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 recognised to be concerned most with post-World War I Europe under the Treaty of Versailles (which Eliot despised: compare "Gerontion"), the difficulty of hope and religious conversion, and, as some critics argue, Eliot's own failed marriage (Vivienne Eliot might have been having an affair with Bertrand Russell). The poem is divided into five parts and consists of 98 lines.
Eliot wrote that he produced the title "The Hollow Men" by combining the titles of the romance "The Hollow Land" by William Morris with the poem "The Broken Men" by Rudyard Kipling: but it is possible that this is one of Eliot's many constructed allusions, and that the title originates more transparently from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar or from the character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness who is referred to as a "hollow sham" and "hollow at the core".
The two epigraphs to the poem, "Mistah Kurtz – he dead" and "A penny for the Old Guy", are allusions to Conrad's character and to Guy Fawkes, attempted arsonist of the English house of Parliament, and his straw-man effigy that is burned each year in the United Kingdom on Guy Fawkes Night.
Some critics read the poem as told from three perspectives, each representing a phase of the passing of a soul into one of death's kingdoms ("death's dream kingdom", "death's twilight kingdom", and "death's other kingdom"). Eliot describes how we, the living, will be seen by "Those who have crossed/With direct eyes [...] not as lost/Violent souls, but only/As the hollow men/The stuffed men." The image of eyes figures prominently in the poem, notably in one of Eliot's most famous lines "Eyes I dare not meet in dreams". Such eyes are also generally accepted to be in reference to Dante's Beatrice (see below).
The poet depicts figures "Gathered on this beach of the tumid river" – drawing considerable influence from Dante's third and fourth cantos of the Inferno which describes Limbo, the first circle of Hell – showing man in his inability to cross into Hell itself or to even beg redemption, unable to speak with God. Dancing "round the prickly pear," the figures worship false gods, recalling children and reflecting Eliot's interpretation of Western culture after World War I.
The final stanza may be the most quoted of all of Eliot's poetry;
- 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.
This last line alludes to, amongst some talk of war, the actual end of the Gunpowder Plot mentioned at the beginning: not with its planned bang, but with Guy Fawkes's whimper, as he was caught, tortured and executed on the gallows.
Perhaps most revealing, though, is that when asked if he would write these lines again, Eliot responded with a 'no':
One reason is that while the association of the H-bomb is irrelevant to it, it would today come to everyone's mind. Another is that he is not sure the world will end with either. People whose houses were bombed have told him they don't remember hearing anything.
Critical reception and Eliot's career
Allen Tate, reviewing Eliot’s new volume in 1926, perceived a shift in Eliot’s method and noted that, ‘'The mythologies disappear altogether in The Hollow Men’ – a striking claim for a poem as indebted to Dante as anything else in Eliot’s early work, to say little of the modern English mythology – the ‘Old Guy [Fawkes]’ of the Gunpowder Plot – or the colonial and agrarian mythos of Conrad and Frazer, which, at least for reasons of textual history, echoes The Waste Land. The ‘continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity’ that is so characteristic of his mythical method remains in fine form.
Yet Tate is right to point that the practice of this method has indeed changed. Moving away from the bathos and ironic deflation of Eliot’s earlier work, the mocking juxtapositions of Tiresias and the figure of the (sexually, spiritually) exhausted typist have disappeared, leaving the pathos of mental and spiritual exhaustion to deepen even beyond ‘What the Thunder Said’ – The Hollow Men, as Eliot once put it to Pound, was ‘post-Waste’. (This is not to say that such ironic juxtaposition does not happen at all – it does, for instance, occur in each chorus, which seems variably to be made of ‘the hollow men’ and children at play – but this, too, is used to amplify the new emphasis of the poetry.) Rather than enriching a single plane of existence – The Waste Land, for all its mythic expansions, is, like Ulysses, ultimately grounded in the life of a particular city – The Hollow Men is one of the earliest poems to seriously attempt the ‘doubleness’ of action that Eliot later called characteristic of ‘poetic drama’:
‘We sometimes feel, in following the words and behavior of some of the characters of Dostoevsky, that they are living at once on the plane we know and on some other place of reality from which we are shut out.’
If The Waste Land’s London, then, shaped by a comparison to Dante’s Limbo (‘I had not thought death had undone so many’), it remains an imaginary, ‘Unreal’ London, but a London nonetheless. The ‘doubleness’ of The Hollow Men, both London and Limbo with its ‘tumid river’ and its ‘wind’s singing’, brings the worldly and the religious into a poetry whose spiritual pregnancy seems well aligned with Eliot’s conversion soon after.
