This poem addresses a vapid, futile state of existence that Eliot sees as symptomatic of modern existence. The allusions and pretensions of the speakers to Tragedy, Epic and significant historical events, highlight the emptiness, the ‘hollow’ness of the lives the poem describes. Eliot tries to capture the terror and paralysis of modern Man.
The poem opens in the style of an incantation – anticipating a preoccupation with ritual and the demonic throughout. The speakers ‘whisper together’, with repetition suggesting sorcery or magic spells, and yet they produce nothing. The two lines starting ‘Shape without form’ address this idea of matter robbed of its purpose or essential value. The rituals of the poem work towards no end, just as for Eliot the rituals of modern life are futile and empty. Eliot makes a deliberate effort to make the everyday seem not just mundane but malignant and grotesque. The terrifying image conjured by the ‘Here we go round the prickly pear’ section advances this – we imagine children dancing and chanting round a cactus in the desert in the half-light like a scene from Lord of the Flies. Other rituals in the poem are the ‘supplication of a dead man’s hand’, and ‘prayers to broken stone’. All are futile, all seem to ape religion in a burlesque, morbid way. They are all representative of the seemingly innocent routines we follow day by day in an attempt – as Eliot sees it – to charm away death or the fear of death.
A central allusion in the poem is to Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot. This event is a representative for human kind’s ability to act, but also of an act stopped in the moment of completion. The Hollow Men are introduced ‘in our dry cellar’, likened to the conspirators with heads ‘leaning together’. Like th plot, the Hollow Men’s attempts at agency end ‘Not with a bang, but a whimper’. Eliot sees every human action in the modern world as fraught with doubt, self-loathing and fear, invariably leading to the inhibition of any meaningful progress. Hence the Hollow Men are also likened to the effigies of Guy Fawkes burnt on Bonfire Night, ‘filled with straw’. They are grotesque impersonators of human agency, ridiculed and condescended to as in the poem’s epigram, ‘A penny for the Old Guy’. The idea of effigy is developed to a disguise, the Hollow Men are seen as scarecrows, ‘Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves / In a field’. the strange and ugly objects that adorn these figures might stand for the useless trappings of modern life that dress us up but don’t ultimately hide us from death.
The tone of the speakers in the poem alludes to theatre and especially Elizabethan Tragedy. The pretension in the voices of the Hollow Men, the exclamations ‘Alas!’ and Dr Faustus-like desire to defer judgement, ‘No nearer – / Not that final meeting’, always reminds us that these figures are not tragic heroes or even actors. They haven’t over-reached like Marlowe’s Faustus, they are unable to reach at all. Like Elizabethan tragedy, the poem stresses the difference between the exterior and the corruptible flesh underneath. The ‘broken jaw’ might remind us of Yorrick’s skull in Hamlet, as well as Samson’s massacre of the Philistines – another ironic reference to a figure notable for the things he did.
Ritual and disguise are seen as a desperate attempt to suspend judgement or death by the Hollow Men, who fear being held accountable for their failed lives. Dense allusions to Dante emphasize the eternal state of waiting and deference of Limbo. They ‘grope together’ on the shore of the Styx, river of the underworld. The phrase suggests brutalized sexuality of the kind identified by Eliot in the Waste Land. It also implies blindness, eyes being a recurrent motif in the poem. Judgement is through sight, therefore the Hollow Men ‘dare not meet’ each other’s gaze, and ‘avoid speech’. As in Prufrock, to interact or communicate is to be judged, and for the Hollow Men to be judged is to confront their Limbo – a neutral world of nothingness.
One could see The Hollow Men as a satire, pushing that genre as far as it will go in terms of bitterness and lack of sympathy towards the subject. It seems to go beyond even those limits, however, to a place where Eliot expresses neither pity nor disgust for the people he describes. Fittingly for the vacuous modern world he describes, he seems to feel nothing at all.