Hollow Men

“We grope together… sightless unless [our] eyes reappear” ~T.S. Eliot

I have to be honest; I am a liberal arts kid. I love Science, History is probably my favorite subject, and I do really well in Math, but English is by far by best class. It’s one of those things that comes sort of naturally for me.

But over the past weeks, our English class has been studying a rather difficult poem. It is T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” T.S. Eliot was an agnostic poet in the 20th century, who after suffering somewhat of a mental and emotional breakdown, became a very devout Catholic (his poem “Ash Wednesday” was written as account of what he went through mentally and how he came to discover God and the necessity of faith.)

His poem “The Hollow Men” was also written when he was struggling emotionally and beginning his transition into Catholicism. It’s unknown rather or not he wrote it while he was distressed and suffering or if it was written after he had made the resolution to pursue faith. Either way, its message is rather confusing and disturbing.

In English class we were given a copy of the poem and asked to determine what it meant to be a “hollow man.” After reading through the poem several times…I had no idea.

It begins like this:

“We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men/ Leaning together/ Headpieces filled with straw.”

I wasn’t really sure this meant but as I read on, I noticed the second stanza takes on a somewhat dismal tone.

“Alas! Our dried voices, when/ We whisper together/ Are quiet and meaningless/ As wind in dry grass/ Or rat’s feet over broken glass.

Have you ever been out in an open field and heard the sound of wind in dry grass. It can be one of the most eerie sounds in the world. Or try to imagine what “rat’s feet on broken glass” would sound like. It’s very disturbing to think about.

And the poem continues to with this despondent attitude:

“Shape without form, shade without color, / Paralyzed force, gesture without motion. /
Those who have crossed/ with direct eyes into [Heaven]/ remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only/ As the hollow men”

The lines from this section that really grab me are “Shape without form, shade without color,
Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.” I don’t know what it is but that series of paradoxes makes me think of that old saying “he’s just going through the motions.”

Anyway, if we jump ahead a little, the narrator describes life on earth:

“This is the dead land/ This is the cactus land…/ At the hour when we are/ Trembling with tenderness/ Lips that would kiss/ Form prayers to broken stone”

The narrator—whom we can assume is a “hollow man”—is saying that compared to heaven, everything here is dead. He goes on to say that while people want emotion and relationships, they get caught up in the world around them (“At the hour…prayers to broken stone.”)

The final few stanzas of the poem take on a new urgency.

"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…/ For thine is the kingdom.
For thine is/ Life is/ For thine is the—“

So the question that came to mind for me is “what is the shadow?” And I started thinking what does it take for an idea to become reality? For a motion to become an act? For conception to become creation? For emotion to become response?

What I came away with was that the missing element is effort. The hollow men are unable to put forth any effort for anything to happen. They are that “Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.”

The final lines of the poem are actually rather famous.

“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.”


As I said when I started, it is a rather disturbing poem. Basically, the “hollow men” live an existence of just going through the motions. They desire true relationships, but get caught up in the rhythm of the material world. They have wonderful ideas, but lack enthusiasm to put in the effort. And as a result of all this, the world just slowly descends out of control.

We finished studying this poem last Friday. When we did, my English teacher told us that, when T.S. Eliot first published the poem, many people did not get it. So Eliot issued a statement and said, “There is a spiritual disease that plagues the 20th century.”

That “disease” is being “hollow.

So this got me thinking. We are now in the 21st century, but are we still hollow?
Do we still let the world get in the way of meaningful relationships?
Do we sometimes have the best intentions, but lack the effort to make a difference?
Are we trapped in “paralyzed force, gesture without motion”?

Someone told me a story the other day that has stuck with me. There was a woman who normally walked each night after work. One evening around five or so she was walking past a park where a few teams of kids were practicing soccer. These weren’t teams of high school kids or other competitive leagues. This was just a stereotypical little league practice where the ball was practically bigger than most of the players.

As she walked along the road where cars were parked, she began casually peaking in the windows of a few cars. In the first, a mother was sitting in the driver’s seat waiting for her son while texting on her cell phone. In the next car, a father was also waiting for his son, while working on his lap top and talking on his cell phone. In the third was a mother, a father, and an older sibling, with two of the passengers texting and one of them on the phone.

At first, the woman saw this as somewhat of a technological advancement; the fact that people could communicate so easily anywhere was very different from when her kids had been little. But as she looked down across the park, she realized there were probably three or four teams practicing and maybe a total of five parents actually watching.

Finally something struck her as she was coming to an intersection. There she saw a man pushing a stroller that held a baby and walking with his five-year-old son. The boy was telling his Dad all about his day and that there had been a dog on the playground during lunch. The Dad would occasionally nod or say “Uh-huh” but was in fact pushing the stroller with one hand and e-mailing on his black berry with the other.

“At the hour when we are trembling with tenderness, lips that would kiss form prayers to broken stones.”

What struck her when she saw the kids on the field with no parents and the father who was paying no attention to his son was that idea that people have become corrupted and hollow by day to day life in our world. They are putting more effort into their job or giving more attention to their cell phone than to their families. They have become “paralyzed” in their routine and they have fallen into the “shadow”.

But God doesn’t want us to be “hollow.” He wants us to put everything we have into everything we do. Rather it’s forming a new relationship or solving problems around us or just going through day to day life, He wants us to give it everything we have.

The fact of the matter is, life is too short to be hollow. There isn’t time to just go through the motions. Statistics show that on average, in one minute, 198 people around the world will die from old age, disease, living conditions, or tragic accidents. One minute, sixty seconds, and one hundred ninety eight people gone.

So today, take a few minutes to stop and notice what is going on around you. What is God up to in your life? Where are your friends and family? Is there something you can do make a difference in someone’s life? Is there some way to break out of the paralyzed force and get more out of your life now?

Change is hard and breaking out of a routine can seem impossible. But God didn’t create us to live in a routine. As it says in Isaiah 45: 18 “For this is what the LORD says— he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty and hollow, but formed it to be inhabited.”

Zach Herzog


4 comments (Add your own)

1. Linda Berner wrote:
I really enjoyed your article and found it motivating. Thank you!

Thu, October 8, 2009 @ 9:53 AM

2. Linda Berner wrote:
I really enjoyed your article and found it motivating. Thank you!

Thu, October 8, 2009 @ 9:54 AM

3. Linda Berner wrote:
I really enjoyed your article and found it motivating. Thank you!

Thu, October 8, 2009 @ 9:54 AM

4. Wendy Saathoff wrote:
Zach, what a great devotional and so on target to today's society! You are a truly excellent writer with a great gift for portraying thoughts. I think it's especially interesting to read this through the eyes of a teenager, the generation known for it's constant texting. We all need to embrace what's important and really focus on being fulfilled, not hollow. T

Thu, October 8, 2009 @ 8:18 PM

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