T. S. Eliot’s Hollow Men: A Zombie Poem


Artists are ahead of the rest of us when it comes to understanding the times; in his 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, George Romeo created the modern zombie, a picture of humanity in the contest of secular modernism.  I contend that the most insightful of the artists are the poets; in his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men,” T. S. Eliot prefigured Romero’s zombie. Like Romero’s zombies, Eliot’s hollow men give us a picture of the true resident of the Modern Era.

Although this poem is largely descriptive, Eliot hints at a potential cure for zombies.

T. S. Eliot hints at a potential cure for zombies in his 1925 poem Hollow Men. #zombies…
Human beings are created to find fulfillment and identity through our relationship with God, and other persons and things.  Like zombies, hollow men are cut off from meaningful connections.  The result is a desperate evasiveness and a terrified indifference.

T. S. Eliot describes this psychological state.

The poem starts with the epigraph:

Mistah Kurtz – he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

In the epigraphs, Eliot alludes to two hollow men.  Kurtz, a character in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “could be very terrible” for he degenerated to the point of decorating his jungle enclave with human heads on stakes, but he ends up a hollow man.  Marlow, the story’s narrator, hypothesizes on the corruption of Kurtz when he says,

“[the wilderness] had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with the great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.”

The second epigraph refers to Guy Fawkes who conspired to destroy the Houses Parliament in 1605.  His plot was foiled and he was executed.  The failure of the November 5 conspiracy is celebrated by children who move about the streets with stuffed effigies of Guy Fawkes asking for pennies which will be used to purchase firecrackers. The allusions in the epigraphs carry contradictory meanings. Both are “lost violent souls,” but ultimately, Kurtz and Fawkes are hollow or stuffed men.

     I

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when                        (5)                                      

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar                                    (10)                                            

George Williamson suggests that a church service is contained in these lines (156).  The worship of the hollow men is nothing more than sterile ritual as suggested by the vocabulary (“dried …dry …dry”).  The ceremony is juxtaposed to the childish game of collecting pennies “for the Old Guy,” emphasizing its meaninglessness.  Their relationship of the hollow men to their fellow worshipers is just as hollow; instead of the Communion of the Saints, they are merely “leaning together.”

“Headpiece,” in the singular, suggests the uniformity of their mindlessness, a condition created by the undermining of reason by modern thinkers–this mindlessness is, of course, an essential characteristic of the modern zombie. The simile that follows suggests the purposelessness of their utterances; the wind is meaningless and the grass, dry. The vulnerability expressed through feet on glass, is combined with revulsion at a rat in a cellar.

Don’t these lines sound like the quiet muttering of a mindless chant? They are unable to communicate with God, they have ceased to believe he exists, so their meaningless whisperings are heard in all the ‘s’ sounds in this section. Behind these is the repetition of the mournful sounds of “hollow” and “over broken glass.”

Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralyzed force, gesture without motion;

The cellar from the first section has lost its purpose, it is dry. This sense of purposelessness is carried into the next two lines which make a disconcerting leap from the concrete to the abstract.  Here are paradoxes which are difficult to reconcile, although there was a time when these were coherent.  The missing connections in these paradoxes are something like the gaps that exists between a zombie and our best friend.

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes to death’s other Kingdom

Remember us–if at all– not as lost                           (15)

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men.

In the first sections of Part I, the images reinforce each other, but in this third section the hollow men are contrasted with those having “direct eyes” who have “crossed over.” The hollow men do not have direct eyes. Their blindness is symbolic of their blindness to a spiritual reality. This is the Modern blindness–it is the blindness of the zombie.

Direct eyes may be an allusion to Beatrice’s eyes in Dante’s Purgatorio.  This gaze presents the relationship between souls described in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The souls of some go to Paradise, others will enter Paradise after purification in Purgatory.  The evil, possibly the “lost/Violent souls,” have denied God and will spend eternity in Hell.  Before they became hollow and stuffed, Kurtz and Fawkes were of this type.  But, there is another type who, zombie-like, “by virtue of their pointless drifting through life [go] to some sort of nowhere… which reflects their own vacuity, a Limbo at the outskirts of Hell” (Pearce 53).  It is to these that the blessed look with admonishment (if they bothered to look at all) because of the meaninglessness of their existence.

II

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams

In death’s dream kingdom                                   (20)

These do not appear:

There the eyes are

Sunlight on a broken column

There is a tree swinging

And voices are                                                        (25)

In the wind’s singing

More distant and more solemn

Than a fading star

Let me be no nearer

In death’s dream kingdom                                     (30)

Let me also wear

Such deliberate disguises

Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves

In a field

Behaving as the wind behaves                               (35)

No nearer–

Not that final meeting

In the twilight kingdom.

In Part II, the speaker abandons the collective “we” for the more personal “I” making this address more personal, and more desperate. It also illustrates the isolation felt by the hollow men as they have lost meaning through relationships to others.

Appropriately, there is some ambiguity regarding “death’s other Kingdom,” “death’s dream kingdom” and “the twilight kingdom.” Because of the classical allusion already discussed and because it’s capitalized, the Kingdom from Part I suggests it’s the Kingdom of Heaven. “Death’s dream kingdom” may simply be the kingdom of death of which we can only dream, or it may be the living death in which the hollow men live.

