"All around me are familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces;
Bright and early for the daily races, going nowhere; going nowhere
Their tears are filling up their glasses, no expression; no expression
Hide my head; I wanna drown my sorrow, no tomorrow; no tomorrow
And I find it kind've funny, find it kind've sad
That the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had.
And I find it hard to tell you, I find it hard to take
That when people run in circles, it's a very, very mad world."
From "Mad World" by Gary Jules
Imagine, if you will, a desolate wasteland of broken dreams, shattered beliefs, and blank, isolated figures. Populate this gray world with the jagged edges of a hundred forgotten rituals and the slow death of a pointless existence. This is a world of trickling sand and thorny brush filled with blind, lonely souls, drifting aimlessly from one moment to the next. This is the fractured reality of T.S. Eliot's classic, complex, and chilling "The Hollow Men."
It is possible that never before or after was Eliot's dry, flowing style better combined with the inner meaning of a poem than it was in "The Hollow Men," where Eliot's somber verse perfectly portrayed the haunting limbo that housed the titular lost souls. Moreover, few works have ever sparked so much furious debate amongst scholars of literature as they search for meaning in this, perhaps the most central of Eliot's works.
Published by T.S. Eliot in 1925, "The Hollow Men" has since become one of the most influential poems in modern history. Many would say that Eliot was responsible for breaking down the conventional barriers set up around poetry in earlier ages and changing the face of modern poetry completely and utterly (Brinnin 938). This, he accomplished through a brilliant process of using older methods and juxtaposing them against modern dilemmas and mechanics (Morace). "The Hollow Men" is one of the very best examples of this duality of nature, combining numerous allusions to older works while still facing off against the apathy of Eliot's post-World War I world and being an example of some of Eliot's more modern poetic devices and techniques. If one is able to dig through this thorny nest of overlapping styles and meanings, then the deeper themes of "The Hollow Men" slowly become clear, even if Eliot himself would have preferred readers limit themselves to a study of the work's method and structure (Brinnin 939).
Indeed, it has been said that Eliot was not always the most clear of poets. In fact, according to the short essay, "T.S. Eliot 1888-1965," he preferred to simply reveal his feelings rather than explain them within his prose (697). A better example could not be found outside of "The Hollow Men."
According to the short essay "A Lament for the Weary," the two lines that precede the poem each call to mind a plethora of sights, sounds, and emotions for any reader cultured enough to catch the allusions offered within, allowing said readers to begin the poem feeling exactly as Eliot likely did as he wrote it.
To many, "Mista Kurtz He's a dead" would merely be worthy of looking at the footnote for a moment before continuing on. However, for anyone who has read Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, the line calls to mind an entire novelette, and all the emotions that the read evoked. The tale of an amoral British man losing his self and center in the African wilderness, committing unspeakable acts therein, and then, upon his deathbed, realizing what he has become is remembered in an instant, and the thought ends with the powerful final words of the main character, Kurtz," "The horror, the horror!"
In the very next line, Eliot continues to use allusions to evoke emotional responses by recalling to the minds of readers the legendary exploits and final hours of Guy Fawkes, the famous traitor to the English crown who is burned in effigy to this day in Britain. To most non-Englishmen reading the poem, the line would, again, mean nothing, but to anyone familiar with British custom, childhood memories of collecting money for fireworks to shoot off whilst burning straw look-alikes of Fawkes would come reeling back from the inner passages of the mind (941).
According to M.C. Bradbrook, throughout this piece and many others, Eliot uses such allusions to convey entire subplots and levels of meaning that would have otherwise extended his works by dozens, if not hundreds, of lines. Thus, it is more than a little handy to be familiar with the events and works that influenced Eliot in order to best understand his poetry (92).
As such, a familiarity with various older works, from surrealist French texts to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, does much to change one's perspective on this poem. With his heavy usage of allusions and distinct lack of explanation, Eliot leaves much of "The Hollow Men" up to interpretation. Some passages, such as the one which refers to a "multifoliate rose" mentioned in section IV of the poem, are clear (For instance, this refers to a passage in Dante's Divine Comedy describes his visions of the heavens and the angels residing therein) (Morace). Others, however, are much more vague. To some critics, the misquoted lyrics of the old children's rhyme, "The Mulberry Bush," signifies that the poem's narrator is attempting to come to terms with the perversion of childhood beliefs (Morace).
This is a small part of the lingual support for a popular theory that much of the poem is about faith and religion, and especially the pain of Godless existence ("A Lament" 941). To others, however, the insertion of "prickly pear" into this passage instead signifies an emphasis on locked away lust, as mulberry bushes were once a common symbol for fertility and cacti one for chastity (Or perhaps a phallic symbol) (Smith). Yet others are able to read the poem in such a way as to think it no more than a 100-line diatribe on Eliot's highly personal quest through poetic progression, citing numerous vague allusions to older works within and the fact that the apparent spiritual journey of the narrator closely mirrors the literary one taken by Eliot himself (Morace).
Regardless of precise interpretation of the poem's more complicated parts (Of which there are many, and these have been argued extensively in many places), there are things that can be agreed upon. For instance, the interpretations of the poem as a spiritual quest and poetic journey find middle ground in the fact that this poem marks a perfect midpoint in Eliot's vast body of work (Bradbrook 92).
In mechanics, it holds onto some of his old habits, such as a reliance on numerous allusions to not only older works, but older styles as well. However, it also begins a marked progression toward the very complex, at times nearly pompously so, and convoluted nature of his later works.
