The poem begins with two epigraphs: one is a quotation from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness remarking on the death of the doomed character Kurtz. The other is an expression used by English schoolchildren who want money to buy fireworks to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. On this holiday, people burn straw effigies of Fawkes, who tried to blow up the British Parliament back in the 17th century.
The poem is narrated by one of the "Hollow Men."
In the first section of the poem, a bunch of Hollow Men are leaning together like scarecrows. Everything about them is as dry as the Sahara Desert, including their voices and their bodies. Everything they say and do is meaningless. They exist in a state like Hell, except they were too timid and cowardly to commit the violent acts that would have gained them access to Hell. They have not crossed over the River Styx to make it to either Heaven or Hell. The people who have crossed over remember these guys as "hollow men."
In the second section, one hollow man is afraid to look at people who made it to "death's dream kingdom" – either Heaven or Hell. The Hollow Men live in a world of broken symbols and images.
The third section of the poem describes the setting as barren and filled with cacti and stones. When the Hollow Men feel a desire to kiss someone, they are unable to. Instead, they say prayers to broken stones.
In the fourth section, the hollow man from Section 2 continues to describe his vacant, desolate surroundings, in which are no "eyes." The Hollow Men are afraid to look at people or to be looked at.
The fifth and final section begins with a nursery rhyme modeled on the song "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush," except instead of a mulberry bush the kiddies are circling a prickly pear cactus. The speaker describes how a "shadow" has paralyzed all of their activities, so they are unable to act, create, respond, or even exist. He tries quoting expressions that begin "Life is very long" and "For Thine is the Kingdom," but these, too, break off into fragments. In the final lines, the "Mulberry Bush" song turns into a song about the end of the world. You might expect the world to end with a huge, bright explosion, but for the Hollow Men, the world ends with a sad and quiet "whimper."