Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri of New England descent, on Sept. 26, 1888. He entered Harvard University in 1906, completed his courses in three years and earned a master's degree the next year. After a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, he returned to Harvard. Further study led him to Merton College, Oxford, and he decided to stay in England. He worked first as a teacher and then in Lloyd's Bank until 1925. Then he joined the London publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer, becoming director when the firm became Faber and Faber in 1929. Eliot won the Nobel prize for literature in 1948 and other major literary awards.
Eliot saw an exhausted poetic mode being employed, that contained no verbal excitement or original craftsmanship, by the Georgian poets who were active when he settled in London. He sought to make poetry more subtle, more suggestive, and at the same time more precise. He learned the necessity of clear and precise images, and he learned too, to fear romantic softness and to regard the poetic medium rather than the poet's personality as the important factor. Eliot saw in the French symbolists how image could be both absolutely precise in what it referred to physically and at the same time endlessly suggestive in the meanings it set up because of its relationship to other images. Eliot's real novelty was his deliberate elimination of all merely connective and transitional passages, his building up of the total pattern of meaning through the immediate comparison of images without overt explanation of what they are doing, together with his use of indirect references to other works of literature (some at times quite obscure).
Eliot starts his poem "The Hollow Men" with a quote from Joseph Conrad's novel the Heart of Darkness. The line "Mistah Kurtz-he dead" refers to a Mr. Kurtz who was a European trader who had gone in the "the heart of darkness" by traveling into the central African jungle, with European standards of life and conduct. Because he has no moral or spiritual strength to sustain him, he was soon turned into a barbarian. He differs, however, from Eliot's "hollow men" as he is not paralyzed as they are , but on his death catches a glimpse of the nature of his actions when he claims "The horror! the Horror!" Kurtz is thus one of the "lost /Violent souls" mentioned in lines 15-16. Eliot next continues with "A penny for the Old Guy". This is a reference to the cry of English children soliciting money for fireworks to commemorate Guy Fawkes day, November 5; which commemorates the "gunpowder plot" of 1605 in which Guy Fawkes and other conspirators planned to blow up both houses of Parliament. On this day, which commemorates the failure of the explosion, the likes of Fawkes are burned in effigy and mock explosions using fireworks are produced. The relation of this custom to the poem suggests another inference: as the children make a game of make believe out of Guy Fawkes , so do we make a game out of religion.
The first lines bring the title and theme into a critical relationship. We are like the "Old Guy", effigies stuffed with straw. It may also be noticed that the first and last part of the poem indicate a church service, and the ritual service throughout. This is indicated in the passages "Leaning together...whisper together", and the voices "quiet and meaningless" as the service drones on. The erstwhile worshippers disappear in a blur of shape, shade gesture, to which normality is attached. Then the crucial orientation is developed, towards "death's other Kingdom." We know that we are in the Kingdom of death, not as "violent souls" but as empty effigies, "filled with straw", of this religious service.
Part two defines the hollow men in relation to the reality with those "direct eyes have met". "Direct eyes" symbolizing those who represent something positive (direct). Fortunately, the eyes he dare not meet even in dreams do...