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The Hollow Men, Headpeice Filled with Meaning

In: English and Literature

Submitted By hurgcat
Words 1626
Pages 7
Grant Seamster
Walter Lowe
The Hollow Men: Headpiece Filled with Meaning Out of madness springs The Hollow Men, one of T.S. Eliot’s critically acclaimed poetic masterpieces. This poem has been analyzed over and over, and is so full of references to texts that it can be confusing to find a launching point. Just like most things in life, the beginning is a good start. T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri and attended Harvard, and went overseas to England for graduate school. It was here that he settled down, becoming a banker, and more importantly, writing poetry ( In the early and mid-1920’s, Eliot suffered from numerous nervous breakdowns, and during one of these breakdowns in 1925 the poem The Hollow Men was written. Using the archetypal literary school of criticism we will magnify the archetypes of hopelessness, desperation, misery, and despair throughout the work. The archetypal school of literary criticism determines a text’s meaning using cultural and psychological myths. Commonly used symbols such as crucifixion or the snake serve as a marker to delve deeper into the reading. Carl Jung, whose theory of a “collective unconscious”, has been accredited with founding this school of literary criticism. This Jungian theory claims literature imitates the “dream of humanity”, not life. Archetypal criticism splinters from the Formalist or New Criticism schools of literary criticism by approaching the work in the context it is read in, instead of holding it aloof from other texts. Archetypal images, sounds, and symbols are used in all areas of the humanities and are tied to our fundamental thinking patterns (Delahoyde). Before the first line of the poem, the line “A penny for the Old Guy” (Eliot 79), is the first reference to Guy Fawkes Day, the English holiday where a celebration is held every 5th of November due to the thwarting of a plan to attack the Parliament building in the failed “Gunpowder Plot”. This line is in reference to the children who line the street and beg for pennies saying “a penny for the old guy” (Altman). To start out a poem with the image of masked begging children resounds darkness through the poem. Also Guy Fawkes Day, dummies stuffed with straw are lit in the streets which Eliot references in lines 1-4 “We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!” emphasizes the hollow and futile lives of the men described in The Hollow Men. The image portrayed is that of masked scarecrows, begging and all of this is accomplished within the first 5 lines of the poem, and letting the reader know of its true message. The Heart of Darkness is a novel written by Joseph Conrad in 1894, and was a critique of British Colonialism around the world, and Eliot uses the feelings of darkness and suffocating enclosure in his poem (Van Aelst). Heart of Darkness are considered to be one of the largest influences on Eliot’s works (Van Aelst) and this is most evident in The Hollow Men as the first reference encountered in The Hollow Men is before the poem even technically starts. “Mistah Kurtz-he dead” (Eliot 77), is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the where the servant announces Kurtz death. For the first pseudo-line of the poem, the feeling of death and emptiness is placed over the reader. The line is spoken by Kurtz servant upon the discovery of his body, and just by the diction of it leaves a sense of hollowness. “-he dead”, as if spoken nonchalantly lets the reader know that Eliot’s evaluation of death is just that, hollow and of little significance.
The next time Heart of Darkness is referenced it is in line 5 and 6 “Our dried voices, when/ we whisper together” (Eliot 79), through the word whisper. Whispers are used as an instrument of fate in Heart of Darkness and in the poem lines 7-9, the whispers “Are quiet and meaningless/As wind in dry grass/Or rats feet over broken glass” (Eliot 79). Eliot describes the futility of the whispering of the hollow men, bringing about a fatalistic sense that these figures are doomed, and that they’re futile efforts will reach no ears. The next line, “In our dry cellar” (Eliot 79) only furthers this feeling of futility of the scarecrow men, whispering whispers that will never be heard locked in the cellar.
