Major Themes of Howl by Allen Ginsberg

Major Themes of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl



Howl is considered as one of the greatest creations of Allen Ginsburg and the poem is considered as the poem of Counter-Culture Movement of America. It is based on his personal experience and inner observation and the faulty society of America. In this poem Ginsburg gives the idea of addiction, madness, sexuality, power, religious connections, sorrows, pathos, and norms of the society.

Major Themes of Howl


In Howl, madness is relative and the poem shows madness to be a kind of elevated state filled with hallucinations and visions. Generally, madness was close to Ginsberg’s heart. The poem treats hospitals and doctors with suspicion, while visions and hallucinations are signs of a divine connection. The poem contains a lot of historical references to psychiatric hospitals that seem straight out of the Jack Nicholson movie named “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (based on a book by Ginsberg’s friend Ken Kesey)

The poem begins with an image of the speaker’s “mad” friends as “starving hysterical naked.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked (line 1)

In the line 8, we have found their madness. The line expresses paranoia and hysteria. They are cramped up in a tiny room, and they imagine they hear something called “the Terror” on the other side of the wall. They perform irrational actions like burning their money.

Who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall (line 8)

The lines 65-72 are the most detailed discussion of mental illness in the first section. They tell a story of people who are declared insane, who demand an operation called a “lobotomy” in which a part of the brain is removed, and who instead get sent to a mental hospital where they receive a variety of other treatments. The passage concludes with a cryptic reference to Ginsberg’s mother, who suffered from mental illness.

He shows the idea of sprit. He used the word “shade” which indicates a ghost or spirit. Ginsberg’s mother had died at this point, but the speaker sees in creepy connection between his mother and Solomon. For the speaker, it’s a distressing case of history repeating itself.

I’m with you in Rockland where you imitate the shade of my mother (lines 97-98)

Solomon and Ginsberg both spent time at a psychiatric hospital together and the lines 104-107 give the impression that Solomon was much more unstable than Ginsberg. He thinks that his friend doesn’t belong in a “madhouse” in part because it resembles a prison or military facility, which is “armed.” Solomon thinks of himself as a political dissident.

I’m with you in Rockland where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha (lines 104-107)



In the poem ‘Howl’ Ginsberg describes the lives of drug addicts and alcoholics and he shows their activities negatively because the consequences of their excess drug use are not pretty. Most of the imagery of drug use occurs in the first section, before Howl shifts toward a discussion of Moloch and mental illness. In the several lines he has mentioned about drugs. In the second line we have found that a person looking for a “fix” necessarily suffers from addiction. Here, to have a “fix” is to take enough of a drug to tide a person over until the next craving. Line number 13 contains various images of drug use, including a complicated metaphor comparing the clarity or “light” of the mind to a “king.” Peyote is a hallucinogenic drug originally used in Native American rituals. In the line number 31, he metaphorically showed the effects of Capitalism which are likened to a drug that produces a “narcotic tobacco haze.”


In this poem we have found several words or terms which indicate sexual desire. In the 37th line he used the word ‘Gay’, ‘Straight’ in the line 42 and even, um, with inanimate objects in the line 41. Similarly, Lines 36-42 were the primary focus of the famous obscenity trial that followed. Even, Ginsberg wrote Howl after a long struggle to come to grips with his identity as a gay man. We have found that in the line 11, the speaker uses hyperbole by referring to the number of male genitalia encountered by the “best minds” as “endless.” That’s a whole lot of sex right there. Again, in the line 36, we observe that they have anal sex with motorcyclists who are compared with religious saints. In the next line we also get the clue of sex where sailors, who engage in oral sex while on leave, are compared to angels (“seraphim”) using metaphor. Line 39, also bears the term sex where sexual partners are compared to religious figures. Here, the poet used a metaphor in which a naked blond guy is called an “angel.” In the 42nd line, he used the word “copulate” symbolically which indicates that we can’t actually have sex with “a bottle of beer.”


