These epigraphs are allusions: one literary and the other historical.
The first refers to Mr. Kurtz, a character in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness. Kurtz is a corrupt European ivory trader who fashions himself into a demigod to gain power in Africa. He dies on a boat on the Congo River. The narrator Charles Marlow witnesses his death. Kurtz’s last words—"The horror! The horror!"—reveal a final moment of clarity about his own moral transgressions, and by implication the horrors of European imperialism in the name of civilization. This epigraph is a quote from Conrad's book describing the moment after Kurtz's death: “Suddenly the manager's boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt—‘Mistah Kurtz—he dead.’
The second epigraph—"A penny for the Old Guy"—alludes to Guy Fawkes, a notorious conspirator who tried to blow up British Parliament in the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Fawkes was a Catholic seeking to overthrow the Protestant monarchy of King James I. Britons celebrate his downfall on November 5 by burning his likeness in effigy and lighting fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day. The epigraph "A penny for the Old Guy" is in the voice of a child, offering an effigy of Fawkes to burn, while begging for money to buy fireworks.
The first stanza of the poem imagines a group of scarecrows leaning together on a dry riverbank. It is narrated by this group of “hollow men” in a chorus, speaking in the collective first person plural pronoun We. They lament their condition: their bodies paralyzed, their language meaningless. On the other side of the river, ancestors who have died see the men on the arid bank as hollow because they are too inert to act even violently; they are neither moral nor immoral, but stuck in a purgatory of amoral inaction.
The poem begins with allusions to two people who can be considered versions of the "hollow men" of the title. Both Kurtz and Guy Fawkes tried to live immoral lives of anarchy and violence, attempting to abandon or destroy Protestant Christianity. Both ultimately failed, and died ignominious deaths. Taken together, the two quotes make a surprising, pathetic appeal for these hollow men. The melancholic tone suggests that the poem is a kind of elegy, written to lament the deaths of these characters, and opens the questions: Why sympathize with failed villains? What is the relationship between ethics and death? Understanding the context of both of these allusions also establishes the setting and central motif of the hollow men. Kurtz dies while attempting to cross a river on a boat. This foreshadows an important symbolic setting in the poem. The Guy Fawkes effigy introduces the straw man as a central motif. The interjection of the voices of marginal characters, such as the manager’s boy and the begging child, will be a technique throughout the poem to place us in a disorienting moment in the aftermath of a dramatic event.
The first stanza starts with a paradox: hollow and stuffed, empty and full, opposites occurring simultaneously. This suggests a presence without meaning. The word “dry” is repeated three times, implying lack of water, or life. “Leaning together” could be the result of fatigue or lack of will. The headpiece filled with straw conjures a singular mind: once living like grass, that has now dried and is dead. “Alas!” is spoken in the voice of the hollow men. The poem mocks this lament as meaningless.
It then offers two similes: voices that sound like "wind in dry grass" or "rat’s feet over broken glass/In our dry cellar." Both imagine an arid world which has lost its fecundity, with nothing preserved in the cellar, through which movement creates creepy, mournful sounds. “Shape without form, shade without color,/Paralyzed force, gesture without motion”: Each of these pairs set up more paradoxes to illustrate the despair of a meaningless existence.
Then the poem introduces new characters: "Those who have crossed/With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom." This brings us to the worlds of both Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno and Ancient Greek mythology, where death is figured as crossing the River Styx. It also refers back to the second epigraph, as in order to cross one would have to pay the ferryman Charon a coin for passage. So “A penny for the Old Guy” could also be a pathetic voice begging for a penny for Charon. The poem sets up a contrast between the hollow men and those who have crossed with direct eyes. These are ancestors who have, through faith, crossed into “death’s other kingdom”: heaven. If this is death’s other kingdom, there must be a second kingdom of death, on this side.
The dead in heaven are given (possible) memory of us, a reversal of the common notion of the living remembering the dead. These morally-clear ancestors don’t remember us as lost violent souls—which would imply that we have souls at all. "Lost violent souls" would be the how Kurtz and Guy Fawkes would imagine themselves, hoping to be remembered for disrupting the old order in violent anarchy. Instead, our ancestors remember us as hollow and stuffed: neither moral nor immoral, but amoral, and so meaningless. The temporal relationship with those who have crossed over suggests that something has gone wrong with humans recently. It reveals that this is a poem about modernity.