Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
- Hold hands everyone, we're going to sing a song: "We are the hol-low men! We are the stuffed men!"
- Well, maybe these lines don't work as a Broadway showstopper, but it is striking that the Hollow Men are singing in chorus, as a group.
- At this point, we have no idea where they are.
- They are both "hollow" and "stuffed." Aren't these qualities the opposite of one another?
- Not if hollow means something like "lacking a heart," or in the Scarecrow's famous words from The Wizard of Oz: "If I only had a brain!"
- The Hollow Men are lacking something essential.
- They are also "stuffed" with straw, like an effigy of Guy Fawkes (see "Second Epigraph") or like a scarecrow.
- They are leaning together to support each other, as if they are frightened or cannot support themselves.
- We think of a bundle of sticks being stacked together to form a lean-to.
- They are not happy about their "hollow" condition, either, but they can only express their unhappiness in the one-word exclamation, "Alas!"
- This is a cheesy thing to say, and Eliot knows it. We shouldn't expect people whose heads are filled with straw to express themselves profoundly.
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
- The Hollow Men talk without saying anything meaningful.
- They speak in a soft "whisper," as if they are afraid that someone will hear them.
- In an especially haunting image, their voices are compared to the wind running through dry grass, which sounds like a quiet rattling or scraping.
- Or, as a second example, the voices sound like the feet of rats pitter-pattering over pieces of broken glass "In our dry cellar."
- If both these images make you shiver, you're on the right track. (If you've seen the Lord of the Rings series, does this remind you of Gollum at all?)
- At least we have learned about what the Hollow Men were like on earth. They had a "cellar" like many average people.
- The first stanza uses "dry" or "dried' three times. Eliot wants you to know: the Hollow Men are dry and do not have blood in the veins. They don't even have veins.
- To make another comparison with the movies, remember how the renegade pirates in The Pirates of the Caribbean were cursed with being unable to eat or drink anything, and so their skin got dry and they began to fall apart? The Hollow Men have a similar curse. They are filled with straw, which is a kind of "dry grass."
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
- The speaker removes himself from the narration to give four examples of other things that have "missing essentials."
- Just like the Hollow Men, these things only half-exist, because they are missing something else that will make them real.
- The first example is "shape without form."
- A shape becomes a form when it has substance. Otherwise it's just an empty idea, like the difference between the ball you imagine in your head (a shape) and a ball of dough (a form).
- In the same line of thought, you can't have a "shade" without "color," because "shade" is a degree of color. But somehow, the Hollow Men have one without the other. (Also, Eliot is making a pun on the word "shade," which can mean "ghost").
- "Force" is the power to act or move, but "Paralysed force" is a force that can't move or act.
- All of these examples are contradictory: they would make no sense in the real world.
- The final example is "gesture without motion." Can you make a gesture without moving?
- Here's an exercise: try making the universal gesture for "STOP!" without moving a muscle. Can you do it? Not unless you lived in some strange netherworld, which seems to be what we're dealing with in this poem.
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.
- You could read these lines in two ways: 1) the Hollow Men are asking people who have crossed into "death's other Kingdom" to remember them as stuffed and empty men and not as violent and nasty people; or 2) the Hollow Men are stating as a fact that this is how they have been remembered.
- The difference is between "They remember me like this . . ." and "Remember me like this!"
- The word "crossed" might remind us of the "Second Epigraph," and the Greek myth where dead souls must pay Charon to cross the River Styx to enter the realm of the dead.
- For some reason, the Hollow Men never made it to the land of the dead. They are stuck in no-man's land.
- From a Christian perspective, "death's other Kingdom" sounds like Heaven, where souls look with "direct eyes" at God.
- The Hollow Men do not have "direct eyes." Do they even have eyes at all?
- Beware: we're about to throw more allusions at you.
- In particular, this whole poem seems to be inspired by the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, the great Italian poet. Eliot was obsessed with Dante. Seriously obsessed. He borrowed so much from Dante that he should have to pay royalties.
- We think the idea for "The Hollow Men" comes from Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno. In that canto, Dante arrives at the gates of Hell and sees a group of people wandering around aimlessly and miserably, with lots of tears and wailing. As Dante's guide Virgil says, "They have no hope of death, and their blind life is so abject that they are envious of every other lot. The world does not permit report of them. Mercy and justice hold them in contempt. Let us not speak of them – look and pass by."
- To recap: the souls in Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno can't even die, they are "blind," and the world will not "report of" or remember them.
- This sounds kind of like our Hollow Men, doesn't it?
- As Virgil explains elsewhere in the canto, these souls did not take sides in the universal conflict between good and evil. They thought they lived their lives apart from difficult moral questions. In a sense, both Dante and Eliot believed that such people are the worst of all, because they are too timid or indifferent even to do bad things.
- As for "direct eyes," in the other two parts of the Divine Comedy, Purgatorio and Paradiso, Dante constantly describes the eyes of his great love, the heavenly Beatrice. She has the kind of eyes that can see right through a person's flaws and mistakes. Dante can't hide anything from her powerful vision. As a heavenly soul, she is also able to look "directly" at God.