Spiritually, the narrator finds him or herself locked in an indecisive miasma between a painful past and an uncertain future, and the narrator thus begins to question nearly everything, from belief to very existence. Thus, the narrator's quest is largely an internal, spiritual one. Much the same, Eliot himself was on the verge of conversion to the Anglican Church of England at the time of this writing, and this conversion would mark his later work in a very real and noticeable way.
Furthermore, it would be difficult to fail to notice Eliot's common usage of juxtapositions and opposing phrases and themes to convey a point. Many critics agree that the central pivot of "The Hollow Men" is the maddening, groping immobility of the hollow men themselves as they quest for the resolution of some deep internal conflict.
As such, many parts of the poem lay in stark contrast with one another, yet no single one ever wins out above the others, just as the hollow men do not manage to chose their own fate by the poem's end, instead opting to sink into maddened apathy. The bleak world and mood portrayed in the poem's opening and ending sections (From its cacti-ridden wasteland appearance to the anticlimactic "whimper" that marks its ending) is contrasted heavily with the glimpse of hope found in the mentions of angelic grace and possible forgiveness in section IV.
The final section's string of opposing extremes (between the conception of an action and its actual execution) expands this motif of contrasting elements, and even goes on to illustrate the lost, confused nature of the titular "hollow men" by using words carefully chosen to suggest that either extreme is as good or bad as the next when it comes to accomplishing anything (Smith).
The need of the hollow men to find some way out of their current situation is further explored by the careful usage of poetic method and allusion to show that often, neither extreme offered them is necessarily bad, or at least not nearly as much as the ground that lies between. Indeed, the "Shadow" which falls "Between the motion and the act . . . the conception and the creation" (lines 74-5, 78-9) seems much more menacing than any of the surrounding terms. Moreover, the whispering middle ground of indecision in which the hollow men are trapped seems to be even more torturous than either the final judgment of death's "other kingdom" and the piercing eyes it contains or the glimpsed hope of redemption in the angelic light of the Dantean rose.
These hollow men are caught at the point in which they know that their current path will conclude only in damnation and despair, yet they are too fearful of the possibility of unfortunate consequences to leave the unbearable, yet somehow comfortable, middle ground in order to seek forgiveness. (Or whatever positive end one may view the few hopeful lines of the poem to be speaking of.) Indeed, the most bitter and depressing part of the poem is that, by it's end, the narrator has been overwhelmed by the hand of apathy again, his mental journey silenced by the old despair.
The world may not truly be coming to a close, but any hope of forward motion for these unfortunate souls, forever trapped in purgatory, is lost to inaction. Just as soon as the narrator is able to grab onto some hope that may well lead him toward the sort of action required to brave the dangers of progression, he is dragged back down by his own inner demons and trapped once more, and perhaps forever, as he slowly segues back into the old, fractured apathy and ends his quest, not with the bang of change, but the whimper of immobility.
Indeed, according to Troy Urquhart, the theme of inaction is one final area in which the poem truly seems to open itself to agreeable interpretation. Throughout the work are scattered carefully placed verbs and adjectives that create an image of constantly restrained motion. The hollow men exist in a world where taking any action whatsoever would bring to an end their suffering, yet they are held back by their fear of the unknown even as they realize it may be their salvation.
This opposition of desired change and feared consequences locks the hollow men in place, and this translates into their very movement. From their twisting, "groping" movements to their furtive, fearful eyes, they are living examples of kinetic energy tied down. One of the very best examples of this image of barely contained action comes in their description of "leaning" together. As such, they are truly trapped. Should one move away toward something new and distant, all others would collapse, the precarious balance of their existence lost. Thus, they are trapped by their position, whether it is spiritual, mental, or literal.
Each longs to leave the pack of dejected faux-scarecrows he finds himself with, yet is trapped in the "shadow" betwixt desire and acquisition. Indeed, the section of the poem dealing with the many extremes between which "falls the Shadow" is a very clear example of this near-movement: the hollow men are caught at the very moment before they go forth with whatever action they know to be necessary to move on, yet are unable to take that final step (199-200).
Trapped forever in their shadowy, desert-like void of indecision, the hollow men are some of the most spellbinding figures in literature. Caught at the sort of crossroads modern man finds himself at daily, between belief and damnation, between action and apathy, between life and death, they seize up and are forever trapped in the swirling inaction of some sick parody of Purgatory.
They serve as a living example to modern man to be forever wary of stepping into that shadow between thought and action without a clear plan as to how to make it from one end to the other. Their final, failed struggle illustrates perfectly that, however terrifying the future may seem, anything it holds must be better than the pathetic whimpering of a life trapped in the scarecrow-filled nightmare of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men."
"A Lament for the Weary." Elements of Literature Sixth Course: Literature of Britain with World Classics. Ed. Kathleen Daniel et. al. Austin: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 2000. 941.
Bradbrook, M. C. "T. S. Eliot." Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1973. 91-93.
Brinnin, John Malcolm. "T.S. Eliot: The Voice of an Age." Elements of Literature Sixth Course: Literature of Britain with World Classics. Ed. Kathleen Daniel et. al. Austin: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 2000. 938-9.
Morace, Robert A. "Notes & analysis on The Hollow Men." Online posting. 2 Oct. 2004. Eliot's Poetry Message Board. 14 Dec. 2004 .
Smith, Grover. "On The Hollow Men.' Modern American Poetry, 14 Dec. 2004.
"T.S. Eliot 1888-1965." England in Literature. Ed. Helen McDonnell, John Pfordresher, and Gladys V. Veidemanis. Glenview: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1985. 697.
Urquhart, Troy. "Eliot's THE HOLLOW MEN." The Explicator. 4 (2001): 199-201.