Title: Eliot claimed to have made up the title, "The Hollow Men" from combining "The Hollow Land", the title of a romance by William Morris with Kipling's title, "The Broken Men". Many scholars believe this to be one of Ol' Possum's many false trails, instead believing it comes from a mention of 'hollow men' in Julius Caesar or any of several references to Joseph Conrad's Kurtz as hollow in some way (a 'hollow sham', 'hollow at the core'). The title immediately presents us with the first of many allusions, directly referencing two of the four main sources for this poem, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Conrad's Heart of Darkness (which I will often abbreviate HoD). The other sources are the Gunpowder Plot and The Divine Comedy, both of which also deal with men or shadows of men who may be described as hollow at the core.
The Gunpowder Plot: This conspiracy arose from the English Catholics' resentment of King James I and his reign's treatment of their religion. A group of extremists led by Rober Catesby planed to seize power by killing King James I and his ministers at the State Opening of Parliament (November 5, 1605), leaving England without a government. Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators, gave the plan away when he wrote to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, telling him to stay away from the Houses of Parliament during the Opening. Monteagle informed the Lord Chancellor of the warning, who in turn told the king. On November 4, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellars of the House of Lords, standing guard over two tons of gunpowder. He was tortured until he revealed the names of his co-conspirators, who, if they hadn't yet fled the country, were soon executed. Now the British celebrate November 5 with bonfires, fireworks, and by burning effigies of Guy. Theoretically, they are celebrating the execution of a traitor, though some have been been known to see it as a celebration of the near death of the monarchy.
Julius Caesar: Shakespeare's version of the story of Julius Caesar also centers around a violent conspiracy of men who are blinded by their cause. In it, Brutus, a leading Roman citizen, is approached by Cassius, who is recruiting people to conspire to assassinate Caesar. Cassius is motivated by ambition, envy, and malice, and he persuades Brutus that Caesar is a tyrant who will destroy the Roman Republic. Cassius plays on Brutus's vanity of his fame as champion for the public good, blinding Brutus to the evil nature of the conspiracy.
The Divine Comedy: Dante Alighieri's classic allegorical story in which, Dante himself becomes a pilgrim traveling through the three kingdoms of the afterlife: hell (The Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio), and heaven (Paradiso). He is lead through the first two by the poet Virgil in a pilgrimage orchestrated by his late love Beatrice in an attempt to redeem his soul and convince him to change his life so that after seeing Beatrice in heaven he will desire to join her there again after his own death.
Heart of Darkness: Next to Dante's writing, this story by Joseph Conrad is commonly held to be most important and influential literary experience in Eliot's poetry. It is a story full of hollow men- men empty of faith, personality, moral strength, and even humanity. In it the character Marlow tells of his own journey into the heart of Africa, a dark world populated by morally empty men living only for ivory and the money and power that it brings. Deep in the interior, he meets Kurtz, the most depraved man of them all, yet one who, on his deathbed, seems to realize the true horror of what he and humanity as he knows it is and does.
1925: Eliot wrote this poem during a period of absence from the bank, having just suffered a nervous breakdown. The theme of 'hollowness' presented in the poem directly relates to his own psychological condition at the time, a condition known at the time as 'aboulie'.1
epigraph to section: The words spoken by a...
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