Death pervades ‘‘The Hollow Men’’ from beginning to end. The artificial men are empty yet full. They reference a holiday centered on the tradition of burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes, an act in which death is implicit. A second implication of death is also part of this metaphor. Indeed, the hollow men of the title call to mind an image of corpses, bodies whose souls have departed. Even the afterlife is a dead place, filled with dying stars and made of a desert landscape. It is also a sightless place, one in which eyes do not exist. In the afterlife, there are crumbling statues and vanished empires. There is a shadow that lies in the space between things. All of these images are of death or are at least deathlike. An extension of this theme is that death is necessary to make way for the new. This death applies to old gods, old religions, and old ideals, all of which will fall by the wayside to make room for new gods, new ideals, new ideas, and the like. This is pointed out by Jewel Spears Brooker in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. She says that ‘‘Many figures in Eliot’s early poems, including all the gods and semigods . . . have to die or be put to death as the condition for the continuation of life. Those who cannot die cannot really live.’’ From there, Brooker goes on to note that ‘‘in ‘The Hollow Men,’ Eliot does not go beyond a presentation of emptiness, but in the act of presenting that, he seems to accept the death that is the essential step toward his own vita nuova ‘new life’.’’
This theme can even be seen in the image of the mouths that beseech crumbling statues. It is further underscored by Eliot’s quotations of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a work that contains a similar, if not identical, theme. Yet, while the old must die to make way for the new, that does not prevent Eliot from using the old as a foundation for the new. This can be seen textually, as the poem (like much of Eliot’s work) contains numerous allusions, quotations, and modified quotations from Shakespeare, Conrad, and Dante. Thus, textually, at least, the old does not make way for the new, but is instead used to create it.
Failure of Religion
A secondary theme in Eliot’s poem is the failure of religion. Notably, this theme is related to the idea that the old must die to make way for the new. The crumbling statues and the mouths that beseech them specifically seem to reference failed religions, or at least failed prayer. That the mouths were about to kiss and are instead set to a seemingly futile task again seems to speak to the futility of religious ritual. The crumbling statues appear not long before the poem’s reference to vanished empires. This latter connection further underscores the idea that the old must disappear to make way for the new. Nowhere in ‘‘The Hollow Men’’ is the failure of religion more clear than in the poem’s fifth and final section. The Lord’s Prayer is quoted in a chorus-like offset and then rearranged in the main text. The prayer’s failure is made clear not only in the way it is rearranged, but also through its pairing with a children’s nursery rhyme. It is as if the speaker finds as much solace in doggerel as in prayer. The substitution of one for the other is irrelevant; both are presented in the poem almost as if they are interchangeable. Religion’s failure can also be seen in the poem’s last line (and perhaps the poem’s main theme can be seen in it as well). Indeed, that the world ends in a whimper and not a dramatic or loud display seems to challenge popular religious beliefs regarding the apocalypse. It also once more sets forth that death is itself a failure—the unremarkable denouement at the end of a slow and unremarkable decline.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, T. S. Eliot, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010