The following lines is where Eliot begins to bridge the gap into the religious archetypes “Shape without form, shade without colour,/Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;” (Eliot 79 Lines 12-13). Line 12; Shape without form, shade without colour, if in reference to a soul. But these souls, the souls of the hollow men are those who chose no path in life, giving their spirit now form and their shade no color, as if they do not exist to God nor to Satan. Line 13 furthers this with the paradox of “Paralyzed force” and “Gesture without motion” describes the indecisiveness of these hollow men, in their spirit form, and that inability to choose one side or another keeps them frozen in their state, miserable and alone.
The following lines “Those who have crossed/With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom/” (Eliot 15-16) end the first “chapter of The Hollow Men. The note they leave on is one of hopelessness and despair. Describing the souls of those with “direct eyes” crossing their path towards heaven or “death’s other Kingdom” referencing that these hollow men are either in hell, or more likely, in a dismal purgatory, neither feeling pain nor pleasure, doomed to the eternity of dullness. This is supported by the lack of importance instilled by “Remember us - if at all - not as lost/Violent souls, but only/As the hollow men/The stuffed men” (Eliot 17-19). The true feeling of a dark, dismal place is thoroughly etched into the readers mind as we move on into the second chapter of this poem.
Part II begins with fear of meeting the eyes of these hollow men, that in this purgatory, the part of death that does not exist is being depicted. “Eyes I dare not meet in dreams/In death's dream kingdom/These do not appear:” (Eliot 20-23), and bring about the symbol of blindness, and more importantly that these hollow men have no senses, or even more morbid, that their senses are dulled to the point of not knowing what is real, and what is fake. And again it is described that these men are scarecrow-esque by T.S. Eliot in lines 31-35 “Let me also wear/Such deliberate disguises/Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves/In a field/Behaving as the wind behaves”. The hopeless scarecrow hollow men, forever doomed to dimly watch the souls going to death’s true kingdom, yearn for some meaning, but have accepted that it will never come to pass as described in The Hollow Men lines 36-38 “No nearer -/Not that final meeting/In the twilight kingdom” bringing about the hopelessness of these hollow men.
The setting of these hollow mean is described in depth in Part III, as a desert land, barren (Eliot 40-41), the perfect scene for the hell that the hollow men live in. The cactus is used as the symbol of hopelessness, for even though it harbors water and substance, its exterior is prickled and jagged, and hurts to the touch. In lines 45-50 Eliot illustrates the desperation and regret of the men “Is it like this/In death's other kingdom/Waking alone/At the hour when we are/Trembling with tenderness/Lips that would kiss/Form prayers to broken stone.” This desperation is matched in the fourth chapter of the poem, again using blindness to convey the true feelings of these hollow men to the reader.
In the final act of the poem, it begins with a solemn twist on an children’s song, “Here we go round the prickly pear/Prickly pear prickly pear/Here we go round the prickly pear/At five o'clock in the morning.” (Eliot 68-71). The original song, “Here we go round the Mulberry Bush”, was a children’s song designed to teach children how to preform daily activities (Van Aelst). This prickly pear version, almost seems as if the game is a dangerous, and during an “ungodly” hour (Van Aelst) of 5 o’clock in the morning.
The ending line of the poem “Not with a bang, but whimper”, summarizes all that Eliot has been portraying. Through the description of the hollow men and their present state of being, Eliot has successfully defined the archetype of misery and despair, coupled with hopelessness and desperation throughout the poem. Whether it is the mantle of the men, the environment they dwell in, or their inability to leave, it is clear that all is lost and there is nothing to gain in the world of The Hallow Men.

Works Cited
Altman, Alex. "A Brief History OF Guy Fawkes Day." Time 05 Oct. 2008. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <http://,8599,1856603,00.html>.
Delahoyde, Michael. "Archetypal Criticism." Michael Delahoyde. Washington State University, 14 Oct. 2011. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <>.
Eliot, T. S. "The Hollow Men." 1991. Collected Poems, 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963. 77-82. Print. Van Aelst, Heather. "T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men": A Hypertextual Study of Allusion." T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men": A Hypertextual Study of Allusion. ArsDigita University. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <>.

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