Title: Eliot claimed to have made up the title, "The Hollow Men" from combining "The Hollow Land", the title of a romance by William Morris with Kipling's title, "The Broken Men". Many scholars believe this to be one of Ol' Possum's many false trails, instead believing it comes from a mention of 'hollow men' in Julius Caesar or any of several references to Joseph Conrad's Kurtz as hollow in some way (a 'hollow sham', 'hollow at the core'). The title immediately presents us with the first of many allusions, directly referencing two of the four main sources for this poem, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness (which I will often abbreviate HoD). The other sources are the Gunpowder Plot and The Divine Comedy, both of which also deal with men or shadows of men who may be described as hollow at the core.
The Gunpowder Plot: This conspiracy arose from the English Catholics' resentment of King James I and his reign's treatment of their religion. A group of extremists led by Rober Catesby planed to seize power by killing King James I and his ministers at the State Opening of Parliament (November 5, 1605), leaving England without a government. Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators, gave the plan away when he wrote to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, telling him to stay away from the Houses of Parliament during the Opening. Monteagle informed the Lord Chancellor of the warning, who in turn told the king. On November 4, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellars of the House of Lords, standing guard over two tons of gunpowder. He was tortured until he revealed the names of his co-conspirators, who, if they hadn't yet fled the country, were soon executed. Now the British celebrate November 5 with bonfires, fireworks, and by burning effigies of Guy. Theoretically, they are celebrating the execution of a traitor, though some have been been known to see it as a celebration of the near death of the monarchy.
Julius Caesar: Shakespeare's version of the story of Julius Caesar also centers around a violent conspiracy of men who are blinded by their cause. In it, Brutus, a leading Roman citizen, is approached by Cassius, who is recruiting people to conspire to assassinate Caesar. Cassius is motivated by ambition, envy, and malice, and he persuades Brutus that Caesar is a tyrant who will destroy the Roman Republic. Cassius plays on Brutus's vanity of his fame as champion for the public good, blinding Brutus to the evil nature of the conspiracy.
The Divine Comedy: Dante Alighieri's classic allegorical story in which, Dante himself becomes a pilgrim traveling through the three kingdoms of the afterlife: hell (The Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio), and heaven (Paradiso). He is lead through the first two by the poet Virgil in a pilgrimage orchestrated by his late love Beatrice in an attempt to redeem his soul and convince him to change his life so that after seeing Beatrice in heaven he will desire to join her there again after his own death.
Heart of Darkness: Next to Dante's writing, this story by Joseph Conrad is commonly held to be most important and influential literary experience in Eliot's poetry. It is a story full of hollow men- men empty of faith, personality, moral strength, and even humanity. In it the character Marlow tells of his own journey into the heart of Africa, a dark world populated by morally empty men living only for ivory and the money and power that it brings. Deep in the interior, he meets Kurtz, the most depraved man of them all, yet one who, on his deathbed, seems to realize the true horror of what he and humanity as he knows it is and does.
1925: Eliot wrote this poem during a period of absence from the bank, having just suffered a nervous breakdown. The theme of 'hollowness' presented in the poem directly relates to his own psychological condition at the time, a condition known at the time as 'aboulie'.1
epigraph to section: The words spoken by a servant to announce Kurtz's death. They signal the end of an evil presence, but also the end of one who was formerly a great man. With his death the values he held during life also die, leaving the survivors without anything to guide them.
epigraph to poem: A version of 'A penny for the Guy?', the cry children take up when begging money to buy fireworks with on Guy Fawkes Day.
ll.1-4: The 'hollow men' and 'stuffed men', 'filled with straw' are a combination of the effigies burned on Guy Fawkes Day, the conspirators in Julius Caesar, and Kurtz. More profoundly, they are Eliot's modern man, an empty, corrupt breed.
l. 2: According to Valerie Eliot, the marionette in Stravinsky's Petrouchka.2
l. 4: Straw is the usual filling for the effigies burned on Guy Fawkes Day. It is also a common building material for effigies used in harvest or fertility rituals celebrating the symbolic death of a vegetation god as necessary for the rebirth and growth of the land. One of these, observed by both Sir James Frazer and W. Warde Fowler is the Roman ritual of the Argei. This imagery suggests that a sacrifice of the 'hollow men' can redeem mankind and that after their destruction we can again flourish.