This period was, in various ways, a kind of extended ‘dark night of the soul’. He was struggling with the failure of Sweeney Agonistes – ‘...even Pound thought it might now be “too late” for him’ – and his relations to his estranged wife, Vivienne, were continuing to disintegrate; and, since critics like Edmund Wilson, reviewing Ash Wednesday in 1930, could look back on The Hollow Men as ‘the nadir of the phase of despair and desolation’, it is all too tempting to look for expressions of the biographical moment in the poem. Indeed, some, like Bernard Bergonzi, have seen elements of the ‘process poem’ in it: ‘it has the teasing fascination of an almost-erased inscription’; the failed religious conversion echoing Eliot’s failed play and, perhaps, failed marriage vows.
Eliot, of course, did convert soon after; things could only get just so bad with Vivienne; and he was, finally, able to take much from Sweeny Agonistes: Peter Ackroyd suggests that its dramatic form contributed to the clearer, simpler imagism and the ‘uncomplicated accentual meter’ of The Hollow Men. And, if many critics read The Hollow Men as the conclusion to Eliot’s Inferno– with Ash Wednesday beginning the Purgatorio – it is interesting that Ronald Bush, after a study of the textual sources, finds something of the Vita Nuova here: ‘Psychologically, the drama moves downward from resistance to submission, but spiritually it moves upward from proud isolation through humility to a thirst for divine love.’ This interpretation assumes, of course, that the eyes ‘I dare not meet in dreams’ are an echo of Dante’s Beatrice, spied but avoided because of shame across the lost Edenic waters in the Purgatorio.
The poem was first published as now known on November 23, 1925, in Eliot's Poems: 1909-1925. Eliot was known to collect poems and fragments of poems to produce new works. This is clearest to see in his poems The Hollow Men and "Ash-Wednesday" where he incorporated previously published poems to become sections of a larger work. In the case of The Hollow Men four of the five sections of the poem were previously published:
- "Poème", published in the Winter 1924 edition of Commerce (with a French translation), became Part I of The Hollow Men.
- Doris's Dream Songs in the November 1924 issue of Chapbook had the three poems: "Eyes that last I saw in tears", "The wind sprang up at four o'clock", and "This is the dead land." The third poem became Part III of The Hollow Men.
- Three Eliot poems appeared in the January 1925 issue of his Criterion magazine: "Eyes I dare not meet in dreams", "Eyes that I last saw in tears", and "The eyes are not here". The first poem became Part II of The Hollow Men and the third became Part IV.
- Additionally, the March 1925 of Dial published The Hollow Men, I-III which was finally transformed to The Hollow Men Parts I, II, and IV in Poems: 1909-1925.
(Publication information from Gallup)
Influence in culture
The Hollow Men has had a profound effect on the Anglo-American cultural lexicon and – by a relatively recent extension – world culture since it was published in 1925. References range from film (Apocalypse Now, Waking Life) to video games (Fable II, the Halo series, and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty), to Japanese literature (the novels of Haruki Murakami), to American television shows (30 Rock, Frasier, The Big Bang Theory, Northern Exposure, Dexter, Mad Men, The X-Files ["Pusher" episode], and Dollhouse ["The Hollow Men" episode]). Stephen King used a stanza to begin his novel, The Stand. Frank Turner references lines from the poem in his songs "Sons of Liberty" and "Anymore". The Acacia Strain also used a variation of a quote from the poem in their song "Nightman." The poem is the source of the title for Nevil Shute's On the Beach. The anime Highschool of the Dead uses the last two lines of the poem to end the first season's last episode. In addition, books such us "Road to Woodbury" and "Warm Bodies" make use of the famous quote.
The poem's referential variety moves some questions concerning its significance outside the traditional domain of literary criticism – where Harold Bloom, for one, often half-laments Eliot's influence – and into the much broader category of cultural studies. Here, its history has itself become a subject for study in the work of many critics and artists, including, for instance, film essayist Chris Marker.
- See, for instance, the biographically-oriented work of one of Eliot's editors and major critics, Ronald Schuchard.
- Eliot, T. S. Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (Harcourt, 1997) pp.395 ISBN 0-15-100274-6 Christopher Ricks, the editor, cited a letter dated 10 January 1935 to the Times Literary Supplement.
- 'T. S. Eliot at Seventy, and an Interview with Eliot' in Saturday Review. Henry Hewes. 13 September 1958 in Grant p. 705.
- T. S. Eliot: the Critical Heritage. Michael Grant ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
- A Guide to The Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, 6th edition, ed. B. C. Southam.
- ‘John Marston.’ Selected Essays T. S. Eliot (1934).
- T. S. Eliot: A Life. Peter Ackroyd. NYC: Simon and Schuster, 1984. p. 147.
- Article in Grant.
- T. S. Eliot. Bernard Bergonzi. London: Macmillan, 1972.
- See entry in Grant.
- T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. Ronald Bush. (1983).
- Gallup, Donald. T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition) pp. 33, 210-11 (Harcourt Brace & World 1969).
- Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence.
- Chris Marker's short film, OWLS AT NOON Prelude: The Hollow Men, is one such meditation.