Howl provides plenty evidence of Ginsberg’s Marxist beliefs which are often expressed in a playful and humorous fashion. We think Ginsberg was a leftist because he supported Communism as an international worker’s movement. In the poem ‘Howl’ the term “The greatest of minds” indicates Communist literature. Similarly, in line 107, It’s “us” versus “them”.  In this sentence “us” is the “Hebrew socialist revolution” and “them” is the powerful “fascist national Golgotha.” The government is compared to Golgotha, where Jesus Christ was crucified.


Ginsberg was less interested in complicated theological differences and debates than in the sheer power of religious imagery. He used images and symbols from many different religious traditions. In Howl, he expresses his interest in different religions but does not credit to one in particular. Along with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, there are references to Native American spirituality and various mystical sects.

Who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated (line 5)

In this line, the phrase “bared their brains” is one of many examples of alliteration in the poem. Also, they imagine that they see “Mohammedan angels” hanging out on rooftops. These angels are Islamic, not Christian. He used images and symbols from many different religious traditions. Again the name “Moloch” is an allusion to a sacrifice described in ancient Hebrew Scriptures in which children are burned to soothe a false god.

Who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas (line 24)

The speaker of Howl does not show a wide knowledge of religious traditions, but rather an interest in specific and generally radical thinkers from several different faiths. Here “Mysticism” refers to religious practices that aim for an immediate connection with the divine. Kabbalah is a form of Jewish mysticism, and St. John of the Cross was a Christian mystical writer.

They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us! (line 89)

“Moloch” is the name of a false god in Ancient Hebrew scripture. This line contrasts an idea of Heaven as superior to humans and “above” them to an idea of Heaven as “everywhere about us.”

I’m with you in Rockland where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb (line 108)

Solomon (and, implicitly, the speaker of the poem) values the “human” Jesus, who died for his love of mankind, over the “superhuman” Jesus as the Son of God. Although this view runs contrary to most Christian theology, Ginsberg didn’t really care about remaining true to dogma. In this line an allusion to the Christian doctrine that Christ is part-man and part-God. Metaphorically, he compares the superhuman element of Christ to a “tomb”.



In the poem ‘Howl’ we can get the images of Cold War anxiety, the Atomic age, and the military-industrial complex. The heroes of the poem, such as the patients of Rockland psychiatric hospital, must fight back against society with their own “symbolic” weapons. We can guess the word “Moloch” as a symbol of war, violence and “monstrous bombs.” Line 46 contains a metaphor comparing the light of the moon to a “wartime blue floodlight.” Floodlights were used in the World War II to find out the enemy airplanes in the sky. In the line 56, we have seen an extended metaphor comparing the advertising industry on New York’s Madison Avenue to a war zone.


Freedom and Confinement

Howl celebrates personal freedom and breaking free from social norms. Travel is one of the means of acquiring freedom, the characters in Howl do just as much globetrotting and cross-country road-tripping as Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty  and  Sal Paradise. The second and third sections of the poem deal with confinement. Moloch is the god of prisons, governments, and boring suburbia, while Rockland represents the mental and physical confinement of the mental institutions.

Howl praises the people, who stage political protests, smuggle drugs, engage in anonymous public sex, jump off bridges, and plot revolutions and who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull.

Lines 30-35 deal with people who are arrested for what the speaker regards as unjust reasons. Even as they are hauled off in squad cars, they seem thrilled and with delight.

Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky! (lines 86-87)

From resembling a huge monster trampling on America’s working class, Moloch becomes a bubble in which the speaker lives, a soundproof room in which he goes mad. Howl associates with sexual freedom and with religious enlightenment. Freedom for the Beat movement was tied up with the ability to travel widely around the country and the world. They can leave without a trace and resurface months or even years later with a lifetime’s worth of stories to tell. That, at least, is the romantic vision of the Beats.

Again, Moloch stands for mental and physical confinement. The speaker believes that American consumerism and the military-industrial complex have been corrosive on personal freedom.

I’m with you in Rockland where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in an armed madhouse (line 105)

The speaker explains that Solomon’s soul is pure even as his mind goes to seed. He regards it as a tragedy for the soul to be confined within a mental hospital.