Eliot examined a similar myth, that of the Fisher King, extensively in The Waste Land. The Fisher King myth has many variations, but generally includes an ailing king whose kingdom is sterile- nothing will grow, and the people suffer. The king and the land can only be cured by a pure quest for some sort of knowledge (sometimes in the form of an object, sometimes in a question that must be asked). It is also frequently associated with the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail and the knight Perceval. Ususally, with the success of the quest, the king and the land are healed. Sometimes the king must die and be succeeded before the land can again bloom. The theme of a king or god needing to die, at least symbolically, for the land to become fertile (for spring to come) also occurs in the Summerian myth of Inanna and Demuzi, the rituals surrounding the Egyptian god Osris, and the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter.
l. 6: Whispers act as an instrument of fate throughout HoD. Marlow recounts how the wilderness "had whispered to [Kurtz] things about himself which he did not know ... and the whisper proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core".4 And while Marlow attempts and fails to summon up the courage to tell Kurtz's Intended the truth about Kurtz's last words, those words are whispered in his mind, signifying his own hollowness and cowardice. Besides symbolizing fate, whispers can also signify conspiracy, a theme present throughout this poem and seemingly inherent in the hollow men.
ll. 11-12: This refers to a condition of unfulfillment as seen in the spiritual state of the shades in Inferno iii. These shades never made a choice regarding their spiritual state during life (neither following nor rebelling against God) instead living solely for themselves. Neither heaven nor hell will let them past its gates. A similar condition exists, in HoD, among the men of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition: they lacked the moral strength and courage to back up their greed. A third explanation of the lines is Marlow's own experience with and resistance of death. Here we see that the same description that applies to the hollow men can also be applied to what is experienced by those who attempt to struggle against that empty way of life and death.
ll. 13-15: Those who have crossed to death's other kingdom are those who have left behind a state of spiritual nothingness (or, alternatively, hell or purgatory) and entered into knowledge and recognition of that state ( or heaven). They are the ones who are capable of looking directly at life and the universe and seeing the inner truth. Kurtz, though probably not heaven bound, had the same moment of realization just before his death, as seen in his stare and his final utterance, "The horror! The horror!" The idea of crossing refers to a transition from one state to the other, such as when Dante the Pilgrim had to cross to rivers to be freed from sin and shame before his eyes could stand to look upon his beloved Beatrice in heaven. This is a plea from the hollow men to those who have escaped their fate. Like the numerous souls who beg Dante to keep their memory alive, they are asking for those lucky souls to remember the fate of those less fortunate, and to also remember that they were not seeking to do wrong, but simply lacked what the lucky ones have, morals and values.
l. 15: The song sung by children begging for pennies on Guy Fawkes Day begins "Please to remember / The fifth of November / Gunpowder, treason, and plot."
l. 19: Beatrice tells Dante how she came to him first in dreams to lead him back to the part of virtue. Just as Beatrice give Dante a chance for redemption by orchestrating his journey, all men also have the chance for redemption.
ll. 19-22: Dante cannot meet Beatrice's eyes when he first sees her because he still feels shame and suffers their reprove. He acts like a disobedient child unable to meet a stern parent's gaze until he is purified by the waters of the River Lethe. Marlow encounters the force of eyes and glances throughout his adventures, ranging from the invisible eyes of the forest, to Kurtz's dying gaze, to the "guileless, profound, confident, and trustful" gaze of Kurtz's intended.5 The hollow men should be shamed by the eyes of the virtuous, but at the same time those eyes contain within them a chance for redemption. This is an opportunity Dante the pilgrim accepted and Marlow refused.
ll. 20-22: In heaven, Dante no longer feels shamed by Beatrice's gaze, but instead, marvels in her beauty, which continues to grow as they advance to the uppermost strata of heaven. Once the invitation for redemption is accepted and virtue is restored, the formerly hollow man has no reason to feel shame when looking into the eyes of the virtuous. "Death's dream kingdom" is heaven; in order to have reached that paradise, even if by means of a guide, the soul must already have been purified. He does not see the same shame causing eyes he saw originally, instead he sees a gaze that he can meet.
ll. 23-28: These lines resemble the Dante's description of the Earthly Paradise, when still seen from afar in Cantos xxvii-xxix. Dante used the star as a symbol representing God or Mary.
l. 23: A broken column is a traditional graveyard memorial for a premature death.
