The Hollow Men

The Hollow Men Summary and Analysis of Parts IV - V


Part IV

This section of the poem describes the desert valley where the blind hollow men gather on the bank of an overflowing river under dying stars. They vacillate between religious faith and despair.

Part V

The final section begins with a child’s nursery rhyme that has been changed so that the children dance around a cactus. Then, in a parody of a Christian worship service, a priest speaks and a congregation answers in italicized text. In the antiphony, the "Shadow" of death paralyzes all action. The language of the chorus disintegrates as they attempt to recite the Lord’s Prayer, but become weary. The end returns to nursery rhyme and then shocks with an ironic anticlimactic statement: the world will end, not with a bang, but "with a whimper."


Part IV

In this section we return to the repetitive structure from the beginning of sections I and III, and the collective chorus of the hollow men: "The eyes are not here,/There are no eyes here." If there are no eyes there, that means that the hollow men are blind.

The "valley of dying stars" suggests the valley of Psalm 23 from the Bible: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” In Eliot's poem, the stars are dying, but not dead. There is still light in the valley, but no eyes to see it. Not only are the men hollow, but the valley is also hollow. The lost kingdoms of the poem are death’s kingdom in the valley on the riverbank—death’s other kingdom on the other side, and death’s dream kingdom. These could all be lost kingdoms at this point in the poem, losing their distinction. Or the lost kingdoms could be the kingdom of heaven.

Eliot was influenced by the book The Golden Bough by Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer, published in 1922, about the parallels between the rites and beliefs, superstitions and taboos of early cultures and those of Christianity. It offers an anthropological explanation of the “broken jaw”: the Baganda, an African tribe, believe that the spirit of the dead clings to the jawbone. The jaw bone of their deceased king is made into an effigy and put in a temple. But since this bone is broken, any leadership that could have been found in the talisman is gone.

It is also worth returning to the epigraph and noting that in The Golden Bough, Frazer suggested that Guy Fawkes Day exemplifies "the recurrence of old customs in modern shapes.”

This last of meeting spaces brings us back to to the scarecrows leaning together in the first section. They grope together in blindness, and avoid speaking. This is an intensely lonely gathering. The banks of the river refers to Acheron, branch of the mythical River Styx in Greece that souls must cross into death. The river is swollen and overflowing, in contrast to the arid desert of the valley. Sightless refers to a metaphysical vision that those who see with direct eyes have, and that the hollow men lack.

Then in a subordinate clause, the poem takes another hopeful turn towards faith: “Sightless, unless/The eyes reappear/As the perpetual star,/Multifoliate rose/Of death’s twilight kingdom.” The eyes of faith might reappear as the perpetual star, the star over Bethlehem, the star of the Christian faith. The rose is the symbol of the incarnation of God in the human body of Jesus. Eliot was also influenced strongly by the work of Dante Alighieri. In Dante's Paradiso, paradise is imagined as a rose whose petals are made up of angels, saints, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Dante also refers to God as the ‘'single star.”

This last of meeting places is named as another kingdom of death: "death’s twilight kingdom." Twilight is the moment at the end of the day, the last moment of light. Here, it arrives at the end of the fourth section, as the denouement after the climax of the hope of "the perpetual star /Multifoliate rose," and reveals itself as "The hope only/Of empty men." Here, again, is the resurgence of a despair at a desire for religious meaning that cannot be realized.

Part V

This nursery rhyme was derived from a fertility dance, which the poem reverses ironically. Instead of dancing around the mulberry bush, the chorus goes around the prickly pear, a type of cactus. In 1923 Eliot cited Frazer on "how often with the decay of old faiths the serious rites and pageants...have degenerated into the sports of children." Poetry is used here to invoke an adult spiritual ritual that has been debased into a children’s game, which Eliot then reforms again to contain adult meaning: a modern infertility dance. The dance occurs at five o’clock in the morning—the time of Christ’s resurrection. At once absurd, ironic, and tragic, the song rejects both pagan spirituality and Christian salvation. What’s left is an empty pointless repetition in the “cactus land,” a world with the barest amount of life.

Then a new voice takes up the theme of impotence in a parody of a Christian worship service. In the formal tone of a priest, it follows the familiar lexical and semantic pattern of "Between the a/And the b/ Between the c/ And the d/ Falls the Shadow." The Shadow brings us back to Psalm 23, invoked by the valley in the fourth part: "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The Shadow with a capital S represents death, and without the comfort of religion, it prevents the hollow men from living fully. In pairs of contrasting abstract nouns, the poem examines various types of impotence: mental (idea/reality), physical (motion/act), generative (conception/creation), emotional (emotion/response), sexual (desire/spasm), ontological (potency/existence), and spiritual (essence/descent). A spiritual death renders each of these potentials meaningless, unfulfilled.

After the first Shadow falls on line 76, a voice in italics interjects: "For Thine is the Kingdom." This is a portion of the Lord’s Prayer, the most famous prayer in Christendom, recited by Jesus as a model of how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer ends: "For thine is the kingdom,/ the power, and the glory,/ For ever and ever./ Amen." As this portion of the poem is a parody of the traditional liturgy, this italicized choral voice is the reply of the congregation. Because of the lack of the possibility of Christian faith, “Thine” here refers to Death, not God. This is Death’s Kingdom, Death’s Dream Kingdom, Death’s other Kingdom: all of reality is Death’s Kingdom. When the italicized choral voice interjects: "Life is very long," this echoes the tone of the hollow men exclaiming “Alas!” in the first section: it is both weary and dramatic. The chorus is exhausted. The poem also mocks the irony of this statement, as there is no life in Death’s Kingdom.

After the syntax breaks up, the priest and the congregation become a single, failing voice, unable to complete a sentence: "For Thine is/Life is/For Thine is the." These fragments are all that remain for us modern men. The ritual is lost, a desperate attempt at repeating words that cannot form a complete prayer. For without a relationship to God, there is no one to speak to. We cannot even speak to each other. The blank spaces at the end of each line stand in for nothingness: "Thine is"...nothing. "Life is"...nothing. "For thine is"... nothing. As faith fails, language fails.

We return in the final lines to the Children’s nursery rhyme, as if seeking comfort in a daze. The lines of the rhyme usually go: “This is the way we” with an action verb to describe getting ready for the day: wash our face, comb our hair, etc. Instead, we are getting ready for the apocalypse. "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"

In an ironic anticlimax, the last line shocks because it subverts our expectations of both the end of the world and the end of a poem. It offers what we expect—a "bang"—and then rescinds it. We as readers are placed in the position of Kurtz or Fawkes, wishing for a flamboyant, anarchic, heroic moment. We learned in the epigraph that this modern attempt to bring meaning through dramatic antithesis was a failure. In the end, the poem ridicules religious desire equally. The last “whimper” represents the plea for immortality that we saw in part III, the supplication of a dead man’s hand to the stone under the twinkle of a fading star. In a modern world where there is no God, this is a pitiful gesture. Our language, filled with echoes of pre-modern spiritual meaning, disintegrates into fragments. These last four lines are now famous and often quoted: to this day, we are continuously surprised by the amoral experience of modern reality.