Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Mistah Kurtz—he dead.
- The first epigraph is a quote from a servant in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
- The servant reveals to the character Marlow that another character named Kurtz has just died.
- Conrad's novel is a true classic, but we don't think you need to rush out to read it to understand this poem.
- Here's the lowdown: Kurtz is an British ivory trader in Africa, and is one of the many Europeans who arrived to exploit that continent's resources in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He seems to have some qualities of greatness because he collects more ivory than other traders, but in one memorable passage, Marlow suspects Kurtz of being "hollow to the core" and lacking a human and moral nature. (Read more.) The epigraph tells us that, in some sense, the poem is set after the death of Kurtz, or someone "hollow" man like him.
A penny for the Old Guy
- The English celebrate Guy Fawkes Day every November 5th with fireworks and the burning of little straw men or "effigies."
- Guy Fawkes was convicted of trying to blow up King James I in 1605 by stashing gunpowder underneath the Parliament building. The incident is known as the "Gunpowder Plot." But Fawkes and the gunpowder were discovered before the plan went off, and Fawkes gave up the names of his co-conspirators under torture.
- To celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, English children ask for money to fund the explosions of their straw effigies of Fawkes, so they say, "A penny for the guy?" "Guy" being his first name. You can read more about it here.
- But there's more. According to Ancient Greek mythology, a person who died would need to pay Charon, the ferryman, with a coin before he would take you across the River Styx into the realm of death. So the "Old Guy" also refers to the ancient figure of Charon. Apparently, someone is begging for a "penny" to give the ferryman to get across the Styx.