The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

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The central character, Marlow, is on a mission to investigate what has happened to a formerly idealistic and energetic colonist called Kurtz who has either ‘gone native,’ or insane or a mixture of both. Kurtz’s own experience of human ‘darkness’ is expressed in his dying words, ‘The Horror, the Horror.’ Applied to The Waste Land , Eliot’s epigraph is a straightforward allusion to the state of ‘spiritual death’ that we associate easily with the Waste Land’s inhabitants. The application to The Hollow Men is more complex, in that these individuals seem to be, at least on one level, really dead, and occupying a kind of Dantean after-life. This distinction is one of the most important between the two poems.

The second epigraph has an obvious resonance with ‘the hollow men…the stuffed men’ of the poem. The symbolic burning of Guy Fawkes also perhaps implies the eventual burning of the hollow men in the fires of hell, though such a dramatic ending for these empty souls seems unlikely. Perhaps the poem itself is best seen as Eliot’s updated version of the ‘fires of hell;’ a modernised Dantean guide to the underworld.

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The idea of these spiritually dead (or truly dead?) individuals being symbolically scarecrows or guys is immediately accessible. With each man’s ‘Headpiece filled with straw’ there is nothing inside of any worth – no heart, no soul, no mind. They are not envisaged as being alone , however (solitude being a major theme of Eliot’s from Prufrock onwards), but they are ‘Leaning together,’ apparently needing the bodies crowded around them to support their own. They have, in fact, no individuality, and only seem to exist as a group. Without individuality, though, there can be no conversation, hence the ‘whispers’ among them are ‘quiet and meaningless,’ simply the reassurance, perhaps, that there is another close by. Whether the hollow men ever look at each other is debatable; certainly the absence of direct eye-contact among them is a major theme of the poem. The sound of their voices is described in images of urban decay and ‘dryness’ that come straight out of the world of The Waste Land :

…wind in dry grass
Or rat’s feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

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T.S. Eliot