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The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot summary

T.S. Eliot was a poet, essayist, publisher, playwright, literary critic and editor. Considered one of the 20th century’s major poets, he is a central figure in English-language Modernist poetry. Eliot first attracted widespread attention for his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915, which, at the time of its publication, was considered bizarre.

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In the poem, a group of men are trapped in a barren world waiting for a change to take place. The poem begins with two epigraphs, just like many of T.S.Eliot’s other poems. According to the first epigraph, “Mistah Kurtz-he dead“, a man named Mistah Kurtz is dead. This character appears in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He is a trader and is a ‘hollow’ person. He has no moral values that can signify him as a decent human being. The second epigraph “A penny for the Old Guy” is a reference to the famous historical figure Guy Fawkes, who conspired to blow up the Parliament Hose of England. every year in England people burn a figure made out of straw that resembles Guy Fawkes. We will find certain references to that incident in this poem.

The poem begins with a group of men who call themselves ‘The Hollow Men’. These people are both empty and stuffed. Their bodies are like men, but heads are filled with straw like a scarecrow. Their voices are so dried that it feels if they are whispering. Everything they speak seem to be meaningless as wind over dead grass, or rats moving over broken glass. The speaker goes on to describe their appearances. Their bodies have no true forms, no colors, and they make gestures without motions. In short, their existence has no meaning. Then, they talk about someone who has visited the ‘other kingdom of death’. That person walked away straightforward without looking at these hollow men. If that person remembers about these men, then it would not be as lost angry souls, but as mere empty people. They are also referred as ‘stuffed men’ as they are stuffed with straw but are hollow from within.

Then the speaker sees eyes in his dreams. These eyes represent the eyes of God’s judgement. But, the speaker doesn’t look back at them. But these eyes do not appear in ‘death’s dream kingdom’ i.e. referred to Heaven. He describes the scene of heaven. There is a tree swinging in the wind, and voices can be heard. Those voices are very far away, even farther than a dying star. Here, the poet means that we as people have come too farther from our faith and culture that it now feels as they never existed. The speaker tells that he doesn’t want to get nearer to Heaven. The Hollow Men do not want to be near to heaven or anything that will tell them some information about themselves that they do not know. So they try to hide themselves under disguises : the skin of a rat or crow. Thus, the speaker doesn’t want to face the God in the Judgement Day, to decide his activities of his past life.

The speaker then describes the setting of the poem. It is a dry, barren land. It is a desert filled with cactus and stone statues. People pray before these stone statues under the light of a dying star. Then the speaker asks if it is the same in death’s other kingdoms too (Heaven/Hell). The Hollow Men are walking alone, filled with love. Instead of kissing someone, they offer prayers to these statues. The poet here wants to express that along with losing our culture and faith, we have also lost our emotions too. The imagery of eyes is brought back again. The speaker says that the eyes are not following them anymore. It is a hollow valley of dying stars, which once used to be magnificent. The poet means that the eyes of justice have now disappeared from the society. The once magnificent society, filled with cultures have now disappeared. This is the last meeting point of the hollow men. They walk silently together to a beach of a swollen river. They wait for someone to take them to the other side. The Hollow Men are blind, but their eyesight is suddenly restored. He talks about a rose with many petals. The rose is the symbol of Heaven, and it is their only hope to regain eyesight .

Now the hollow men are dancing around cactus. They wake up at 5 o’ clock and dance around the cast. This signifies how our lives are filled with barriers. Then the speaker says that between a idea and forming it to reality and between a motion and it becoming an act, the shadow stands in the middle. The shadow here symbolizes death, which has the power to block any action. Then the words “For Thine is the Kingdom” are written separately, as if someone else is the speaker here. These words mean that ‘the kingdom belongs to you’. This is a line from the prayer to God from the Bible. Then again the speaker says that between a conception and its creation; between an emotion and its response, stands the shadow, i.e. Death. The another speaker interrupts to say that the life is very long. The original speakers continues saying that between the desire and fulfilling it; between the power to create something and the thing that gets created; between the essence and the descent, falls the Shadow. Again someone speaks that the kingdom belongs to you. The speaker tries to repeat the phrase but stumbles. As if somebody, perhaps the shadow of death is stopping him from speaking this line. Then at the last lines, the speaker says that this is how the world will end, not by a big bang, but through a quiet cry.


The poem is written in free verse without a certain rhyming pattern. The poem is made up stanzas of varying lengths, grouped together into five distinct sections.

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