Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although sufficient evidence exists to warrant reading “The Hollow Men” as autobiographical revelation, Eliot’s commitment (particularly at this point in his career) to an “impersonalist” aesthetic and to finding “objective correlatives” that would transform private experience into subjective terms requires a less narrow approach. “The Hollow Men” reflects the lingering post-World War I malaise that affected not only Eliot but his age as well.

The poem succeeds admirably in registering a mood not merely of disillusionment but of personal weakness. The choric speaker, either speaking in unison with others about their common condition or speaking alone for them, perhaps because they do not yet perceive or understand their plight, wearily yet, in his own way, steadfastly resists the self-knowledge to which his whispering leads him. This resistance is, however, tempered by the fact that he mocks himself for his failure. He fears the judgment that will expose his failure of nerve to others and to himself at least as much as he fears the death that will just as surely expose the meaninglessness of his life as a spiritual coward or zombie.

Although he fears the “eyes” that will know and pass sentence on his evident inadequacy, he also longs for the “eyes” that see what he does not. These are the eyes (of Dante’s Beatrice and Christ’s mother Mary) evoked in the poem’s most intensely lyrical moment: “The eyes [that] reappear/ As the perpetual star/ Multifoliate rose/ Of death’s twilight kingdom/ The hope only/ Of empty men.” The moment—“Alas!”—does not last; it is followed by the highly fragmented fifth and final section, which ends, as does The Waste Land, with a shoring of fragments against the ruin. Unlike The Waste Land, however, here poetic word and world end not with madness and not “with a bang but a whimper.” The shadow of spiritual death—doubt and despair—falls; the mood of spiritual paralysis prevails.