T.S. Eliot's poem The Hollow Men, unusually, opens with a quote from a Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:

Mistah Kurtz— he dead.

In most printings of the poem that I've seen, this single quote is given an entire page which is otherwise blank. If that was the author's intention, this surely underlines the significance of the link between the two to the poet.

At a high level, there's a clear thematic relationship between the two: both are about the fundamental barbarity of man. However it seems likely there is a deeper relationship between the two, both in terms of close reading and in terms of how the one inspired the other.

Can anyone elucidate on why the poet chose to open with this quote, whether there are deeper links here, and what they might be?

1 Answer 1


There is an immediate and direct connection between the two. Toward the conclusion of Heart of Darkness the narrator, Marlow, describes Kurtz as "hollow to the core" (p72). By this, he means that Kutz is lacking in moral fibre and has been seduced into a facsimile of worship by the dark heart of Africa. This is much the same state as the "quiet and meaningless" and "lost, violent" Hollow Men of the poem, with their "headpiece filled with straw". Indeed it is possible to see the poem as almost an epilogue to the novel, rather than the other way round.

Perhaps the clearest textual link between the two is the obvious spiritual symbolism in The Hollow Men: "death's other kingdom" (heaven), "Five o'clock in the morning" (this is the traditional hour of Christ's resurrection) which imply their emptiness is partly spiritual. It is hard to imagine a greater spiritual emptiness in the eyes of a Christian such as Marlow as to have set oneself up as a literal pagan deity as Kurtz has done. It is actually possible to read the poem as a direct representation of this act, with an unnamed narrator inventing a pagan ritual to avoid mortality: "Not that final meeting / In the twilight kingdom."

There are other flashes of imagery. The Hollow Men meet at "the tumid river" which could be the Congo river, central to the narrative of Heart of Darkness. The book describes Africa as a "kingdom of death", a motif repeated several times in the poem. There are literal hollow men in the book: the severed heads on poles which have been stripped of their contents by ants and vultures.

"food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole"

During the events of the novel, Marlow has a near-death experience, which he describes thus:

"a vision of grayness without form filled with physical pain, and a careless contempt for the evanescence of all things."

Which is a description of hollowness. The grayness of the vision corresponds to the "twilight" and the "shadow" and the "sightless" in the poem. The evanescence of things is the spiritual emptiness that suffuses the poem.

Finally, the famous final couplet of the poem "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper" could be read as a description of Kurtz's equally famous final words:

"He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:
'The horror! The horror!'"


  • The Savage and the City in the Work of T.S. Eliot. Clarendon Press, 1987.
  • Conflicts in Consciousness: T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
  • T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
  • 1
    Great answer! A few corrections re HoD: (1) the "hollow" line comes not at the end, it's p72 (of 96), one page before Marlow first sees Kurtz; (2) we might guess the heads on poles are hollow, but definitely not due to vultures - the head Marlow describes is "black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids" (my emphasis). But these are minor quibbles. Thanks especially for linking the final couplet with Kurtz's final words: I hadn't made this connection. I definitely want/need to re-read The Hollow Men! Commented Sep 9, 2018 at 5:41
  • @chappo thanks - I said "conclusion" meaning toward the end, not the actual end, but have made clearer. As far as the heads go, the text is pretty suggestive: "food for thought and also for the vultures if there had been any looking down from the sky; but at all events for such ants as were industrious enough to ascend the pole"
    – Matt Thrower
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 14:20
  • Excellent commentary. I might add that about a quarter of the way into the novella, the narrator Marlowe describes the hollowness of the greedy and conniving bureaucrats at the trading station: "I let him run on, this papier-mâché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing but a little loose dirt maybe."
    – Keith
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 15:42

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