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T.S. Eliot

The Hollow Men

More questions of a challenging nature!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 1 March 2014
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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:

"Let me be no nearer
In death's dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer - "
  • What are the "Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • In what way would the "hollow men" be "behaving as the wind behaves"? (2)

[Need help?]

"Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom."
  • What would the poet mean by the "twilight kingdom"? (4)

[Need help?]

"This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star."
  • To what land is the poet referring when he speaks of "the dead land"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why is this world be a "cactus land"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet mean when he speaks of "the stone images" that are raised in this cactus world? (2)

[Need help?]

"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."
  • What is meant by "death's other kingdom"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Explain the image, "when we are trembling with tenderness" and our "Lips that would kiss form prayers to broken stone". (4)

[Need help?]

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