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The Hollow Men ()

Nobel Prize Winners

    The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and
    anglo-catholic in religion.
           -T.S. Eliot describing his worldview

Did T.S. Eliot have a sense of humor?  I don't know; but, I sure as heck hope so.  Because as we reach its end, the greatest poet of the 20th Century seems destined to be remembered as the guy who wrote Cats.  His banishment from the canon was probably inevitable, what with being a white male Christian and the whiff of anti-Semitism wafting from him, but if he ever had a chance to cling to his spot on the basis of his early classics like The Wasteland and Prufrock, works like The Hollow Men pretty much guaranteed he would be consigned to oblivion.  For this poem, while not as coherent an attack on Modern values or lack of said, as the writings of someone like C.S. Lewis, is certainly one of the most eloquent.

    THE HOLLOW MEN (1927)

    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 rat's feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar

    Shape without form, shade without color,
    Paralyzed 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 the cactus land
    Here the stone images
    Are raised, here they recieve
    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 existance
    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

I wouldn't pretend to understand all of this, nor exactly what it is he's trying to say, but I do know what it says to me.  I take it as an indictment of Modern man and the failure of confidence that characterizes us.  The epigraph about Mr. Kurtz, from Conrad's Heart of Darkness (see Review), seems to harken back longingly for even such monstrous men who at least believed in what they were doing, however horrific the results.  It sets up a natural contrast to the hollowness of Modern man , who fundamentally believes in nothing and is, therefore, empty at the core of his being, like a Guy Fawkes dummy.

Two other powerful images really appeal to me.  The comparison of the sound of modern voices to "rat's feet over broken glass" aptly dismisses all of the psycho babble and faux spirituality of the age, all of modernity's futile effort to replace the beliefs that have been discarded.  And, of course, the great lines, "This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper" remind me of an argument that I used to enjoy during the Cold War when such melodramatics seemed more appropriate; that it would be better to just juke it out with the USSR, just let the missiles fly, than to gradually succumb to Communist domination.  Of course, this seems like the product of unbalanced minds now that we've triumphed, but think back to things like Dr. Strangelove and you get a feel for the tenor of the confrontation between absolutists and appeasers.  I for one preferred the bang to the whimper.

This is a powerful poem that rewards repeated readings, revealing different interpretations and images with each successive return.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

