The Hollow Men

In 1925, T.S. Eliot, already an established and respected poet, published The Hollow Men.

It was a transitional time the author. Two years later, Eliot – who had been born to a prominent Missouri family and raised in the Unitarian church – would convert to Anglicanism and take British citizenship. A conversion which is reflected in his 1930 poem, Ash Wednesday.

He was in an unhappy marriage. In his sixties, Eliot confessed in a private letter, “To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”

Eliot had composed the epic poem largely while on three months enforced bedrest following a nervous breakdown.

It was in that state of mind – post-Waste, as Eliot later described it, yet without the peace he found later in life – that Eliot wrote The Hollow Men.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

The poem is full of allusions to hollow men – Guy Fawkes of the infamous Gunpowder treason and plot; Colonel Kurtz, the self-professed demigod of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Brutus, Cassius, and other men who conspire to take down Julius Caesar; and the many cursed shades who call to Dante as he travels through the afterlife in The Divine Comedy.

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

Ultimately, these hollow men, full of veracity and determination in life; worshipped, perhaps, as gods among men, are nothing. They are only the hollow men, the stuffed men.

In Purgatory, Dante finds such hollow men. “These shades never made a choice regarding their spiritual state during life (neither following nor rebelling against God) instead living solely for themselves.  Neither heaven nor hell will let them past its gates.”

They are remembered – if at all – not as lost,

Violent souls, but only 
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

There is an in-betweenness to their existence, a nothingness far worse than the tortuous circles of hell. They are shape without form; gesture without motion. They are paused, eternally, in that inhalation of oblivion.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Perhaps we are all hollow men. Perhaps we are all doomed to that empty pause. Perhaps, we, like Fawkes, will be found – seemingly on the eve of our victory – standing guard over our greatest work not yet accomplished.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Or, perhaps not. Perhaps, as Eliot did himself, we can find new beginnings out of our quiet darkness. As Eliot writes in Ash Wednesday:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?


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