Influential Works IV – The Hollow Men

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8 mins read

Surely you know this poem by T.S. Eliot. You’ve heard bits and pieces, quotes. You’ve seen Apocalypse Now. It’s so influential as to almost be overused, but there is a reason for that: it is probably the best poem by the best poet of the Modernist movement in literature.

Eliot was an American poet with British affectations–so much so that later in his life he emigrated to England and spent the rest of his days there. There is something about writers from Missouri wanting to get the hell out of that state. We won’t really go into his biography at this point past that, but he wrote The Hollow Men in 1925, after the end of World War I and during a time of increasing decadence despite the horrors of the Great War. 

The poem itself is inspired by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and quotes it several times. As it is a Modernist piece, it is chock full of allusion to other works and authors: Julius Caesar, William Morris, Rudyard Kipling, The Bible, Dante, just to list a few. There are more exhaustive lists of references both within the poem and to the poem elsewhere.

Indeed, the poem is Biblical in scope; Eliot was a Christian off-and-on, a man who struggled with faith but ultimately faith won; but this was 1925, so that victory was still distant in his life, and the 1920s were not always kind to him in his private life. The protagonists of the poem equally struggle, given the desolation, emptiness, and hopelessness all around them in death’s various kingdoms, culminating in that final whimper in that over-quoted but influential and powerful last verse.

Of course, there are also political themes to the poem. The Great War led to the Versailles Treaty, which people like Eliot believed would not end well for anyone. (He was, of course, right. But that’s a different matter.) 

Most Modernist poetry is absolute garbage and we won’t spend much time with it (there are some exceptions), but T.S. Eliot delivers. There will be more of him as this series progresses. 

The Hollow Men

T.S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz-he dead


            A penny for the Old Guy

I

    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar
 

    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
 

    Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
    Remember us-if at all-not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.

II

    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death’s dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind’s singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star.
 

    Let me be no nearer
    In death’s dream kingdom
    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
    In a field
    Behaving as the wind behaves
    No nearer-
 

    Not that final meeting
    In the twilight kingdom

III

    This is the dead land
    This is cactus land
    Here the stone images
    Are raised, here they receive
    The supplication of a dead man’s hand
    Under the twinkle of a fading star.
 

    Is it like this
    In death’s other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone.

IV

    The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
 

    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
 

    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death’s twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men.

V

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.
 

    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
 

For Thine is the Kingdom
 

    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow

 Life is very long
 

    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow

 For Thine is the Kingdom
 

    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the
 

    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper. 

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