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.
T.S. Eliot had an unbelievable memory, and he read an amazing amount of books. He also had a habit of trying to guess where he had come up with lines and titles by remembering things he had read that contained similar expressions. For this poem, he claimed to have combined the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling (of The Jungle Book fame), "The Broken Men," with the title of story by a writer named William Morris, "The Hollow Land." He claimed, "I combined the two" (source).
To be honest, we don't think that Eliot's memory adventures are necessarily useful when reading his poems. A more important connection might be Marlow 's description of the character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness as "hollow at the core." This connection is relevant because the first epigraph of the poem is a quote from Heart of Darkness announcing Kurtz's death.
Even without the title, you would know that the Hollow Men narrate this poem from the first line.
The Hollow Men live in a desert nether world that looks like it could be in outer space. Everything around them is bone dry. Everything, that is, except for the Acheron, a branch of the River Styx, the entrance to death, which the Hollow Men cannot get across. They are stuck between life and death. The river is "tumid" or full. The landscape is littered with small cacti, dry grass, broken stones, and columns. The stones look like the remnants of an archaic sacred space where a ritual was once held. The wind blows softly, producing a scratchy sound. You can barely make out a few stars in the distance, but every time you look, they appear farther and farther away. You get the feeling you are always being watched, and that the stars might actually be eyes.
You hear a low and meaningless mumbling from the banks of the river. What's that? Oh, it's just the Hollow Men, huddled together and trying not to be noticed. Their heads are stuffed with straw and they lean together like scarecrows on wooden posts. They can't see anything, and thus feel their way around by "groping." They are waiting for a ferryman who will never come.
The poem is a dramatic monologue of sorts, which means that the speaker is not just a stand-in for the poet. Instead, Eliot puts words in the mouths of the Hollow Men and allows them to explain their situation. But the voice of the Hollow Men seems to be made up of several different kinds of voices. The speaker is "fractured," like a broken mirror and like the images of broken things scattered throughout the poem.
At times the Hollow Men are a bit cheesy and self-pitying, such as when they cry, "Alas!" in line 4. At other times, they talk like professors of ancient Greek philosophy, covering topics like the gap between "idea" and "reality" or between "potency" and "existence." They speak in a highly stylized and symbolic language that does not resemble normal speech. How many people do you know who sprinkle their conversation with phrases like, "perpetual star/ Multifoliate rose" (lines 63-64)?
To be fair, the Hollow Men don't get a chance to defend themselves. It's more like they are puppets being manipulated by someone who wants to condemn them. This "someone" has read a lot of Dante's Divine Comedy and wants to compare the Hollow Men to the "small-souled" people in Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno. Our puppet-master/speaker also makes them sing and dance. The poem begins the declaration that the Hollow Men are a kind of chorus, speaking together as one. By the final section, they are dancing around a prickly pear cactus and singing a children's song. Every once in a while, they try to say part of the prayer but can't bring themselves to do it. They trail off and return to their "end-of-the-world" jig.
When reading this poem, you might find yourself asking, "Where are we? What's happening?" You might not realize that the Hollow Men are supposed to be dead people until your second or third read of the poem. It also helps to know a little about things like the River Acheron from Greek mythology. Moreover, the poem displays a familiarity with Dante's Inferno that you'd have to know intimately (like Eliot) to understand. Eliot is often criticized for being too much of an academic, and you get some of that flavor here. But the poem also has a very distinct sound, and it's not hard to figure out that the Hollow Men are not the happiest or most satisfied folks.
Dante Alighieri. Greatest poet of all time? Some people think so, and Eliot is one of them. You'd be doing yourself a big favor if you read Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno after reading "The Hollow Men."
First, because Eliot's poem seems to be about the same group of cowardly, selfish, "small-souled" individuals that Dante describes. Second, because Dante is awesome and Canto 3 has disgusting, can't-miss-it descriptions of people being stung by wasps and walking on earthworms. The constant reference to "eyes" in "The Hollow Men" poem also parallels the importance of the eyes of Dante's lover Beatrice in the Paradiso. Most, if not all, of Eliot's most famous poems are littered with subtle references to Dante.
If you had to label the poem as anything, you would have to call it "free verse," because it doesn't have a regular meter or rhyme scheme. The poem is almost like a speech or a dramatic monologue delivered by a character, the character being all of the Hollow Men. But the verses don't hold together like a speech in a play. In the last section, for example, a childish dance around the "Mulberry Bush" is contrasted with mysterious and philosophical lines about "the Shadow."
"The Hollow Men" consists of five sections of varying lengths. The lines are generally short. Like many of Eliot's poems, this one has an epigraph at the beginning – and not just one epigraph, but two.
Nor does Eliot use a strict meter like iambic pentameter, though he sometimes used regular meters in other poems. Nonetheless, with Eliot's deep knowledge of poetry traditions, we wouldn't be surprised if he were parodying some French or Italian poet – we just wouldn't be able to tell you who it was.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
So which is it? Are the Hollow Men "hollow" or are they "stuffed"? Both, it seems. Their hollowness is a sign that they lack a soul and other essential qualities of being human. They are also dead, so they don't have complete bodies. But they are filled with straw like one of the effigies that English school-kids blow up on Guy Fawkes Day (see our discussion of the "Second Epigraph"). Or you can think of them as being like scarecrows. Similar to the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz that only needed a brain to be a real person, they exist in a state that is less than fully real.
The beginning of the poem establishes that the Hollow Men live in a dry and barren world. The presence of cacti confirms that the poem is set in a desert. Dryness is a symbol for lack of life, as water is essential for all life. These guys don't have blood pumping through their veins; just straw. If you touched them, you'd worry they would crumble like a piece of ancient paper.
Everything around the Hollow Men is broken – nothing is complete. You wouldn't want to lend anything valuable to the Hollow Men or it would probably come back broken. Images of broken objects symbolize the fragmented spiritual condition of the Hollow Men.
The Hollow Men never speak of Heaven by name. In fact, they seem afraid to do so. They are curious about what "death's dream kingdom" is like, but they also fear the "eyes" of heavenly souls and the final judgmental that God will deliver. Fading or dying stars symbolize the receding chance for hope and salvation from Heaven.
Have you ever met someone who was completely afraid to look you in the eye? The Hollow Men are like that. They fear the judgmental glare of the people from "death's dream kingdom," but the eyes of these heavenly souls might just be their only hope for salvation. The eyes see the Hollow Men for the empty creatures they really are.
"The Shadow" isn't just the name of a superhero movie starring Alec Baldwin, it's also the name of the mysterious symbol of darkness that disconnects causes from effects and completely messes with the natural state of things. The Shadow falls like a curtain between normally connected concepts like "emotion" and "response." It seems to represent the unknown force that leads to a failure of willpower and to the inability to follow through with our intentions.
Eliot is known for quoting, alluding to, and sometimes borrowing from other literary and historical sources. His favorite source for borrowed expressions and ideas is the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy. Tracking down every single allusion in a poem is often a pointless task – the poem itself is what matters – but there are a few important connections you might want to know about.
At one point in the poem, the Hollow Men appear ready to get their groove on. They are "trembling with tenderness" (49), but have no one with whom to be affectionate. Scarecrows don't make great partners, so instead they pray to some broken stones.