europe post-World War I. While people are not literally hollow on the inside, they are spiritually bereft and plagued by the trauma of the War. Eliot further describes them as scarecrows with “Headpiece filled with straw” (4). The hollow men of Eliot’s poem represent the people living amongst a barren landscape following the devastation of the War with no end to their listless existence in sight and no salvation in death.

    Allusion in 'The Hollow Men'

    Eliot makes multiple allusions to works by Dante throughout his poem. The aforementioned “Multifoliate rose” (64) is an allusion to Dante’s representation of heaven in Paradiso as a rose with multiple petals. The “tumid river” (60) upon the banks of which the hollow men gather is generally believed to be the River Acheron from Dante’s Inferno, the river that borders hell. It is also allusory to the River Styx, the river from Greek mythology that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead.

    The Hollow Men, Red rose with dew drops, StudySmarterFig. 5 - The multi-petaled rose is a symbol of hope and redemption.

    The epigraph of the poem also contains allusions; it reads as follows:

    “Mistah Kurtz-he dead

    A penny for the Old Guy” (i-ii)

    The first line of the epigraph is a quotation from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness (1899). The main character of Heart of Darkness, a story of the ivory trade and colonization of the Congo by Belgian traders, is named Kurtz and is described in the novel as ‘hollow to the core.’ This could be a direct reference to the hollow men of the poem.

    The second line of the epigraph refers to the British festivities of Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated on the 5th of November. As part of the festivities remembering Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the English parliament in 1605, children ask adults ‘a penny for the Guy?’ in order to collect money to buy straw to create effigies that will, in turn, be lit on fire. Eliot alludes to Guy Fawkes Night and the burning of straw men not just in the epigraph, but throughout the poem. The hollow men are described as having heads full of straw and likened to scarecrows.

    An epigraph is a short quotation or inscription at the beginning of a piece of literature or work of art that is intended to encapsulate the theme.

    The Hollow Men - Key takeaways

    • ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) is a 98-line poem written by American poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). Eliot was a poet, playwright and essayist.
    • He is one of the most influential poets of the 20th century thanks to his poems such as ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘The Waste Land’ (1922).
    • Eliot was a Modernist poet; his poetry included fragmentary, disjointed narratives and an emphasis on sight and visual qualities and the experience of the poet.
    • ‘The Hollow Men’ is a five-part poem that reflects Eliot’s disillusionment with European society post-World War I.
    • Eliot perceived society as in a state of decay and spiritual vacancy which he reflects throughout the poem using symbolism, metaphor, and allusion.
    • The overall themes of the poem are lack of faith and the emptiness of society.
    • The central metaphor of the poem likens the people of post-World War I as hollow, they are empty and listless in a barren world.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Hollow Men

    What is the main idea of ‘The Hollow Men?’    

    Eliot makes a commentary on the state of his society throughout the poem. The hollow men are representatives of the men of his generation following World War I. Eliot perceived an increasing moral emptiness and societal decay following the atrocities of the First World War, and 'The Hollow Men' is his way of addressing this in poetic form.

    Where do ‘The Hollow Men’ exist?

    The hollow men of the poem exist in a kind of purgatory. They cannot enter heaven and they are not alive on Earth. They remain at the banks of a river likened to the river Styx or Archeron, they are in an in-between space between the living and the dead.

    Is there hope in ‘The Hollow Men?’    

    There is slight hope in 'The Hollow Men.' The ultimate plight of the hollow men seems hopeless, but there is still the possibility of the multifoliate rose and the fading star—the star is fading, but it is still visible.

    What does having a head filled with straw imply about ‘The Hollow Men?’

    By saying that they have heads full of straw, Eliot is implying that they are like scarecrows. They are not real people, but poor facsimiles of humanity. Straw is a worthless material, and the thoughts that fill the hollow men's heads are similarly worthless.

    What do ‘The Hollow Men’ symbolize?

    In the poem, the hollow men are a metaphor for society. While people are not physically empty, they are spiritually and morally empty. After the destruction and death of World War I, people just move through the world in a listless and meaningless existence. 

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