In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the meaning of T. S. Eliot’s ‘this is the way the world ends’
‘This is the way the world ends’, T. S. Eliot tells us at the end of his 1925 poem, ‘The Hollow Men’: ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’ The quotation has become famous and is known even to those who never read T. S. Eliot’s poetry, or have never encountered ‘The Hollow Men’. Why Eliot, or his hollow men who speak with a sort of collective voice in the poem, should feel that the world is going to end not with a bang but with a whimper is not an easy question to answer, however.
Eliot published ‘The Hollow Men’ in 1925. It was his first major poem since The Waste Land, three years earlier, which had transformed him from one of the most important new poets writing in English into probably the most significant poet of his generation – indeed, one who many thought had given a voice to their generation through his eloquent depiction of post-war disillusionment and despair.
If Thackeray’s Vanity Fair was, famously, ‘a novel without a hero’, The Waste Land is a poem without a hero. The best that can be summoned in this unheroic age, after four years of mechanised slaughter in France and Belgium, is a revived ‘Coriolanus’ – that Roman hero immortalised by Shakespeare – but even there, he is a ‘broken Coriolanus’ who is revived for but ‘a moment’. Eliot’s poem shows a civilisation in decline, with the haunting image of falling towers followed by a list of major cities which were once capitals of great empires and civilisations: Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna … and now London.
As the final section of The Waste Land has it, London Bridge is falling down. Is this the end of the world as we know it, or at least, the end of London, the British Empire, Christianity as the dominant force in the West, and much else?
‘The Hollow Men’ picks up, in many respects, where The Waste Land left off. Like the Time Traveller’s ‘further vision’ in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, London in decline has now become London vanished, to be replaced by a dying star and a truly deserted wilderness. Only the titular hollow men, who may be little more than straw effigies, mockeries of men, speak to us out of this ‘twilight kingdom’.
The first four sections of ‘The Hollow Men’ describe the situation of the titular men, dwelling in the ‘dead land’ (recalling the waste land of Eliot’s earlier poem) and desert space, ‘cactus land’ (again, shades of The Waste Land here), in a sort of twilight world between ‘death and dying’. There is a ‘tumid river’ which might be interpreted as an allusion to the River Styx, the river across which the dead were ferried to Hades.
The fifth and final section of ‘The Hollow Men’ is a little different: it begins with a song suggesting a dance around the aforementioned cactus (‘round the prickly pear’) at the ungodly hour of five in the morning. We then get a series of ‘between’ statements, which could not be more appropriate for this poem about interim states.
What is being described here? One possible interpretation is that Eliot is talking about that other interim state between death and life – not at the end of our lives, but at the beginning. Between the conception and the creation – what is a baby after it has been conceived but before it has been born?
This is not to say that such an analysis of Eliot’s lines decides the matter once and for all, of course. But the fact that this series of ‘between’ statements, almost like a chant, is punctuated by a reference to life itself (‘Life is very long’) and to the words of the Lord’s Prayer (‘For Thine is the Kingdom’) suggest the almost divine miracle of human life.
But this has to be balanced against the wretched existence of the hollow men, who are – like one of the speakers from The Waste Land – ‘neither living nor dead’. One is even tempted to propose that these hollow men are the souls of babies who never made it, whether because they were aborted or as a result of miscarriage – but then they wouldn’t just be ‘men’, surely, nor would they be adults at all, perhaps.
So, when viewed in the context of the rest of the final section of ‘The Hollow Men’, the formulation ‘not with a bang but instead with a whimper’ needs to be seen as yet another between-statement: the world will end, yes, but not with the expected bang but instead an anticlimactic ‘whimper’. It will end in such a way that you’ll hardly be aware that it’s ending, much as the twilight (a key word in ‘The Hollow Men’) signals the end of the day and the beginning of the night, but in such a way that we are barely aware the day is ending as it does so.
In a similar way, the ‘star’ in Eliot’s poem is ‘fading’ rather than exploding in a spectacular supernova. Everything is, if you like, fading away rather than blowing up. And that is the way the world ends.
And ‘The Hollow Men’ is, in fact, full of such examples of things fading away rather than burning up in a dramatic explosion: anticlimactic declines, if you will. Even the two epigraphs to the poem might be said to support this: the quotation from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’, is a rather limp and lustreless announcement after the manner in which Marlow, and those he meets in the course of his journey along the Congo, had built up the quasi-mystical Kurtz into a god. No: he is, or was, just a mortal man after all, and now he is no more.
The usual link that is offered between the title of the poem and the reference to Mr Kurtz is hollowness: Kurtz is, Conrad tells us, hollow at the core. But there is also the sense of anticlimax that attends Kurtz’s ignominious end as he raves in terror and confusion about ‘The horror! The horror!’
It’s worth noting, too, that Eliot had initially planned to append these words – ‘The horror! The horror!’ – to his previous poem, The Waste Land, until his friend Ezra Pound persuaded him against it. In returning to Conrad as furnisher of epigraphs for his next great poem, Eliot suggested a link between the two words, but his choice of the more bathetic lines spoken by the African native about Kurtz’s passing suggest the whimpering end of the mighty Kurtz.
The other epigraph to ‘The Hollow Men’ obviously tells a similar story. ‘A penny for the Old Guy’ is a reference to Guy Fawkes Night, or the 5th of November, celebrated in Britain every year because it was the day in 1605 on which the Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes was discovered beneath the Houses of Parliament, ready to light a fuse and blow up the building and everyone in it. (Actually, it’s thought that Fawkes was apprehended shortly before 5 November, late on the evening of 4 November, oddly enough.)
Fawkes’ and his fellow conspirators’ plot obviously ended not with a bang but the ‘whimper’ of the condemned men on the gallows. Eliot’s poem is full of such things that end ‘not with a bang but a whimper’.
About T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is regarded as one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century, with poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) assuring him a place in the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry.
Modernist poets often embraced free verse, but Eliot had a more guarded view, believing that all good poetry had the ‘ghost’ of a metre behind the lines. Even in his most famous poems we can often detect the rhythms of iambic pentameter – that quintessentially English verse line – and in other respects, such as his respect for the literary tradition, Eliot is a more ‘conservative’ poet than a radical.
Nevertheless, his poetry changed the landscape of Anglophone poetry for good. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot studied at Harvard and Oxford before abandoning his postgraduate studies at Oxford because he preferred the exciting literary society of London. He met a fellow American expatriate, Ezra Pound, who had already published several volumes of poetry, and Pound helped to get Eliot’s work into print. Although his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), sold modestly (its print run of 500 copies would take five years to sell out), the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, with its picture of a post-war Europe in spiritual crisis, established him as one of the most important literary figures of his day.
He never returned to America (except to visit as a lecturer), but became an official British citizen in 1927, the same year he was confirmed into the Church of England. His last major achievement as a poet was Four Quartets (1935-42), which reflect his turn to Anglicanism. In his later years he attempted to reform English verse drama with plays like Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He died in London in 1965.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.