Though The Hollow Men is more stark and elegant than Eliot's complex poem, The Wasteland, one could still end up spending hours if you were to dissect this poem line by line.
Whether one agrees with Eliot's sentiments and his personal philosophy or not, his imagery is simply superb.
Bleak bleak bleak outlook. One has to applaud the sheer force of the imagery. What could be more disturbing than a procession of brainless, shuffling zombies? Possibly a horde of sightless, shuffling strawmen, hollow at the core, leaning against one another to remain upright, whispering with dry voices, whispering, whispering, with arid voices like the rustle of wind through the dry grass... whispering like rats feet scurrying over broken glass in a dank subterranean cellar...
Can you see it in your mind's eye?
That could be “us”, that could be mass culture, consumerism. I do think that Eliot meant to include secularism into his aspect of hollowness, but it needn’t be read that way; in fact, it can be any cultural situation that espouses “hollowness” , and it can be any lack of deep values.
This is what makes the poem so classic; because of its bareness, its bleakness, its muted though deeply effective, controlled imagery, it can be used as a basis for almost any contextual interpretation that you’d care to tack on to it.
...and then of course, there is the subtlety... The sheer subtle genius of passages such as:Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
and Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
and Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
Eliot was apparently pretty depressed when writing it, and it shows; even more than with The Waste Land.
Note that he speaks of The Hollow Men as "us". So he is including himself here, possibly his whole generation.
There is a deep despair here, a horror; the horror of nihilism staring up at you from the darkness; a deep black gulf of nothingness. If poems were to be classified into the same genres as prose, this would be one of my favorite horror poems; it is darker, certainly, than anything Poe has written.
Re-reading this poem made me realise that I REALLY need to brush up on guys like Kierkegaard, Camus and Sartre.
Noting what some critics 'see' in this poem, makes me smile a little, but then, the poem lends itself so well to possible allusions, and of course, Eliot is known as very allusive poet; an image which he himself was quite eager, it seems, to enforce.
No doubt most of the allusions were deliberate, and of course many clues were planted by the erudite Eliot in person. But even if this poem contained not a single literary reference or allusion; just as it stands by itself, it already oozes a frightful, horrific genius sheerly via its evocative power alone.
Although the poem is probably more meant as an an attack against the loss of idealism and as an attack on secularism and/or atheism, and though it smacks of the despair created by the threat of meaninglessness and absurdity that existentialism sneaks into our world view, (the poem seems to have quite a few allusions to covert subversion), I can personally apply it to a more modern frustration with mass media culture (which was of course not quite as prevalent as it is now, back in 1925 when the poem was written).
Since I do think Eliot himself was at a pretty low point psychologically when he wrote this, it sort of touches one with its notes of personal anguish too. So, for me, this poem can be read both on a personal and on a societal level.