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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Thomas Stearns Eliot, more commonly known as T. S. Eliot, was an early twentieth-century poet, critic, essayist, editor, and playwright who became one of the most celebrated and influential writers of the modernist movement. While modernism is a complex artistic tradition with differing ways of understanding it or even dating it, modernist writers of the early twentieth century would often take the ideas and forms of writing from past authors and rework them to “make it new,” in the words of poet Ezra Pound. They remade outmoded artistic traditions in order to better address the realities of modern existence, especially the horrors of industrialism and warfare. The traumas of this era led to widespread feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and hopelessness. In response, authors like Eliot attempted to capture these feelings through fragmented, referential, and ambiguous styles of writing. While his poems may be difficult to read and seem inaccessible to contemporary audiences, analyzing his work can be rewarding and help us understand the anxieties that distinguish modernity. 

Eliot’s 1925 poem "The Hollow Men" is about alienation, despair, and futility. At the beginning of the poem, Eliot includes two different epigraphs. The first epigraph, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, establishes the subject of death early on with the line “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” The second, “A penny for the Old Guy,” is a reference to the British practice in which children collect money from their neighbors for the Guy Fawkes Day fireworks. In this event, British citizens burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes to commemorate the failure of his “gunpowder plot,” by which Fawkes intended to blow up the House of Parliament in 1604. This reference to Guy Fawkes’s effigy sets up both the imagery of scarecrows as “stuffed men” and the ironic references to children's songs, chants, and games that recur throughout the poem.

Part one introduces powerful imagery of the hollow men themselves. Part two emanates fear and avoidance—going through life in disguise and not meeting others' eyes. Part three comments on the emptiness of religion—it is nothing but "prayers to broken stone." Part four suggests lack of understanding ("there are no eyes here"), unfulfilling interpersonal relationships ("We grope together / And avoid speech"), and the wavering, perhaps futile, belief in eternal rest ("The hope only / Of empty men").

Part five begins with a children's-game chant, modified by substituting "prickly pear" for "mulberry bush." Although the following lines are esoteric and abstract, they are punctuated with a clear refrain (“Falls the Shadow”) and a choral response with fragments of the Lord's Prayer. This effect creates the feeling of hope, purpose, and life all disintegrating as the poem moves towards its haunting conclusion. This section ends with another chant about how the world will end. Rather than a "bang" comparable to the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day, the speaker predicts the world will end with a whimper—a fitting last gasp for a generation of hollow men.

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