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Hollow Men

I love T.S. Eliot. No, I was not an English major, and no, I don’t have any idea what half his poems mean. But I love him nevertheless. You know how sometimes you get words and phrases stuck in your head, just like songs? No? Maybe it’s just me. Anyway, Eliot’s lines are very common offenders. The first time I read “The Hollow Men,” I had the words running around in my brain for days. And not just because some of them are based on a popular children’s song (“Here we go round the prickly pear prickly pear prickly pear” etc.). It brings up such powerful images of humans at our emptiest and most cowardly. Even after many readings, I don’t understand what all the images are about–for one thing, many of them are allusions to other literary works that I haven’t read–but they make me think. And that’s part of poetry’s job, wouldn’t you say?

Here’s the fifth and final verse (my favourite). You can read the rest here.

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
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

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.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this is a good poem to read at the same time as Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. “The Hollow Men” starts with a quote from that book: “Mistah Kurtz–he dead.” They have similar themes, and the character Kurtz is a very good example of a “hollow man.” This is why Apocalypse Now, the Vietnam War version of Heart of Darkness, has a character read the poem in its entirety. Also, “The Hollow Men” is a fairly long poem, and Heart of Darkness is quite a short book, so, together, they make for a nice symmetry.

And in case you’re wondering…yes, this poem was name-dropped in Doctor Who. In fact the episode “The Lazarus Experiment” was full of Eliot references, for whatever reason. You know, in between scenes with the giant life-sucking scorpion thing. The Doctor is a cultured fellow, after all.

Between the idea and the reality/ Between the motion and the act/ Falls the Hairpiece.

My other favourite poems by T.S. Eliot: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (I have a quote from that one on a coffee mug) and “Journey of the Magi.” “Little Gidding” is lovely, too. Reader, if no literature teacher has ever forced you to read an Eliot poem, then get thee to a library. Go! They’re some of the toughest and most worthwhile nuts to crack in the whole Western literary canon.



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