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 question is obviously a fraught one in the context of stem-cell research and debates over abortion. And what about the conception of a new life itself? Between the desire (erotic desire?) and the spasm (orgasm?)? And do we need to dwell on the seminal possibilities of a word like ‘essence’ in this connection?
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.
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.