T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, 1925

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
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Mariano Akerman, Prickly Matters I (Grams 453 Living Matter), collage, 2009.*

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

Mariano Akerman, Prickly Matters II (Grams 453 Living Matter), collage, 2009.*

T.S. Eliot, "The Hollow Men," poem, 1925. Excerpts, pt. I, lines 1-12; pt. V, lines 1-4, 5-9, 11-15, 17-23. First published in 1925, Eliot's eery poem recalls the European wasteland that resulted from the first World War, but also foreshadows the spiritual emptiness, war and genocide of WWII. The hollow men are men empty of faith, personality, moral strength, and even humanity.

"The Hollow Men" [... develops] the theme of debasement through the rejection of good, of despair through consequent guilt. [...] With every effort to make the potential become actual a shadow interferes. This, whatever its private value, has in the poem no clear conceptual reference. It implies [...] inertia incapable of connecting imagination and reality, a defect of kinesis, in par a volitional weakness and in part an external constraint. [...] Eliot's threefold grouping of contrasts between prospect and fulfilment comprehends three failures. The oppossitions of potentiality and actuality [...] blur as the enumeration passes from "potency" and "existence" to "essence" and "descent" [...]. Each of the three groups (by ambiguities) recapitulates the preceding, until by accumulation all three groups combine in the third (Grover Smith, T.S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1956).

The short lines establish a sense of breathlessness and exhaustion, while at the same time reminding the reader of some muttered incantation. [...] The "Paralysed force, gesture with out motion" describes the paradoxical effect of the whole poem, which consists both of a sense of exhaustion and of a last concentrated burst of weak energy in the hope of salvation. (Jeff Willard, "Literary Allusion in the Hollow Men," Spectrum, 2000).

The poem takes place in a twilight realm of disembodied men and forces. [... It involves] the vagueness and impalpability of "Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion." The hollow men are walking corpses [...] and their emptiness is the vacuity of pure mind detached from any reality. They are cut off from one another. Their voices are whispers, "quiet and meaningless." Groping together, they "avoid speech." They are detached from nature, and live in a place which is devoid of any spiritual presence, a "dead land," a "cactus land," a "valley of dying stars," hollow like the men themselves. [...] Even within their own hollowness detachment is the law. The "Shadow" which falls between idea and reality, conception and creation, emotion and response, desire and spasm, potency and existence, is the paralysis which seizes men who live in a completely subjective world. Mind had seemed the medium which binds all things together in the unity of an organic culture. Now it is revealed to be the Shadow which isolates things from one another, reduces them to abstraction, and makes movement, feeling, and creativity impossible. "The Hollow Men" is an eloquent analysis of the vacuity of subjective idealism (J. Hillis Miller, Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers, Harvard University Press, 1965)

The last section of 'The Hollow Men' in particular places its rituals in a crazy emptiness. The verve of the nursery rhyme spins us round in a sinister way, since it is disturbing to see the familiar 'mulberry bush' of the children's rhyme replaced with the arid 'prickly pear', making the rhyme like some distorted survival of a primitive chant. Eliot's substitution makes this seem an infertility dance. As an American plant, 'prickly pear' also connects with his own childhood in a society whose religious values seemed atrophied (Robert Crawford, The Savage and the City in the Work of T.S. Eliot, Clarendon Press, 1987).

"The Hollow Men" is essentially a poem of emptiness, Eliot's exploration of the state of his own soul as one of many modern souls suffering the same affliction. It is an emptiness caused by the condition of the modern world, a modern world in which men live only for themselves, failing to choose between good and evil. The souls in the poem whose condition we are supposed to be horrified by are not those who have sinned the most, but those who have not chosen whether or not to sin. They exist in a state in-between, a state in which their failure to make a decision causes an utter lack of hope and joy or pain. The heroes of this poem are those who clearly see this state and recognize its true horror. Much of the horror of this state is constructed through the use of allusions that refer to past historical and fictitious characters who suffered similar fates, or who realized the horror of that fate in some decisive moment. While Eliot's general intent may be clear purely from the words of the poem, a much richer understanding can only be achieved by understanding the allusions he uses as literary tools to construct the work on a foundation laid by authors before him.
Eliot's allusive sources are well chosen, for they bring to mind examples of souls who suffer from the same moral condition as those in the poem. All of those souls that are referenced are taken from works or events that are extremely powerful in their own right. Eliot's use of them adds considerably to the power that his poem can convey. From The Divine Comedy he takes images of souls at every level of the afterlife: hell, purgatory, and heaven. Dante's lost souls who never made up their minds to live their lives for good or evil and thus are denied entrance to all three suffer the same condition as Eliot's modern man. Dante the pilgrim becomes heroic in that he dares to look his guilt, shame, and sin in the eye and then makes the conscious decision to repent. Joseph Conrad's Kurtz also escapes this danger, because in his death he realizes the horror of the modern condition, while his Marlow also realizes a bit of the danger, but still cannot bring himself to tell the truth of it. Shakespeare's Brutus also realizes the danger of inaction, the fate of only being able to exist as the shadow, somewhere in-between, but his pride causes him to choose the weaker route and join the doomed conspiracy. Guy Fawkes's whimper spells the end of the failed conspiracy with which he was involved - by doing so he gives up the choice he made for rebellion, his confession betraying his co-conspirators.
Without these specific examples, Eliot could not have conveyed the same meanings without spelling everything out letter by letter. In this poem not only do the allusions display particularly strong examples of the condition Eliot is conveying, but they also add to the power of the poem considerably by evoking a sense of history, of being part of something larger, of being part of a continual decline, or of a constant danger of the human condition. The whimper with which the world ends is the whimper of modern man, the whimper of Guy Fawkes giving away other members of his plot, Brutus betraying his Caesar, Kurtz finally seeing all that he has created and been a part of for what it is, and the murmur of the shades who can never enter heaven or hell. When seen in this context the last words of the poem gain a sort of power they do not have on their own, as they echo the spirits of other historical and fictitious characters.
Only by discovering the sources of Eliot's allusions can we come to a complete understanding of the poem, regardless of how well it may appear to stand on its own. Eliot himself gives very clear clues to at least two of his allusive sources by direct quotations before the poem proper even begins: first in the epigraph to the section, taken directly from Heart of Darkness, and then in the epigraph to the poem, taken directly from the children's cry on Guy Fawkes Day. Clearly these are not meant to be hidden references and once they are discovered other uses of those sources, and other sources that touch upon the same themes, can be quickly uncovered and interpreted.
[...] Putting together the pieces that make up an allusion (finding the source, examining it, applying the relevant themes from the source to the newer work) allow the reader to take some of the power of the poem into his or her own hands. It is up to that reader to find and determine the meanings of the poem and apply his or her own learning experience to the poem. This act of interpretation makes the poem much more personal to the reader even though initially, the allusions may have the opposite effect, making the poem seem exclusive in that it is only accessible to an already knowledgeable reader (Heather van Haelst, T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men: a Hypertextual Study of Allusion," Ars Digita University, MIT, 2000-1, conclusions. See the text of the poem with notes).

See also Wikipedia.

* The title of this collage and its counterpart have been conceived in English as "Prickly Matters." Both of them can be linked to English literature: "Prickly Matters" recall Eliot's hollow men and the prickly pear; "Prickly Matters" also remind us of a fundamental question rised by William Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, 1596-8: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” (act 3, sc. 1, l. 69).
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