In this post, I flesh out my understanding of and reaction to T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” which can be read entirely here.
Like any good pretentious poet, I keep some of T.S. Eliot’s work lying around, specifically “The Wasteland.” The truth is I don’t get around much. So when an inquisitive Redditor sprung a post into the Poetry subreddit, I was introduced to a piece of Eliot that I hadn’t met. My interpretation of it will be mostly unadulterated; I did dip my toes in another person’s explanation to know that the first two lines of “The Hollow Men” make direct reference to one of Joseph Conrad’s characters along with Guy Fawkes:
Mistah Kurtz – he dead.
A penny for the Old Guy
It’s always interesting to see who an author acknowledges in his literature. I’ve never read Heart of Darkness, so I very well can’t speak thoroughly to how it relates to “The Hollow Men”. And my familiarity with Guy Fawkes is also limited, for I can only claim to be a fan of “V for Vandetta,” a film true to the words must-watch. What I did grasp in my minimal research was the idea of masks or two-sided identities.
Upon reading the poem (or poems?) at hand, one immediately notices there is in fact five parts, I-V. This delineation by Eliot will make it all the more organized to digest “The Hollow Men”.
Part I appears to be an introduction of the characters who inspired the piece’s name. It’s quite properly done in the way it begins and ends with emphasis on being “the hollow men” and “stuffed men”. No matter my ignorance to the aforementioned persons in the epitaphs, Eliot seems to be doing me a service with these lines:
Remember us – if at all – not as lost/
Violent souls, but only
This says to me that the hollow men are usually nonviolent people until they are filled with ideals which light the fire of action in them. These men also have a self-awareness of this transformation and likewise an understanding that their efforts could still keep them voiceless and unremembered like a
Shape without form, shade without colour,/
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
How very—heroic. It reminds me of the innumerable soldiers who have fallen, whose names are lost to me. I hope they can hear me in the other plane when I say, “Thank you.”
Part II continues with an emphasis on “death’s dream kingdom” that was also introduced in Part I. At least I think it’s the same kingdom—“death’s other kingdom” and “death’s dream kingdom” have an unsubtle difference. If they are one and the same, could Eliot be describing a time in the living world as this kingdom? Interesting reversal, and maybe not the actual direction that the poet targeted; however, I enter the third description of this place, “the twilight kingdom.” Upon closer inspection, it seems to me that Eliot speaks about kindred spirits who sit at the edge of Life and Death, who have accepted Death yet still evade it unlike the people who’ve actually succumbed—
There, the eyes are/
Sunlight on a broken column
The kindred spirits who normally wouldn’t seek each other’s company, or whose “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams”, might ready themselves for Death and the peace it may bring; however, the reality is they surely want to live and not see the truly peaceful eyes on the other side. Thus “The Hollow Men” “wear/ Such deliberate disguises” to keep themselves from “that final meeting”.
Part III screams cemetery! For me it does anyway. It’s called “a dead land” and “a cactus land” where “the stone images/ Are raised,” and the men’s right-hand persons can offer “supplication”. Eliot could also mean the kind of crude cemetery that a battlefield becomes when someone comes to pray over another person clinging to life “Under the twinkle of a fading star.” This is definitely a valid way to read Part III given
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
The writer returns to the idea of men who usually are filled with “tenderness” but now tremble in their “prayers to broken stone”, perhaps signaling their nervousness to meet an afterlife whose nature might reflect the haphazard way that they adhered to the laws on Moses’ Stone Tablets. Certainly one who fights the good fight against an antagonizing force must have a self-awareness of their own misgivings.
In Part IV, Eliot fully immerses the reader in “death’s twilight kingdom” or the penultimate crossing into it. The imagery of the River Styx is present along with “the empty men” who cling together as they do with life. “And [they] avoid speech”, for there are no more words to speak in “This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms”. It rings to me like the final call to action when patriots can say no more and must show with violent movement. They cannot foresee where they are going or what will happen but can “hope”
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death’s twilight kingdom
In other words, hope for an earthly peace or another way around what’s to come. Either way, “The Hollow Men” will have their peace in this life or the next, so they find the gamble worthwhile.
This is exactly where Part V brings us—the second right before a major cataclysm. If this poem were a movie, this second would be in slow motion, two sides staring each other down with a gulf between them. Their entire lives are up for consideration beginning with their childhood—
Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.
And the oscillating flashes of then and now are flying through their minds with so very little time—really no time at all—to make peace with their Makers because here “Falls the Shadow”. Eliot warns vehemently that “This is the way the world ends” before he comes full stop with one of his most poignant lines if not one of the most for any writer ever:
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
Despite me not reading this poem until a Redditor made the introduction, I already knew the final line of “The Hollow Men”. It’s been regurgitated on so numerous occasions to render it like Kleenex or ChapStick whose letters are so commonplace that one cares not to question the original. However, Mr. Eliot was no fool, and a poet can only hope their words become so catchy especially when they grow the understanding that we are all scared children before Death or our Makers. We all came from a point of non-existence, so Death could be our Maker in a strange, circular reasoning.
Moreover, “The Hollow Men” enlivens a sense of inspiration and foreboding. Like many a young person, I’ve had the sickly fantasy of martyrdom, of making my life mean something for a cause. Who doesn’t want to be a hero? With age or maturity, the colors of reality may become more vivid, but even an older person can stumble upon an immovable situation who requires the dynamite of their vigor. For any person, this schema will always bring a terrible fright.
I can say with truthiness in my heart that I love this poem. It’s timeless, universal, wise, prophetic. It strikes the chords which every writer agonizes to brush with strategic fingertips and which Mr. Eliot likely found through his own encounters with “death’s other kingdom”. He proved one line, one movement, one gamble with the unknown can be louder than any bomb.
Copyright © 2019 Jonathan Oyola