T.S. Eliot (1888–1965)
168 The Hollow Men
Explanatory Notes not covered in web version
Title: In a sense, “The Hollow Men” is a sequel to The Waste Land, referring as it does to the waste land’s inhabitants, who are “hollow” because of their disconnection from a faith that would enrich their lives.First epigram: from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (cf.). Kurtz was the ivory trader, a hollow man, in the sense that he sacrificed his humanity for the promise of wealth.
Second epigram: The “Old Guy” is Guy Fawkes, who, in 1605, tried to blow up the Parliament buildings in London, as a protest against King James’ anti-Catholic legislation. He is still burned in effigy every November 5, the anniversary of his aborted crime.
Part I: The first lines pick up the image of Guy Fawkes burned in effigy (“Headpiece filled with straw”) in the form of a scarecrow. He represents the hollow men who live in the waste land of modern society, inarticulate and ineffectual. “Death’s other kingdom” (line 14) seems almost preferable.
Part II: The hollow men seem to yearn for “death’s dream kingdom,” for all its drab and dreary ambience, a better place than the waste land they currently inhabit.
Part III: This first stanza of this part presents a stark vision of “the dead land,” the “cactus land.” The second stanza suggests hollow men’s inability to pray, to communicate, to make love.
Part IV: The first two stanzas of Part IV continue to describe a desolate world of spiritual blindness and meaningless communication. The “tumid river” (line 60) is likely a compilation of the Thames, the Acheron of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the Congo of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The third stanza of Part IV seems to offer an antidote to spiritual hollowness, in the form of a vision of “the perpetual star” (line 63), reminiscent of the Star of Bethlehem, which guided the Magi to Jesus’ birthplace (cf. “The Journey of the Magi”) and the “Multifoliate rose” (line 64), which echoes Dante’s image of heaven. The star and the rose are in “death’s twilight kingdom” (line 65), in opposition to “death’s other Kingdom” (line 14) and “death’s dream kingdom” (line 30), which offer false hope of salvation.
Part V: The first stanza is a parody of the children’s nursery rhyme, which describes children dancing around a mulberry bush. In the land of the hollow men, the mulberry bush becomes a cactus plant, which echoes the “cactus land” of Part III. The hollow men’s inability to put ideas into action, to express an appropriate emotional response, to express physical love, is referenced in subsequent stanzas. The aborted Lord’s Prayer suggests, again, that it is a spiritual malaise the Hollow Men suffer.