T.S. Eliot is perhaps best known for his long poem The Waste Land, published in 1922, which focuses on the alienation and aimlessness of the post-World War I generation. "The Hollow Men," a much shorter poem, was published three years later and carries on many of the themes of The Waste Land.
A reader whose first exposure to Eliot is his early works might be surprised at the different mood and tone of many of his later works. Whereas the early works seem to deny or reverse orthodox religious sentiments, many later poems, such as The Four Quartets and "Journey of the Magi" are overtly religious and orthodox. Eliot's biography sheds light on this dichotomy. The younger Eliot was dissatisfied with the Unitarianism with which he was raised and was dealing with unhappiness in his personal life. In 1927, he secretly converted to the Anglican church; in 1928, he announced that he was "Anglo-Catholic in religion."
Comparing the mood and tone of "The Hollow Men" to that of "Journey of the Magi" illustrates the change Eliot's conversion had on this writing.
In "The Hollow Men," Eliot refers to the afterlife as "death's other kingdom," implying that those who are alive are actually dead as well. They are merely living in "death's dream kingdom." These lines capture the agony of living in a meaningless world:
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.
These lines leave no room for a loving God who oversees the events of men.
In contrast, "Journey of the Magi" is about the central event in Christianity, the birth of Christ, and the meaning for humanity that "this Birth" provides for both life and death. The poem describes the journey of one of the wise men in first person as he looks back on the event years later. It was a very difficult journey, but they reached their goal and saw the Christ-child. The poem ends with these words:
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Although the speaker feels alienated from his homeland when he returns, it isn't the alienation of despair described in "The Hollow Men." Rather, it is the alienation of faith, of knowing that there is something better even if you can't fully participate in it now. This sets a mood of contentment based on hopeful seeking.
The later poem also symbolizes Eliot's personal journey from the despair depicted in "The Hollow Men" to hope. As the wise man says, "Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory."