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T.S. Eliot

The Hollow Men

More challenging questions!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 19 June 2012
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The poet surveys life in the modern, industrialised cities and concludes that it is empty and hollow. There is no substance to our lives. We produce nothing that is worthwhile. Our world is shallow and sterile.

Eliot makes great use of the image of the afterlife to underline this point, adapting Dante's Divine Comedy which speaks of the triple afterlife of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.

Although we have not done enough to deserve Hell, the poet argues, we also do not deserve Heaven. Our future is therefore the dark and sterile life in Purgatory, where there will be no joy.


Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888. He attended Harvard University and graduated with a Masters degree in Philosophy. While there, he published several poems in the Harvard Advocate.

The poet left the United States in 1910, moving first to France, then to Germany and finally London. He married Vivienne Haigh-Wood in 1915, which caused him to settle permanently in England.

His marriage was never successful, however, and they separated in 1933. In 1956 he would remarry, this time to Valerie Fletcher.

Early during his stay in London, Eliot fell under the influence of the great American poet Ezra Pound, who assisted in the publication of his early poetry.

The publication of his first book of poetry - Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917 - revealed Eliot as a forerunner of Modernism, the philosophy of Modern Art. His next book - The Waste Land, 1922 - is claimed by many to contain some of the most important poetry of the 20th century.

Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. He died in London in 1965. He was 77 years of age.

"The Hollow Men" is a complicated poem, drawing on other works of literature, especially Dante's Divine Comedy and Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

The title "The Hollow Men" probably comes from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:
"But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle;
But when they should endure the bloody spur,
They fall their crests and like deceitful jades
Sink in the trial."

This roughly translates as: "Hollow or empty men are like horses, eager at the start of a race, but as soon as they feel the pain of the spur, they lose heart and fail."

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

Eliot is renowned for quoting from other sources, although it is highly unlikely you would need to know this unless you are a university student. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to speculate on the significance of the two quotes at the start of this poem.
  • Can you perhaps speculate about the significance of the first quote: "Mistah Kurtz - he dead" which is taken from Joseph Conrad's novel, Heart of Darkness? (4)

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  • And what about "A penny for the Old Guy"? (4)

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"Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion."
  • What does one call words of opposite meaning which are paired with each other? (1)

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  • Can you perhaps explain the way in which the poet uses oxymorons in these two lines? (4)

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"Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us - if at all - not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men."
  • The poet speaks of "death's other Kingdom". What would he mean by this? (4)

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  • Why would the "hollow men" be remembered "not as lost violent souls"? (4)

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  • What does the poet mean when he asks those with "direct eyes" to "remember us"? (2)

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"Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death's dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind's singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star."
  • To whom do the "Eyes" belong, the "Eyes" which he dare not meet in dreams? (2)

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  • Why does the poet "dare not meet" these "Eyes"? (4)

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  • Contrast the futures of those "with direct eyes" and the "hollow men". (4)

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