l. 24: A book Eliot reviewed in 1923, The Sacred Dance by W.O.E. Oesterley contains the image of a 'savage' who is awestruck by 'a tree, swayed by wind, moved'.6
l. 32: In the section "The Propitiation of Vermin by Farmers" in The Golden Bough Frazer discusses both the dressing in animal skins for ritualistic purposes, as well as the custom of hanging up the corpse of a member of a crop damaging species as a possible origin of the scarecrow. Weston looks at the staves of Morris Dancers, clowns in a costume of animal skins or a cap of skin. She sees them as a surviving remnant of earlier vegetation ceremonies. Where the previous stanza showed the beauty present in paradise and the hope a tormented soul has of reaching that place, this one and the next show that souls fear in the obstacles that will have to overcome before that can happen.
l. 35: In the Inferno spirits are blown about by the wind and in HoD the native dies just because he left the shutter open, "He had no restraint- just like Kurtz- a tree swayed in the wind."7
ll. 37-38: Both Dante the Pilgrim and Marlow must face a meeting they greatly fear. Dante must meet Beatrice and face her divine beauty. In doing so he can't help but be reminded of all of his own sins and failings, but by crossing the River Lethe, which flows in shadow, he can be purified and look upon her. At this point, he has completed the unpleasant stages of his journey, which is really an attempt to save his own soul, so that after his own death he will be able to join her in heaven. Marlow also faces the crux of his journey when he faces Kurtz's fiancé, but he chooses a darker path. He follows through on his word to Kurtz by giving her his letters, but he can not bring himself to tell the truth about his last words. In his submission to the heart of darkness he faces a moral twilight in which he chooses the shadow, literally, as the sun sets. The twilight that sets in is the choice the soul must face between light and darkness.
ll. 39-44: These lines are thought to be material originally discarded from The Waste Land as they closely resemble lines from sections I and V both in language and imagery. The stone images (and 'broken stone' in l. 51) suggests idolatrous worship. "The worship of stones is a degradation of a higher form of worship," F.B. Jevens's An Introduction to the History of Religions, a 1896 text Eliot is known to have studied at Harvard.8 The desert imagery suggests sterility, probably the sterility of the modern world.
l. 47: HoD: "We live, as we dream - alone."9
ll. 49-51: To the end, Kurtz's Intended is confident in his faithfulness, goodness, and unending love for her, while in reality he has turned to the worship of pagan forces (stone is symbolic of idolatrous and thus, non-Christian worship).
ll. 50-51: A perversion of Juliet's line about "lips that they must use in prayer" instead of for kissing. Kurtz's lips are being used in pagan worship instead of to express love for his Intended. Also, from Psalm 57, as used in Purgatorio xxii, xxxiii, "Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth thy praise!"
ll. 52-56: The valley Marlow walks through upon his arrival to the Congo, half excavated, littered with abandoned objects, and hopeless native laborers, "it seemed to me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno ... Black shapes crouched, lay sat between the trees, leaning against the trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced with in the dim light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair."10 Like ll. 39-44, a representation of the sterile, modern world, a place where the eyes that offer hope and shame don't exist.
l. 56: Possibly the "new jaw bone of an ass" (Judges xv, 15-19) with which Samson slew a thousand Philistines. This would seem to signify that the civilizing factor has broken, contributing to, or allowing, modern man's decline. The Golden Bough offers an anthropological explanation; the Baganda (and African tribe) believe that the spirit of the dead clings to the jawbone. The jaw bone of their deceased king is made into an effigy and put in a temple. Again, since the bone is broken, any leadership that could have taken from the talisman is no longer available.
ll. 57-60: These lines allude to all four major sources: the last meeting places and tumid rivers encountered by the Pilgrim on his journey, the element of conspiracy (last meetings before the treasonous act) in Julius Caesar and of the Gunpowder Plot, and Marlow's experiences with the secretive trading company, "It was just as though I had been let into some conspiracy."11 At the trading station he finds that most of the white employees occupy themselves "by backbiting and intriguing against each other in a foolish kind of way. There was an air of plotting about the station, but nothing came of it, of course it was as unreal as everything else."12 This is the final meeting of a doomed conspiracy, the meeting of the lost, hollow souls before they sentenced to the inferno.
l. 60: Dante's River Acheron flowing around hell or the river Marlow follows into the African 'heart of darkness'.
ll. 61-62: If the eyes reappear, so does hope and the possibility for salvation. At Dante the Pilgrim's first meeting with Beatrice, her eyes were shameful for him to look upon, yet they also signaled the possibility of his redemption. When he is able to look upon her again it signifies a change in the state of his soul, it has been purified. When Marlow meets Kurtz's Intended, he is looked upon by the eyes of a pure spirit, "The room seemed to have drown darker, as if all the sad light of the cloudy evening had taken refuge on her forehead. This fair hair, this pale visage, this pure brow, seemed surrounded by an ashy halo from which dark eyes looked out at me. Their glance was guileless, profound, and trustful."13 That moment Marlow's chance to resist the darkness which has penetrated modern life.
