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Modernist Poetry Explication: The Hollow Men

T.S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot

Written in 1925, T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men sheds light on passionate responses in the wake of World War I. The lengthy free verse poem seeks to further “critique modern civilization” as a follow up to Eliot’s iconic work: The Waste Land (366). In a cruel irony, the poem was published in the same year as Adolf Hitler’s infamous book, Mien Kampf.

The form and structure of Eliot’s poem lend an element of division and separation, which coincides with the personal emotions of each subject. In 98 lines, divided into five sections, Eliot carries readers through life from the perspective of a “hollow man,” defined as “stuffed,” “quiet,” “meaningless,” and “paralyzed” (391). He uses multiple stanzas and splits as a vehicle to generate a sense of unstable insecurity. Through religious aspects and fragmented images, Eliot takes advantage of modernism to convey hopelessness within the morale of Americans and criticize society.

Constantly repeating “death’s dream kingdom,” T.S. Eliot associates the hollow men with their eminent demise. He ties in religious aspects of indecision, drawing a divide between those already in Heaven or Hell and those whose destiny remains undetermined. To those who have crossed over, the hollow men are “disguised,” “stuffed,”  and function with “a headpiece filled with straw,” alluding to a veiled sense of falsity and lack of courage.  The “valley of dying stars” exists as the “dead land:” a dry and arid terrain filled with cacti and resembling a state like Hell. Further, Elliot references the men waiting on the banks of a river, referring to the River of Styx from Greek mythology which acts as the division between the Underworld and Earth. Simultaneously, Eliot offers a contradicting setting, in which the men are surrounded by stone barriers.

Eliot references societal customs by beginning the poem with two quotes: one regarding the death of an ill-fated protagonist from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the second citing an expression to celebrate the attempted bombing of British Parliament. Both seek to set the tone for the poem through the lens of society as dark, deathly, and rather twisted. He continues to depict an ominous world in which men hide behind “broken stones,” trapped in the “meaningless” jail of life. Paralyzed by a sickening society, the hollow men experience isolation, avoiding speech and eye contact alike. Rather than forging connections, their hollowness within is paralleled by the vacant and desolate surroundings. Eliot suggests that a society filled with masks and veils has left little room for substantial truth. Instead, fear, dread, and pessimism fill the void. The final stanza opens with a reference to a child’s nursery rhyme, however the mulberry bush is replaced with a cactus. The poem ends as apocalyptic as it began, replacing the innocence of child’s play with painful thorns. Eliot uses the fragmentation of biblical lines to covey the end of the world. Hopeless, helpless, and alone: the men go out with a weak whimper. The anticlimactic ending reinforces the purposelessness and irrelevance of the lives of the hollow men.

Published inHonors AssignmentLiterary Insight

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