Emptiness in The Hollow Men
After Eliot had published The Waste Land, he felt as though he had not been able to fully convey the sense of desperation and emptiness in that work. Beginning with "Doris’s Dream Songs" and "Eyes I Last Saw in Tears," he explored these themes, eventually uniting all such poems in The Hollow Men. The end product is a work that, unlike The Waste Land and its ultimate chance for redemption, has only the indelible emptiness of the hollow men as its conclusion. The hollow men are those who, in life, did not act on their beliefs; they resisted any action at all, and as a result stagnate eternally in "the Shadow," a land in between heaven and hell, completely isolated from both. Eliot’s allusions give a familiar literary and popular basis to the setting, while the symbols and lyrical progression convey the futility and spiritual "brokenness" of the men.
The poem’s initial epigraph, "Mistah Kurtz-- He dead" is the first of many allusions to Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Eliot uses the references to draw the reader’s attention to the moral situation of Kurtz and the others "who have crossed/ With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom." These men and Kurtz defined themselves through their actions, whether or not they were good. In Baudelaire’s words, "So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist" (Drew 94). An accurate description of the condition of the hollow men, this quote has also been used in criticism of Heart of Darkness. Thus the (spiritual) stagnation of the "tumid river" and those who wait beside it is contrasted with the dynamicism of the eyes that cross it, and, by association, with Kurtz. These "lost,/ Violent souls" made a decision to do evil rather than nothing at all; by this decision (one that the hollow men avoid at all costs) they cross the river into "death’s other Kingdom." Kurtz’s death/life is very succinctly summed up, both in his words ("The horror! The horror!") and in the words of another ("Mistah Kurtz-- he dead"), yet the reader knows all that is necessary from both statements: the unspeakable evil of Kurtz himself and the finality of his demise. In death for the hollow men, who are "non-entities," however, the only certainty is that there is no certainty (Drew 96).
The Hollow Men’s second epigraph, "A penny for the Old Guy," applies more to the second half of the poem, with its links to Guy Fawkes’ Day in England. Fawkes is another Kurtz-like figure who acted on his beliefs, in this case in an attempt to bomb Parliament, or, in Eliot’s view, end the civilized world "with a bang." "A penny for the Old Guy" may mean that credit is due for those who act, even for "evil" (in quotations because Fawkes’ Catholic beliefs guided him, another reason for the Catholic Eliot to choose him as a symbol), as well as alluding to the...