The Hollow Men


Eliot starts his poem "The Hollow Men" with a quote from Joseph Conrad?s novel the Heart of Darkness. The line "Mistah Kurtz-he dead" refers to a Mr. Kurtz who was a European trader who had gone in the "the heart of darkness" by traveling into the central African jungle, with European standards of life and conduct. Because he has no moral or spiritual strength to sustain him, he was soon turned into a barbarian. He differs, however, from Eliot?s "hollow men" as he is not paralyzed as they are , but on his death catches a glimpse of the nature of his actions when he claims "The horror! the Horror!" Kurtz is thus one of the "lost /Violent souls" mentioned in lines 15-16. Eliot next continues with "A penny for the Old Guy". This is a reference to the cry of English children soliciting money for fireworks to commemorate Guy Fawkes day, November 5; which commemorates the "gunpowder plot" of 1605 in which Guy Fawkes and other conspirators planned to blow up both houses of Parliament. On this day, which commemorates the failure of the explosion, the likes of Fawkes are burned in effigy and mock explosions using fireworks are produced. The relation of this custom to the poem suggests another inference: as the children make a game of make believe out of Guy Fawkes , so do we make a game out of religion. The first lines bring the title and theme into a critical relationship. We are like the "Old Guy", effigies stuffed with straw. It may also be noticed that the first and last part of the poem indicate a church service, and the ritual service throughout. This is indicated in the passages "Leaning together...whisper together", and the voices "quiet and meaningless" as the service drones on. The erstwhile worshippers disappear in a blur of shape, shade gesture, to which normality is attached. Then the crucial orientation is developed, towards "death?s other Kingdom." We know that we are in the Kingdom of death, not as "violent souls" but as empty effigies, "filled with straw", of this religious service.
Part two defines the hollow men in relation to the reality with those "direct eyes have met". "Direct eyes" symbolizing those who represent something positive (direct). Fortunately, the eyes he dare not meet even in dreams do not appear in "death?s dream kingdom." They are only reflected through broken light and shadows, all is perceived indirectly. He would not be any nearer, any more direct, in this twilight kingdom. He fears the ultimate vision.
Part three defines the representation of death?s kingdom in relationship to the worship of the hollow men. A dead, arid land, like it?s people, it raises stone images of the spiritual, which are implored by the dead. And again the "fading star" establishes a sense of remoteness from reality. The image of frustrated love which follows is a moment of anguished illumination suspended between the two kingdoms of death. Lips that would adore, pray instead to a broken image. The "broken stone" unites the "stone images" and the broken column," which bent the sunlight.
Part four explores this impulse in relation to the land, which now darkens progressively as the valley of the shadow of death. Now there are not even hints of the eyes (of the positive), and the "fading" becomes the "dying" star. In action the hollow men now "grope together / And avoid speech", gathered on the banks of the swollen river which must be crossed to get to "death?s other kingdom". The contrast with part I is clear. Without any eyes at all they are without any vision, unless "the eyes" return as the "perpetual", not a fading or dying star. But for empty men this is only a hope. As the star becomes a rose, so the rose becomes the rose windows of the church; the rose as an image of the church and multifoliate. Which is a reference to Dante?s Divine Comedy, where the multifoliate rose is a symbol of paradise, in which the saints are the petals of the rose.
But Part Five develops the reality, not the hope of the empty men; the cactus not the rose. The nursery level make believe mocks the hope of empty men. In desire they "go round the prickly pear" but are frustrated by the prickles.