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T.S. Eliot

The Hollow Men

Wrap your mind around these ones!

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:

"The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms."
  • To what eyes is the poet referring when he says that "The eyes are not here . . . There are no eyes here."? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is the "valley of dying stars . . . this hollow valley"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Can you speculate on the significance of the "broken jaw"? (4)

[Need help?]

"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."
  • These lines form a reworking of an old children's nursery rhyme. Can you remember what the original words are? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet replace "mulberry bush" with "prickly pear"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Would you by any chance know the significance of "At five o'clock in the morning"? (2)

[Need help?]

"Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow."
  • Speculate on the meaning of these words. (4)

[Need help?]

"This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper."
  • We are looking again at a children's nursery rhyme. What were the original words? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What is the significance of the poet's conclusion that the world will end "not with a bang but a whimper"? (4)

[Need help?]

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