The hollow man fears confrontation with the direct eyes, so in his dreams he encounters them only indirectly. His evasion is presented in the indirectness of sunlight reflected off of a broken column and the effect of the wind in the trees. These images carry with them a suggestion of beauty and indicate the temporary peace experienced by the hollow men as he evades those with direct eyes.

Be it a reference to the star of Bethlehem or to the star by which sailors navigate (likely both), the star is fading. It is both necessary and inaccessible to the hollow man. The same fear that has him avoid the direct eyes also keeps him avoiding that which the fading star represents. In an attempt to avoid contact, he will wear “deliberate disguises.” Rat’s coat or crowsskin implies he is living on a level with the abject animals.  He settles on a scarecrow costume, who’s crossed staves form a mock crucifix. Still lacking direction and incentive, he will allow the wind to dictate his motion.

The repetition of “Let me be no nearer… no nearer” illustrates the speakers fear. The hollow man is terrified of actual death because there he will be judged. Evasive to the last, he knows that the “final meeting in the twilight kingdom” is unavoidable.

                   III

 This is the dead land

This is cactus land                                           (40)

Here the stone images

Are raised, here they receive

The supplication of a dead man’s hand

Under the twinkle of a fading star.

 

Is it like this                                                    (45)

In death’s other kingdom

Waking alone

At the hour when we are

Trembling with tenderness

Lips that would kiss                                       (50)

Form prayers to broken stone

In the first two parts we see how the hollow men are disconnected from God and Neighbour. In Part III, we see his hollowness is manifest in his alienated from the land.  The land exhibits similar characteristics as its residents and, as in the first part, aridity and sterility are emphasized. In this section we also find the “double movement of construction and collapse” (Scofield 141) as stone images are raised and broken. The hollow men pray, but his prayers are futile. The worship of stone images, a symbol of idolatry in the ancient world stands as those of modernity.  These are just as useless.  The star, representing hope and salvation, fades and becomes remote. They seek intimacy and love, but wake alone.

IV

 The eyes are not here

There are no eye here

In this valley of dying stars

In this hollow valley                                               (55)

This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms.      

 

In this last of meeting places

We grope together

And avoid speech

Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.        (60)

 

Sightless, unless

The eyes reappear

As the perpetual star

Multifoliate rose

Of death’s twilight kingdom                                  (65)

The hope only

Of empty men.

The first three sections of the poem present the deterioration of key human relationships.  This deterioration is descriptive of hollow mem.  The same pressures lead to zombification. In parts 4 and 5, the effects of these sterile relationships results in zombie behaviour. Earlier the speaker was in fear of the direct eyes, but in Part IV they will not appear. Here the stars are no longer fading, but dying. The desert land has sunk into a hollow valley. The hollow men have gathered in this valley which is an allusion to valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23. In Part I the hollow men “leaned” and “whispered,” but here they “grope” and “avoid speech.” Nearly all hope is lost except in the word “unless.”   Two new startling images are introduced: the “perpetual star,” as opposed to the ones which are fading, and “multifoliate rose.” Without the star or rose to guide them, they have little hope of getting there. Each is a symbol of faith. The star is possibly the Bethlehem star which brings eternal hope to man, as does the rose, which may suggest the rose windows which adorns the cathedral. There may be hope in the form of faith in the transcendent. This will restore meaningful and fruitful relationships with God, neighbour and land. But the men are empty. They are zombies.

V

Here we go round the prickly pear

Prickly pear prickly pear

Here we go round the prickly pear                       (70)

At five o’clock in the morning.

 

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act                           (75)

Falls the Shadow

                     For Thine is the Kingdom

 

Between the conception

And the creation

Between the emotion                                              (80)

And the response

Falls the Shadow

                       Life is very long

 

Between the desire

And the spasm                                                        (85)

Between the potency

And the existence

Between the essence

And the descent

Falls the Shadow                                                   (90)

                       For Thine is the Kingdom

 

For Thine is

Life is

For thine is the

 

This is the way the way the world ends                 (95)

This is the way the way the world ends              

This is the way the way the world ends              

Not with a bang but a whimper

The potential hope of Part IV is gone; the hollow men have no hope. Instead of the “multifoliate rose,” they get a cactus or “prickly pear” which is presented in a parody of the familiar children’s rhyme, “Here we go round the mulberry bush.”  In the absence of hope, the hollow men revert to the childish comforts. The interspersion of fragments of the Lord’s Prayer, the presence of a God who hears prayers was also, once, a comfort.  The hollow men don’t seem to know the difference between nursery rhymes and the faith of their past. The poem ends as it began: with a childish ritual.

The Shadow interposes in the spaces formerly occupied by the transcendent which gave meaning and purpose.   This section has an antiphonal structure which, again, has religious connotations. As the Shadow falls and the end draws near, the hollow men vacillate between the Lord’s Prayer and the false assurance that “life is very long.” Their conundrum is resolved as the incantation settles pathetically into the mindless, distorted repetition of the children’s rhyme (“this is the way we wash our hands … this is the way we go to church”).

Once a zombie, there is no bang, at the end.  Whether the blow to the brainstem is from a crowbar, crossbow, baseball bat or a bullet, the end is always an unremarkable whimper.

 

Work Cited

Pearce, T. S. Literature in Perspective – T. S. Eliot. London: Evan Bros. Ltd. 1967.

Scofield, Martin. T. S. Eliot: the Poems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Williamson, George. A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot. New York: First Syracuse University

Press, 1998.

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