Capitalism is a socio-economic system where social relations are based on commodities for exchange, in particular private ownership of the means of production and on the management of wage labor. In 1950s, we found the beginning of a new period in the development of America as a capitalist society. It was a time when American soldiers, newly returned from World War II. Economic power is the motive behind all social and political activities, including education, philosophy, religion, government, the arts, science, technology, the media, and so on. In this poem, Ginsberg focuses the condition of the youth’s lives and how they were affected and controlled by the society or the ruling class and who always run the country.

The most efficient way in a society to influence the superstructure is a change in the domination or hegemony as it is the system of values, beliefs and meanings which is controlled by corporate power. After the World War II, America established the human rights of those, who have most money and power. Society does not think about minority, the people of the society always think about them “only I exist”. We can also see the discrimination between powerful and powerless, and the conflict between majority and minority. If the policy maker thinks that we are conservative then the society is bound to conservative there is no choice for minorities

The Capitalist American is able to have a more or less absolute control all over the country. This command is both financial and mental. Consuming is the main motto and we all are consumers. We don’t need something but we must buy because media influences us to buy without even knowing what we needed and why we shopped.  As the middle class are under the control of consumerism, the upper classes become richer and more powerful while the working people work more for low wages in worse conditions in order to produce more.

About capitalism, Fredric Jameson referred Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism, where he attempted to explain the rise of a “third stage” of capitalism. In general, Jameson understands “Late Capitalism” as the widespread condition of our own age, a condition that speaks both to economic and cultural structures. Here the term ‘late’ generally conveys the sense that something has changed, that things are different, that we have gone through a transformation of the life world which is somehow decisive but incomparable with the older fits of modernization and industrialization, less perceptible and dramatic.


In this poem Ginsberg refers a very specific symbol of Moloch which is connected with ancient God and it also can be taken as a God demanding a very costly sacrifice. Ginsberg starts the second part condemning a “Sphinx of cement and aluminum” which ate up the “brains and imagination” of Ginsberg’s generation. In the few next lines, he goes on describing Moloch to be the cause of three generations and all the three generations mentioned here are children, boys in armies and old men who are suffering from loneliness which has been initially created by Moloch. In Ginsberg’s poem it comes to symbolize all of society’s great evils like corporate power and domination, militarization, government violence and oppression etc. Here Moloch represents the values of capitalism and it has the power to give certain persons and to take away from others. Moloch becomes a “heavy Judger of men” it establishes such values to be repulsive and destructive to society. It also represents the immoral power of government. According to Ginsberg, industry and capitalism are not just symbols of American values. They are the deities of American culture.

Ginsberg codes Moloch with cruelty and pitilessness picturing him as “loveless” and “heavy judger of men” who is “the incomprehensible prison”, “cross bone soulless jailhouse” and “Congress of sorrows”. This depicts the merciless nature of Moloch, a rough entity that has confined people in a large prison and judges them savagely.

He mentions a “Mad generation down on the rocks of Time” (Howl 23) and he refers to money, machinery, filth, armies, blind windows, factories, poverty, oil and hallucinations.  His generation is “down,” caught on the rocks of Time – their place in this society that consists of money, machinery, armies, factories and filth. Moloch is to blame for all of these things because Moloch is all of these things. For Ginsberg, Moloch is the essence of evil, greed, and corruption — and Moloch pervades American society in 1956.

Moloch is something “whose mind is pure machinery” and “whose blood is running money. Materialistic depiction of Moloch here can lead us to assume that what only matters for Moloch are to run the industries and obtain more money. Again, Moloch is represented as a cruel entity controlling people, making them lonely and wretched, imprisoning and judging them while forcing them to work more, so it can be concluded that Moloch is the representative of a system that ruled America in that period.

So, we can say that this is the poem where he shows the conditions in of that time of American society where he lived. Moloch is represented as a cruel entity controlling people, making them lonely and imprisoning and judging them while forcing them to work more, so it can be concluded that Moloch is representative of a system that ruled America in that period. Moloch is a metaphor for hegemony, and it tries its best to lead the superstructure toward its Capitalist goals.