The Hollow Men
by T.S. Eliot
Analysis: Sound Check
The Hollow Men's description of their voice as being "As quiet and meaningless / As wind in dry grass" could apply to the sound of the poem as a whole, without the meaningless part. This poem is often associated with Eliot's most famous poem, The Waste Land, because both works are set in Hellish environments and concern people whose lives are fragmented and incoherent. Both poems were written around the same period in Eliot's life. But compared to The Waste Land, "The Hollow Men" is a much sparser, quieter poem.
The short length of the lines in "The Hollow Men" creates frequent pauses, as if each line were a small gust of wind followed by an eerie silence. Like the wind, the poem often changes directions and returns to the same place. In lines 11 and 12, for example, the Hollow Men suddenly transition from a description of themselves to a repetitive philosophical aside: "Shape without form, shade without colour [. . .]". The poem keeps circling back on itself and repeating words like "hollow," "kingdom," "eyes," "dry," "broken," "fading," "dream," "stone" and "Shadow."
The volume of "The Hollow Men" is never raised very high, even as the Hollow Men describe their terrible half-existence. When they start singing in the end, the verses have the quality of a flat monotone. Like the wind in the grass, these lines make a sound but have no consistent melody. It's not that Eliot couldn't write musical poems – his "Four Quartets" is intensely lyrical – but he wants the sound of this poem to mimic the emptiness of the Hollow Men. Only occasionally does he include a word that really stands out, like "supplication" or "multifoliate." You notice these words precisely because they don't seem to belong. They are rare oases in a flat desert of sound.