T. S. Eliot (3 books reviewed)
Nobel Prize Winners
T. S. Eliot Links:

    -Academy of American Poets: T. S. Eliot
    -Nobel Laureates: Thomas Stearns Eliot
    -Literature Online: Addison-Wesley's Literature Online--A site to support Kennedy & Gioia's Literature, 7th Edition.
    -T. S. Eliot Poems
     -Literary Research Guide: T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
    -T.S. Eliot (Most Web)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: NY Times Book Review
    -OBIT : T.S. Eliot, the Poet, is Dead in London at 76  (Tuesday, January 5, 1965, NY Times)
    -LINKS: American Modernism
    -ETEXT: The Hollow Men
    -ETEXT: Annotated
    -ESSAY: The Voice of This Calling: The Enduring Legacy of T.S. Eliot (Clint Brand|July 8th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot on Economics and Education (Richard Gunderman, EconLib)
    -ESSAY: Reinhold Niebuhr, T. S. Eliot, and The Year of Our Lord 1943 (John Shelton, May 29, 2024, Providence)
    -ESSAY: Our Greatest Pilgrim Poet?: Not since the great Metaphysical Poets of the Elizabethan Age has there been such a flowering of creative genius as seen in the verse of just one 20th century poet, T.S. Eliot. (Regis Martin, 5/25/24, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: Permanent Things: T.S. Eliot’s Conservatism (Benjamin Lockerd, January 3rd, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)
    -AUDIO LECTURE: A Guide to Finally Understanding T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets (Audio Lecture) (Andy patton, November 2023, Rabbit Room)
    -ESSAY: T. S. Eliot’s still point: On the poet’s life & work. (James Matthew Wilson, April 2023, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: Eliot’s Pitiless Brilliance: ‘The Waste Land’ (William H. Pritchard, March 1, 2023, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot: fame, frustration and love (Jeffrey Meyers, 2/12/23, The Article)
    -ESSAY: Thumbscrew and wailing wall: T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (Jeffrey Meyers, 1/29/23, The Article)
    -ESSAY: That’s Not Typing, It’s Writing: How T. S. Eliot Wrote “The Waste Land”: “With me an unfinished thing is a thing that might as well be rubbed out.” (Matthew Hollis, January 9, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor (Sir Roger Scruton, January 3rd, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: The Waste Land at 100 (James Matthew Wilson, 12/14/22, University Bookman)
    -SUMMARY: The Waste Land in a Nutshell (JOSEPH PEARCE, 8/26/22, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: The alienation of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ at 100, has come to feel like home: The December birthday ‘The Waste Land’ shares with Christmas foreshadows the Easter that is to come. (Karen Swallow Prior, 12/13/22, RNS)
    -ESSAY: Remembering T. S. Eliot (Micah Mattix|Apr. 1st, 2024, Chronicles)
    -ESSAY: T.S. ELIOT AT 101 (Cynthia Ozick, November 12, 1989, The New Yorker)
-ESSAY: On St. Louis’s T.S. Eliot and the Arrogance of a Poet’s Love (Ben, JANUARY 15, 2023, The Common Reader)
    -ESSAY: TS Eliot’s women: the unsung female voices of The Waste Land (Jude Rogers, 10/31/22, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: How T.S. Eliot’s Therapeutic Practice Produced The Waste Land: David Barnes on a Poet, His Doctor, and the Making of a Literary Masterpiece (David Barnes, October 24, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: How The Waste Land became the most quotable book of the last 100 years: With its many places, ages and languages, The Waste Land disturbed the piped music of modernity (Jeremy Noel-Tod, October 6, 2022, Prospect)
    -PODCAST: The Waste Land (The History of Literature Podcas)
-ESSAY: Help from Uncle Possum: Unpublished letters from T. S. Eliot about Omar Pound’s schooldays (Chris Jones, September 2022, TLS)
    -ESSAY: A People Without History: T.S. Eliot’s Critique of Evolutionary History (Benjamin Lockerd|August 21st, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: T. S. Eliot and the Holy Grail: The Nobel Laureate drew on a centuries-old legend when he put the Fisher King in The Waste Land (Angelica Frey June 1, 2022, JSTOR Daily)
    -FOREWARD: to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and Other Poems, 100th anniversary edition (Qiu Xiaolong, Asian Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Bob Dylan’s and T.S. Eliot’s search for truth: Eliot lingered in Dylan’s consciousness as he sought to answer the question “what is it?” (francesca Peacock, April 28, 2022, Spectator)
    -ESSAY: 100 years since poetry changed for ever with ‘The Waste Land’: T.S. Eliot began his career as a nihilist and ended it as a Christian. (Michael Cook, Jan 19, 2022, MercatorNet)
    -ESSAY: Eliot and the Follies of the Time (Russell Kirk, 08/01/08, First Principles)
    -LECTURE: The Politics of T.S. Eliot  (Russell Kirk, The Heritage Foundation)