ll. 63-64: In Paradiso xxx the Pilgrim's vision of the highest level of heaven is of a rose whose petals are formed by Mary and the saints. In Paradiso xxxi he refers to God as the 'single star', and in Paradiso xxxii and elsewhere he refers to Mary as a rose.
l. 65: The twilight refers to Marlow's meeting with Kurtz's Intended, to the twilight that is physically gathering, and to the hopelessness in Marlow's own soul. Twilight represents a choice, but it can also be the mere memory of that choice.
ll. 68-71: These lines parody a children's song that is derived from a fertility dance done around a mulberry bush 'on a cold and frosty morning'. A prickly pear is a desert cactus, continuing the desert imagery that is particularly prevalent at the beginning of the third section of the poem. 5:00am is the traditional time of Christ's resurrection. In a 1923 review Eliot quoted Frazer on "how often with the decay of old faiths the serious rites and pageants .. [primitive, religious dances] have degenerated into the sports of children."14 Here he has further perverted the children's song by turning it into a modern infertility dance. By performing an infertility dance at the moment of resurrection, we are in effect blocking and rejecting the salvation it can bring.
ll. 72-90: Taken almost directly from Julius Caesar II.i:
Between the acting of a dreadful thingAnother possible source is the line "Between the void and its pure issue" from Valéry's The Cemetery by the Sea. In 1924, Eliot wrote an introduction to Valéry's Le Serpent in which he compared that line to Brutus's lines. He viewed The Cemetery by the Sea as an expression of Valery's melancholy skepticism attributed to "the agony of creation ... the mind constantly mocks and dissuades, and urges the creative activity in vain." The three central stanzas of this section closely resemble Valery's in their phrasal structure and emphatic rhythm and also in their thematic contrast between 'idea' and 'reality'.15
And the first motion, all the interm is
Like a phantasma, or hideous dream:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of men,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
This section of the poem deals with the true cause of hollowness- failing to make that choice that was once offered, failing to take action, giving in and living only as a shadow. The shadow has had a chance to recognize the difference between salvation and damnation and has either rejected that chance or failed to choose between the two.
l. 76: In 1935 Eliot accepted a suggestion that he had taken the 'Shadow' from "Non sum qualis eram" (I am not now as once I was) Ernest Dowson's most famous poem. It contains the phrases "Then fell thy shadow" and "Then falls the shadow." He is quoted as responding, "This derivation had not occurred in my mind, but I believe it to be correct, because the lines... have always run in my head."16 HoD also features shadows throughout: the boat moves in shadow, men die with shadows across their faces, pain is experienced in shadow, Kurtz's secrets are metaphorical shadows, Kurtz himself is a "Shadow - that wandering and tormented thing,"17 and at the end of the story a shadow stretches across the sky, a shadow over all of mankind.
l. 77: Part of the Lord's Prayer, as originally mentioned in I Chronicles xxix.
l. 83: Like l. 77 and l. 91, this line is italicized, suggesting a quotation. In this case it is from Conrad's An Outcast of the Islands, in which a broken man is punished by being kept alive rather than by being killed.
ll. 86-87: From Aristotelian philosophy, "matter only has potency until form gives it existence".
ll. 88-89: From Platonic philosophy, "the essence is the inapprehensible ideal, which finds material expression in its descent to the lower, material plane of reality."
ll. 95-98: Here, Eliot is again parodying the children's song 'Here we go round the mulberry bush,' specifically the line "this is the way we clap our hands". He's also referring to the biblical idea of a world without end from, "Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen"
l. 98: George Santayana lectured at Harvard while Eliot was a student there. His account of the Divine Comedy included: "it all ends, not with a bang, not with some casual incident, but in sustained reflection."18 The whimper could be in reference to two things: the Kipling poem, "Danny Deever", with which Eliot is known to have been familier and Dante's description of a newborn baby's cry upon leaving one world to enter another. That in turns suggests the image of a repentant Dante standing before Beatrice as a child before as stern parent.
The whimper is that Guy Fawkes exhaled when he gave up his co-conspirators, it is what Brutus and Cassius spoke when their plans to rule crumbled, it is Kurtz's last utterance when he finally realizes the truth of the world he lives in, and it is the end for all hollow men.