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Of the three, I would choose the latter as truest testimony." - Sir Kenneth Smith, Great Civilisations

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great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again. - John Updike

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is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it." - J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

T.S. Eliot - The Hollow Men

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
   A penny for the Old Guy


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

- by T S Eliot, © -1, All rights reserved.
Editor's notes
1. Mistah Kurtz: a character in Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."
2. A...Old Guy: a cry of English children on the streets on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, when they carry straw effigies of Guy Fawkes and beg for money for fireworks to celebrate the day. Fawkes was a traitor who attempted with conspirators to blow up both houses of Parliament in 1605; the "gunpowder plot" failed.
3. Those...Kingdom: Those who have represented something positive and direct are blessed in Paradise. The reference is to Dante's "Paradiso".
4. Eyes: eyes of those in eternity who had faith and confidence and were a force that acted and were not paralyzed.
5. crossed stave: refers to scarecrows
6. tumid river: swollen river. The River Acheron in Hell in Dante's "Inferno". The damned must cross this river to get to the land of the dead.
7. Multifoliate rose: in dante's "Divine Comedy" paradise is described as a rose of many leaves.
8. prickly pear: cactus
9. Between...act: a reference to "Julius Caesar" "Between the acting of a dreadful thing/And the first motion, all the interim is/Like a phantasma or a hideous dream."
10. For...Kingdom: the beginning of the closing words of the Lord's Prayer.

The poem begins with two epigraphs: one is a quotation from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness remarking on the death of the doomed character Kurtz. The other is an expression used by English schoolchildren who want money to buy fireworks to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. On this holiday, people burn straw effigies of Fawkes, who tried to blow up the British Parliament back in the 17th century.
The poem is narrated by one of the "Hollow Men."
In the first section of the poem, a bunch of Hollow Men are leaning together like scarecrows. Everything about them is as dry as the Sahara Desert, including their voices and their bodies. Everything they say and do is meaningless. They exist in a state like Hell, except they were too timid and cowardly to commit the violent acts that would have gained them access to Hell. They have not crossed over the River Styx to make it to either Heaven or Hell. The people who have crossed over remember these guys as "hollow men."
In the second section, one hollow man is afraid to look at people who made it to "death's dream kingdom" – either Heaven or Hell. The Hollow Men live in a world of broken symbols and images.
The third section of the poem describes the setting as barren and filled with cacti and stones. When the Hollow Men feel a desire to kiss someone, they are unable to. Instead, they say prayers to broken stones.
In the fourth section, the hollow man from Section 2 continues to describe his vacant, desolate surroundings, in which are no "eyes." The Hollow Men are afraid to look at people or to be looked at.
The fifth and final section begins with a nursery rhyme modeled on the song "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush," except instead of a mulberry bush the kiddies are circling a prickly pear cactus. The speaker describes how a "shadow" has paralyzed all of their activities, so they are unable to act, create, respond, or even exist. He tries quoting expressions that begin "Life is very long" and "For Thine is the Kingdom," but these, too, break off into fragments. In the final lines, the "Mulberry Bush" song turns into a song about the end of the world. You might expect the world to end with a huge, bright explosion, but for the Hollow Men, the world ends with a sad and quiet "whimper."
In A Nutshell
"The Hollow Men" is a huge downer of a poem. In this way, it fits into the general arc of T.S. Eliot's career, which can be divided into Huge Downers and Glorious Uppers. For example, The Wasteland: Huge Downer; Four Quartets: Glorious Upper.
Clearly we're over-simplifying. But Eliot was going through a rough patch when he wrote "The Hollow Men." His marriage to Vivienne Eliot had collapsed, and some scholars think she was having an affair with the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Also, Eliot was still moving toward a religious conversion to Anglicanism that did not arrive until 1927. Several of the poems that Eliot wrote before this conversion concern the total failure of religious hope and love (see, for example, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock").
"The Hollow Men" begins with a quote from Joseph Conrad's famous novella Heart of Darkness, the story of a colonial Englishman who goes power-hungry in Africa, and things only go downhill from there. Eliot's poem is about a group of scarecrow-like individuals who exist in a state between life and death and suffer from a serious case of moral paralysis. They are forever trapped on the banks of the River Styx, the ancient Greek symbol for the dividing line between life and death. Some critics consider "The Hollow Men" to be a companion piece for Eliot's most famous work, The Waste Land, another poem about moral paralysis.
Eliot's poems from the 1920s are often read in a political context as a reaction to the aftermath of World War I. Eliot was preoccupied with the idea of a European literary and ethical tradition, and he saw this tradition fragmenting everywhere around him. He turned, as he often did, to his favorite Italian poet Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno was inspiration for this poem. "The Hollow Men" was published in 1925, three years after The Waste Land. In 1948, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Why Should I Care?
Many people know this poem only for its immortal final lines:
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
We find these lines terrifying because we tend to like stories to have big, flashy endings, and what could be a bigger story than the history of the world? And yet, sometimes real life isn't very dramatic. Every time some petty and preventable catastrophe befalls humanity (or a part of humanity), you'll find journalists, diplomats, and newspaper editorialists turning to T.S. Eliot 's prediction that the world will end with a "whimper."
Don't believe us? Try a Google search with a major global problem and the words "bang" and "whimper." Global warming? Click here. Conflict in the Middle East? Got it covered here. Financial meltdown? But of course. The last lines of "The Hollow Men" have entered the mainstream culture as a way to describe the sometimes arbitrary ways that we humans make a mess of a situation.
The irony is that Eliot really disliked journalists. He thought they were just like the "hollow men" of this poem, and that the politicians and newspaper editors in Paris weren't even capable of making enough of a splash to get into Hell (source). When you read the final lines of "The Hollow Men" in light of the rest of the poem, you'll see that the poem is not so much about the end of the world as about people who sit around and talk without ever trying to put their beliefs or ideas into practice. The poem's message is dark: if you're not going to be a good person, then at least be a really bad person.
Sectional Analysis

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
First Epigraph

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
  • The first epigraph is a quote from a servant in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
  • The servant reveals to the character Marlow that another character named Kurtz has just died.
  • Conrad's novel is a true classic, but we don't think you need to rush out to read it to understand this poem.
  • Here's the lowdown: Kurtz is an British ivory trader in Africa, and is one of the many Europeans who arrived to exploit that continent's resources in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He seems to have some qualities of greatness because he collects more ivory than other traders, but in one memorable passage, Marlow suspects Kurtz of being "hollow to the core" and lacking a human and moral nature. (Read more.) The epigraph tells us that, in some sense, the poem is set after the death of Kurtz, or someone "hollow" man like him.

Second Epigraph

A penny for the Old Guy
  • The English celebrate Guy Fawkes Day every November 5th with fireworks and the burning of little straw men or "effigies."
  • Guy Fawkes was convicted of trying to blow up King James I in 1605 by stashing gunpowder underneath the Parliament building. The incident is known as the "Gunpowder Plot." But Fawkes and the gunpowder were discovered before the plan went off, and Fawkes gave up the names of his co-conspirators under torture.
  • To celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, English children ask for money to fund the explosions of their straw effigies of Fawkes, so they say, "A penny for the guy?" "Guy" being his first name. You can read more about it here.
  • But there's more. According to Ancient Greek mythology, a person who died would need to pay Charon, the ferryman, with a coin before he would take you across the River Styx into the realm of death. So the "Old Guy" also refers to the ancient figure of Charon. Apparently, someone is begging for a "penny" to give the ferryman to get across the Styx.
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Wikipedia Info