Nat’l Poetry Month ~ Feat. Poem: T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men


This week for National Poetry Month, we’re featuring poet T.S. Eliot. Yesterday, we focused on his poetry collection in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Today, we’re featuring one of Eliot’s most well-known poems:

The Hollow Men

Written in 1925, critics note that the poem deals largely with Europe post-World War I — focusing on the difficulty of hope and religious conversion. Some critics also suspect the poem also deals with Eliot’s emotions over his failed first marriage, and his wife’s suspected affair. It also features a multitude of cultural references: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the line “Mistah Kurtz — He dead), Guy Fawkes, Dante’s Inferno, the Lord’s Prayer, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Personally, I’ve just always loved the language:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

And the famous final stanza:

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.

While chock full of references within the verse, The Hollow Men has also been, itself, referenced throughout popular culture. One of the most ironic, perhaps, is a reference in the movie Apocalypse Now, which is a modern adaptation of Heart of Darkness — which Eliot references in the very first line of The Hollow Men. It’s almost as if the references come full circle. In the movie, the character of Kurtz (“Mistah Kurtz”) reads lines from Eliot’s poem over the radio.

One of my favorite pop culture references to The Hollow Men is a line of lyric from Bush’s song “The Chemicals Between Us,” when they sing, “We’re of the Hollow Men / We are the naked ones.” The reference hits at about the 2:27 mark:

You can find a look at various references to The Hollow Men in songs and pop culture online.

For the comments: What other cultural references to The Hollow Men can you think of?

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