    -ARTICLE : T.S. Eliot took pause when writing of cats (ARTHUR HIRSCH, Baltimore Sun)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot's Political 'Middle Way' (Michael R. Stevens, Religion & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: A craving for reality:  T. S. Eliot today (Roger Kimball, The New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: TS Eliot's Hollow Men (AMANDA J. WAGGONER)
    -ESSAY: What T.S. Eliot Almost Believed  (J. Bottum, First Things)
    -ESSAY : T. S. Eliot's Political "Middle Way" (Michael R. Stevens, Acton Institute)
    Nudge-Winking: a review of The 'Criterion': Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Interwar Britain by Jason Harding (Terry Eagleton, 19 September 2002, London Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Pun and Games:  A New Approach to Five Early Poems by T. S. Eliot (Professor Patricia Sloane, New York City Technical College of The City University of New York)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot: Poet and Critic as Historical Theorist (Scott Weidner)
    -ESSAY: Was T.S. Eliot a Scoundrel?  Although the poet's anti-Semitism is beyond dispute, its centrality to his work is open to question (John Gross, Commentary)
    -ESSAY : Shell Game: Clawing away at Eliot (Rick Perlstein, Lingua Franca, September 1997)
    -ESSAY : The Bones in Mr. Eliot's Closet : Rediscovering the patron saint of all the flawed and haunted seekers of modernity. (Michael R. Stevens, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY : The Two Eliots : "To all appearances," a biographer writes, "Eliot was conventional, mild, decorous, yet the hidden character was daring and savage." (Jewel Spears Brooker, Books & Culture)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Eliot's Poetry  by T. S. Eliot (Spark Note, Melissa Martin)
    -ESSAY : Words alone :  Denis Donoghue explains the genesis of his forthcoming book on T.S. Eliot (Irish Times)
    -ESSAY: T. S. ELIOT, CRIME FICTION CRITIC: Thoughts on Crime Writing From The Man Who Rescued Willkie Collins from Obscurity (CURTIS EVANS, 4/29/19, Crime Reads)
    -ESSAY: Beastly Clues T. S. Eliot, Torquemada, and the Modernist Crossword: Just a few years after The Waste Land appeared — a poem whose difficulty critics compared to some “pompous cross-word puzzle” — Edward Powys Mathers (alias: Torquemada) pioneered the cryptic: a puzzle form that, like modernist poetry, unwove language and rewove it anew. Roddy Howland Jackson reveals the pleasures and imaginative creatures lurking in Torquemada's lively grids. (Roddy Howland Jackson, January 12, 2022, Public Domain Review)
-REVIEW : of Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot. By Denis Donoghue (Frank Kermode, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of Words Alone : The Poetry of T. S. Eliot by Denis Donoghue (Adam Kirsch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of WORDS ALONE: THE POET T.S. ELIOT.  By Denis Donoghue (The Economist)
    -REVIEW:  Louis Menand: How Eliot Became Eliot, NY Review of Books
        Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 by T.S. Eliot and edited by Christopher Ricks
        The Waste Land, the 75th anniversary edition by T.S. Eliot
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT: A Study in Character and Style By Ronald Bush (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of ELIOT'S NEW LIFE By Lyndall Gordon (Denis Donoghue, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT. A Life By Peter Ackroyd (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT A Life By Peter Ackroyd (A. Walton Litz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Louis Menand: Eliot and the Jews, NY Review of Books
        T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form by Anthony Julius
    -REVIEW: The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (Hugh Kenner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Collected Prose of T.S. Eliot (Joseph Epstein, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT : Volume 9: 1939–1941: Eeyore reports for duty: The ‘devoted patience’ of T. S. Eliot, wartime correspondent (Seamus Perry, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Robert Crawford’s Eliot: After The Waste Land (Erica Wagner, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Eliot After “The Waste Land” by Robert Crawford (Anthony Domestico, The Baffler)
    -REVIEW: of Eliot after The Waste Land (Michael Thurston, The hudson Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Alex Clark, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, by Matthew Hollis (Edward Short, City Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem (Nathaniel Rosenthalis, Common Reader)
    -REVIEW: of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition : 8-Volume Set Edited by Ronald Schuchard et al. (Ben Lockerd, University Bookman)
    -REVIEW: of The Hyacinth Girl by Lyndall Gordon (Paul Krause, Voegelin View)


    -FILMOGRAPHY: Four Quartets 2023 (Metacritic)

Book-related and General Links:

    -AUDIO: “The Hollow Men” by T. S. Eliot: Poems read aloud, beautifully (Amanda Holmes | February 7, 2023, American Scholar)

-REVIEW : of The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. By John Carey (Roger Kimball, First Things)