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The Hollow Men


Eliot's Poems 1909–1925 first editionCollection first edition
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98 lines, approx. 500 words

Notable lines
First lines

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

Great lines

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

Waste Land Lite

All the important elements of Eliot's longer, more difficult poem The Waste Land are in "The Hollow Men".

The view of this world as insubstantial, a realm for the living dead. The attempts to revive religious concepts, to offer hope for salvation in another world. The mixture of high and low culture. Children's rhyme next to prayer.

Even the images are back for a repeat: rats, broken columns and death, death, death.

But the differences are substantial too. "The Hollow Men" is shorter—always a good sign. It contains no mix of languages, no show of classical learning or obvious literary allusions. No footnotes. Simpler language.

And because of all that, it's a much greater poem in my book. An unlettered person could read it and understand it as a depressing view of life in this world, or in this society, without necessarily buying into the Christian or anti-Enlightenment positions.

I still don't like Eliot's philosophy or his arid view of life. Other great intellectuals have said "Nothing human is alien to me" but Eliot's view seems to be "Everything human is not only alien to me but rather disgusting." Look at the impotence expressed in the lines:

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

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Has there been a better illustration in literature of ineffectuality leading to refuge in religion? To be fair, the religious solution breaks down somewhat in this poem as well. But it's the world as a whole that comes to an ignominious end in the famous final lines of this poem.

But if we need a poem that expresses these views "The Hollow Men" is a masterpiece at doing this in a way that anyone can read and grasp.

— Eric