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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In his review of James Joyce’s prototypical high modernist novel, Ulysses (1922), written at the very time he began work on the poems that would later make up “The Hollow Men,” Eliot explained that “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him.It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” Eliot had himself already employed the mythic method to devastating effect in The Waste Land. That method, along with the richly allusive style to which it is closely tied, plays a less insistent but arguably more integral role in giving shape and direction to the considerably less diversified but still disconcerting flux of materials (or “stuffing”) from which Eliot assembled “The Hollow Men.”

Rudyard Kipling, William Morris, Joseph Conrad, William Shakespeare, Ernest Dowson, and Paul Valéry play their parts, but none so importantly, pervasively, and unobtrusively as Dante. His Divine Comedy (c. 1320) serves as both the foundation upon which Eliot’s otherwise fragmented text rests and as the yardstick by which the choric speaker’s spiritual plight may be measured. The point of the mythic method is not to show how far modern man has fallen from some nostalgically regarded golden age, but to show how similar,...

(The entire section is 410 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999.

Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.