Back To CourseTASC Reading: Prep and Practice
11 chapters | 102 lessons
Tim has taught college English and has a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and poetics.
Cable news channels today abound with pundits slamming the decline of Western values and traditional morality. Chances are, you have caught yourself echoing the words of the popular song, 'Where'd All the Good People Go?' It's difficult not be a little cynical about the world, given rampant news reports detailing the horrors of school shootings, terrorism, and the like. This sense of doom and gloom, though, is not at all new. It was, in fact, the central idea behind much of American poet T.S. Eliot's work. 'The Hollow Men,' published in 1925, is a great example.
'The Hollow Men' shares many of the same themes as Eliot's celebrated long poem, 'The Waste Land.' It is, in some ways, a shorter and more accessible version of this earlier piece. Above all, Eliot concerns himself with the crumbling moral fabric of society brought on by the advent of modern science and the declining importance of religion in the everyday lives of people. Eliot was writing in a time in which traditional authorities, both religious and political, were being overthrown in favor of new forms, such as communism and secularism. The world, in Eliot's eyes, was left without a leg to stand on, leaving humankind without a solid foundation for living moral lives. We have become, in effect, 'hollow men.'
Like most modernist poetry, 'The Hollow Men' is written in an experimental, free verse style, with many shifts in voice and point of view. Eliot was a fan of including abundant references to historical events and other literary works, making his poems difficult for novice readers and even highly educated ones. It is recommended to read through the poem first to get an idea of the overall meaning. Only after this initial step should the reader then delve into the subtle references and 'world beyond the text' so characteristic of Eliot's style.
That being said, the reader should have some familiarity with recurring allusions, or references to outside events or texts, including those made to the English Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Dante's Divine Comedy. These are the main source texts for 'The Hollow Men.'
Before the poem even begins, the reader encounters two such allusions. The epigraph, or quotation set at the beginning of a literary work, comes from Heart of Darkness. It reads:
'Mistah Kurtz--he dead.'
The speaker of this cryptic sentence is about Kurtz, an ivory dealer in Africa whose sole concern is making money, no matter what it takes. His death is a signal that no matter how much wealth a person accumulates, the same fate awaits us all.
The first stanza of 'The Hollow Men' is preceded by another epigraph:
'A penny for the Old Guy.'
This is an allusion to Guy Fawkes, whose botched attempt at bombing Parliament during the failed Gunpowder Plot gave rise to the holiday known as Guy Fawkes Day. The phrase is traditionally uttered by children begging money for fireworks to celebrate the occasion.
The poem then begins in a rather straightforward way:
'We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men.'
This is also a reference to Guy Fawkes, whose effigy (usually in the form of a straw man or scarecrow) is burned on the celebration bearing his name. Eliot's point is that conspiracies to overthrow traditional authorities are little more than empty gestures.
Just consider the assassination of Julius Caesar, the subject of Shakespeare's famous play, whose death threw Rome into disorder. Even when successful, conspiratorial plots leave nothing in place to satisfy our basic need for rule and order, leading to a state of chaos. The rest of this opening stanza paints a picture of the desolation wrought in the aftermath of anarchy, through frightful images of 'headpieces filled with straw,' 'dried voices,' 'wind in dry grass,' and 'rats' feet over broken glass.' Everything is dried and hollowed out, as in a war-stricken town or the scene of a terrorist attack.
The second stanza takes this theme and runs with it. In Dante's Divine Comedy, the speaker, who is led through the three kingdoms of the afterlife in an attempt to cleanse his soul, cannot meet his lover Beatrice's eyes in heaven, or 'death's dream kingdom.' He is not worthy, having spent the majority of his life working toward fruitless endeavors and temporary ends. And neither, in Eliot's eyes, are modern people. We wear 'deliberate disguises' but are unable to see life for how it is, because we avert our eyes from what is truly important.
Stanzas 3 and 4 offer much of the same, only on a political and religious level. Modern folks reside in a 'dead land' or 'cactus land,' lacking all the important institutions that gave life meaning before:
'Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone.'
People have become incapable of forming meaningful relationships with one another and with God, instead relying on lifeless objects, denying what might lead us to ultimate fulfillment.
The final stanza introduces a concept of Eliot's own creation, 'the Shadow,' which suggests a kind of mental block preventing modern humankind from reconciling its 'essence' with its 'existence.' While we are essentially beings whose purpose is to have a purpose in the world, our existence is caught up in the modern reality of purposelessness.
A recurring idea throughout the poem, that of the 'whisper,' betrays the reason for this state of affairs. Human souls were designed to sing together in a loud chorus of truth, not hushed whispers. But truth itself requires being filled with a vision of ultimate purpose. The famous final lines indicate the fate of such a lifeless race of souls:
'This is the way the world ends' / 'Not with a bang but a whimper.'
In other words, the end of the world will not come about due to nuclear war or a hostile alien invasion, but from our own inability to build a society in which spiritual wholeness serves as the primary foundation of our lives.
T.S. Eliot wrote 'The Hollow Men' as a reaction to the political and religious climate of his day. Traditional authorities were being overthrown, and Eliot was worried that new authoritative forms lacked the vitality of the old ones, leaving men and women without a foundation for constructing meaning and living moral lives.
The poem uses four main source texts to further Eliot's critique of modernity. The English Gunpowder Plot provides Eliot with the figure of the straw man, a symbol of the spiritual emptiness of modern people. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar hints at the desolation which necessarily follows periods of social upheaval. From Dante's Divine Comedy, Eliot gleans the plight of the modern soul, which turns away from reality rather than confront it headlong. Joseph Conrad's Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, is a testament to the impoverished moral sensibilities of humankind.
In general, 'The Hollow Men' serves as a stark criticism of modern society, populated as it is with empty shells of people whose lack of spiritual substance ultimately leads to the downfall of humanity itself.
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Back To CourseTASC Reading: Prep and Practice
11 chapters | 102 lessons