Study Guide

The Hollow Men Quotes

  • Dissatisfaction

    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! (lines 3-4)

    The Hollow Men have the same problem as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz: they have straw for brains. Because they lack intelligence (or at least the kind of intelligence that matters in the spiritual world), they also lack the ability to fully understand their condition. They can only cry out "Alas!" to express a general dissatisfaction.

    Is it like this
    In death's other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone. (lines 45-51)

    The Hollow Men's dissatisfaction expresses itself as curiosity about whether things are just as bad in Heaven. Specifically, they Hollow Men have natural feelings of love and "tenderness" but can't act on them.

    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river (lines 57-60)

    In addition to missing out on the joys of love, the Hollow Men do not have a true community. They "grope together" on the river so as not to be alone, but they don't even talk to one another. As self-interested individuals, they have no concern for others.

    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow (lines 84-89)

    The Hollow Men suffer from moral paralysis – the inability to act or follow through on any of their natural feelings and capabilities. Have you ever experienced this problem in some area of your life?

    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper. (lines 97-98)

    Because the Hollow Men can never act, except on behalf of their own narrow interests, their lives just fizzle out into a meaningless moan of unhappiness. You could think of the whole poem as their "whimper" of complaint.

  • Passivity

    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion; (lines 11-12)

    The Hollow Men live in a world that lacks essential qualities of reality. This helps to explain their total passivity and inability to accomplish anything.

    Remember us—if at all—not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men. (lines 15-18)

    The Hollow Men want heavenly souls to "remember" that as pathetic and passive as they are, at least they were not "violent souls" who committed atrocious and evil deeds. But the poem judges them for being so weak that, even if they wanted to, they couldn't pull off a bold and wicked action. It's interesting that being passive is seen here as worse than being evil.

    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death's dream kingdom
    These do not appear: (lines 19-21)

    The passivity of the Hollow Men often manifests itself as cowardice. This gives us another excuse to make a connection with The Wizard of Oz: they not only resemble the scarecrow without a brain, but also the "cowardly" lion without a brave heart.

    Let me be no nearer
    In death's dream kingdom
    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
    In a field
    Behaving as the wind behaves
    No nearer— (lines 29-36)

    Calm down, guys. Trust us – the people from Heaven aren't going to come any "nearer" to you. These lines are just another example of the Hollow Men are like a bunch of poor, wounded puppies.

    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow (lines 72-76)

    The Shadow is the cause of passivity of the Hollow Men. An "idea" may come into their heads, but they cannot turn it into a "reality" once the Shadow falls. We think of the Shadow as a dark curtain or veil.

  • Identity

    Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

    A penny for the Old Guy(epigraphs)

    The epigraphs identify the Hollow Men with the character Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, and the English traitor Guy Fawkes; it suggests that they are dead souls.

    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men (lines 1-2)

    The first two lines make the Hollow Men sound like one of those scary-looking animals that hunters sometimes hang on their walls. They have the outward appearance of being human, but inside they are just lifeless matter.

    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
    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion; (lines 5-12)

    The Hollow Men have an incomplete identity. Their "voices," "shape," and ability to "gesture" resemble qualities of human beings, but they have no meaning here. They are like shadows without the real object that creates the shadow.

    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves (lines 31-33)

    Do you believe the claim that the scarecrow costume is a disguise, or are the Hollow Men trying to justify their lifeless form? They try to cover up their hollowness from the "eyes" of "death's other kingdom."

    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death's twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men. (lines 61-67)

    Would you have expected the Hollow Men to be blind? How can they dance around all those cacti if they are blind? Or does Eliot mean "blind" in a metaphorical sense?

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Remember us—if at all—not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men. (lines 15-18)

    It sounds like the Hollow Men want to be remembered by people back on earth and in Heaven, just like many of the souls of Dante's Inferno. They're almost saying, "We were worthless and never helped anyone in our lives, but at least we never hit someone over the head with a lead pipe!"

    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death's dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind's singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star. (lines 19-28)

    Even in their dreams, the Hollow Men can't bear to meet the "eyes." These lines show the extent to which they are torn between fear and curiosity about "death's other kingdom." As always, their fear wins out.

    Not that final meeting
    In the twilight kingdom (lines 37-38)

    We think that the "final meeting" refers to the Day of Judgment prophesied in the Bible, when all souls will have to meet their eternal fate. It looks like the Hollow Men aren't too optimistic about their fate.

    Here the stone images
    Are raised, here they receive
    The supplication of a dead man's hand
    Under the twinkle of a fading star. (lines 41-44)

    The Hollow Men pray to stones instead of to God. (Considering that this is a Christian poem, that's a bad thing). They "supplicate," which means they want something, probably an end to their miserable condition. Does "twinkle" of the star, even as it is "fading," suggest that there might be some tiny atom of hope for them?

    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death's twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men. (lines 61-67)

    The Hollow Men hold out hope that the "eyes" will come back as a heavenly rose to save them. We think this meeting could look like the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, except with a flower instead of a space ship.

    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the (lines 92-94)

    These lines are an example of the "meaningless" speech of the Hollow Men, a voice that rattles like the wind. Their inability to finish the "Lord's Prayer" only cements their damnation.

  • Exile

    Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
    Remember us—if at all—not as lost (lines 13-15)

    This is a strange poem to be dealing with exile, a concept that is usually political and not spiritual in nature. But the Hollow Men are exiled from "death's other Kingdom."

    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind's singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star. (lines 22-28)

    Where is "there"? Our guess would be Heaven or "death's other Kingdom," but the image of a "broken column" is not a happy one. At any rate, the Hollow Men do not have a good idea of what Heaven is like because they are so far away from it.

    Is it like this
    In death's other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone. (lines 45-51)

    Though they are deathly afraid (pun!) of Heaven and those eyes in particular, they also have a naïve curiosity about "what's it like there?" Once again, they have no idea how to imagine this other kingdom, except through reference to their own sad existence.

    The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms (lines 52-56)

    The landscape is a no-man's-land of broken things, dying stars, and death. Like the Hollow Men, the setting is also characterized by absence: the lack of "eyes."

    Here we go round the prickly pear
    Prickly pear prickly pear
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    At five o'clock in the morning. (lines 68-71)

    The circular motion of dancing around a spiny cactus symbolizes the lack of direction in the existence of the Hollow Men. The souls of Heaven, by contrast, moved in a straight line toward God's justice. In this revision of a children's song, Eliot substitutes a dry, bare plant ("the prickly pear") for a lush, green plant (the mulberry bush).