The Hollow Men

  • The poem has two epigraphs: the first alluding to Kurtz, the deified ivory trader from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the second alluding to the historical figure of Guy Fawkes, a man famous for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.
  • T. S. Eliot uses the scarecrow-like Hollow Men to personify the spiritual emptiness he has seen around him. He fills them with his own words, making them sing and dance as they explain their spiritual emptiness to the reader.
  • The last lines of the poem, "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper," are among the most famous in literature. They speak directly to the despair that defines human existence.

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Hollow Men” is both a single hundred-line poem and a sequence of five poems (or parts). Although almost entirely lacking in simple narrative cohesiveness and linear development, and defying simple classification (“The Hollow Men” is at once dramatic monologue, soliloquy, choric ode, lyric, elegy, and meditation), T. S. Eliot’s highly and at times allegorically abstract text nevertheless achieves a remarkable unity of effect in terms of voice, mood, and imagery. The simplicity and seeming transparency of the title—a conflation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (c. 1599-1600) and poems by Rudyard Kipling and William Morris—serve as an ironic indicator of Eliot’s rich and complex texture. The two epigraphs—one from Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness (1899), and the other a child’s line from the yearly observance of Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) in England—serve a similar purpose; they contextualize the poem literarily and historically while underscoring the poem’s thematization of spiritual hollowness and failure of will.

The poem is chiefly narrated in the first-person plural; a “we” that serves to broaden the speaker’s predicament beyond the individual to encompass a more nearly universal figure who is emblematic of his age and who may well be speaking for, as well as to, the reader. Against the dying Kurtz’s last words, “The horror! The horror!” in Heart of Darkness,...

(The entire section is 535 words.)