The Hollow Men/Stuffed men signify modern men who are spiritually dead.
The second epigraph: the “old guy” refers to a straw effigy of Guy Fawkes, which will be burnt in a ritual.
Lines 1-4 and 17-18: Presents straw men as a paradox, both empty and full, present but meaningless. Straw has the quality of once having been alive, but now being dead and dry.
Lines 32-35: The “crossed staves” have several connotations: wooden planks of support for the exhausted hollow men, a crucifix, and in an alternate word meaning, the lines of poetry.
The dry landscape represents a world that once had life or faith, in the figure of water, but it has disappeared.
Lines 5-8 The repetition of “dry” three times implies a lack of water or life.
Lines 9-10 Two similes imagine a world which has lost its fecundity: “wind in dry grass” and “rat’s feet over broken glass in our dry cellar.”
Lines 39-40: “This is the dead land/This is the cactus land.”: A cactus is a living plant that grows in the desert. So the land is not entirely dead. These lines can be read as a dialectic, a vacillation: This is the dead land: Faith is gone, so this land is dead. Or, this is the cactus land: We are still living—but barely, within harsh arid conditions.
Lines 68-71: The Hollow Men alter the children's song "Here we go 'round the Mulberry Bush" to "Here we go round the prickly pear." The prickly pear is a kind of cactus that grows in a desert, representing the barest amount of life.
The Shadow (symbol)
Lines 72-90: The Shadow, repeated in a refrain, is a symbol of death. Without the comfort of faith in God, death paralyzes all action.
Eyes symbolize moral certainty and judgment.
Line 14: “Those who have crossed/With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom.” refers to Canto 3 of Dante's Inferno as well as Ancient Greek mythology, where death is figured as a passage across the River Styx. 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.
Line 19: “Let me be no nearer” expresses apprehension of being closer to the eyes, or judgment. It’s a plea to be no nearer than the faded suggestion of the ancestor’s world of faith and moral clarity.
Lines 22-23: In dreams, the eyes of the dead are figured as sunlight on a broken column. The sunlight, bright and direct, represents an unwavering truth.
Lines 61-62: “The eyes are not here,/There are no eyes here.” If there are no eyes there, that means that the hollow men are blind.
Lines 63-64: “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 Hollow Men Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Hollow Men is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.