Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
- The entire first section could be summed up as: "My friends, the greatest of minds, went insane." The second section could be summed up as, "What made my friends go mad?"
- The central question of the first section was, "Who?", as in, "Who are these greatest of minds?" The central question of the second section is "What?"
- The speaker blames a mythical creature like the sphinx, which has the head of a human the body of a lion. (The most famous statue of a sphinx can be found next to the Great Pyramids in Egypt). But he adds an industrial twist: the sphinx is made out of "cement" and "aluminum," which are modern-day building materials.
- He wonders if the sphinx cracked his friends' heads like an egg, and "ate up their brains and imagination."
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
- The speaker blames the problem on Moloch, a false god or idol to whom ancient Middle Eastern cultures sacrificed children by throwing them in a fire. Basically, the speaker believes that modern American society gobbles up young people and makes them go mad.
- Rather than bury yourself in books about ancient religions, you should let the speaker define what "Moloch" means to him. Among other things, it represents "solitude," "filth," "ugliness," and all the other sad sights in this line (and throughout this section).
- Our speaker also goes hog-wild with the exclamation marks starting with this line. You can think of each exclamation mark as a gesture of accusation, as if he were pointing his finger and saying, "Look! Look at what Moloch has done!"
- Folks, there's a reason this poem is called Howl.
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
- "Moloch" is not a very pretty word. It sticks in the back of your throat and sounds like a cat coughing up a fur ball. The speaker keeps throwing it in our face over and over again.
- According to the speaker, Moloch has no love for people and judges them. It is a "nightmare" that lives in people's minds.
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
- Now the speaker gets into some more specific accusations. He associates Moloch with institutions of government, like prisons and Congress.
- To the speaker, Moloch represents social authority, and it is responsible for war and sorrows.
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
- Moloch is like The Terminator. He's "pure machinery."
- Well, maybe the speaker just means that Moloch is a creation of man but fundamentally inhuman. It has no sympathy or emotions. It's like the "system" of society.
- If Moloch had a body, it would have armies for fingers, money for blood, and tombs for ears.
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!
- Looks like Moloch has got itself a whole boatload of money. It owns the skyscrapers, factories, smokestacks, and antennae. Its buildings look like "endless Jehovahs."
- "Jehovah" is a Hebrew name for God. We already know that Moloch is a false god, so the comparison to the "real" God must be ironic.
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
- The speaker continues being ironic, saying that Moloch has "love" and a "soul" that correspond to symbols of capitalism. Remember that Ginsberg was very interested in Marxist ideas and believed that capitalism exploited the working class and created violent wars.
- Moloch also hates genius and sex, and its fate is a mushroom cloud from a hydrogen bomb.
- Most surprisingly, Moloch's name is "the Mind."
- But isn't the mind a good thing? Not if you're insane. Moloch represents the insanity that has gripped the "best minds" from the first line of the poem. The mind has become a kind of hell.