The Hollow Men

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The Hollow Men
by T. S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot, 1923.JPG
Eliot in 1923
PublisherFaber & Faber
Publication date1925

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.[1]

"The Hollow Men" (1925) is a poem by the modernist writer T. S. Eliot. Like much of his work, its themes are overlapping and fragmentary, concerned with post–World War I Europe under the Treaty of Versailles (which Eliot despised: compare "Gerontion"), hopelessness, religious conversion, redemption and, some critics argue, his failing marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot.[2] It was published two years before Eliot converted to Anglicanism.[3]

Divided into five parts, the poem is 98 lines long. Eliot's New York Times obituary in 1965 identified the final four as "probably the most quoted lines of any 20th-century poet writing in English".[4]

Theme and context[edit]

Eliot wrote that he produced the title "The Hollow Men" by combining the titles of the romance The Hollow Land by William Morris with the poem "The Broken Men" by Rudyard Kipling;[5] but it is possible that this is one of Eliot's many constructed allusions. The title could also be theorized to originate more transparently from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar or from the character Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, who is referred to as a "hollow sham" and "hollow at the core". The latter is more likely since Kurtz is mentioned specifically in one of the two epigraphs.

The two epigraphs to the poem, "Mistah Kurtz – he dead" and "A penny for the Old Guy", are allusions to Conrad's character and to Guy Fawkes. Fawkes attempted arson of the English Houses of Parliament in 1605 and his straw-man effigy is burned each year in the United Kingdom on Guy Fawkes Night, the 5th of November.[6] Certain quotes from the poem such as "[...] headpiece filled with straw [...]" and "[...] in our dry cellar [...]"[2] seem to be direct references to the Gun Powder Plot.

The Hollow Men follows the otherworldly journey of the spiritually dead. These "hollow men" have the realization, humility, and acknowledgement of their guilt and their status as broken, lost souls. Their shame is seen in lines like "[...] eyes I dare not meet in dreams [...]" calling themselves "[...] sightless [...]" and that that "[...] [death is] the only hope of empty men [...]".[2] The "hollow men" fail to transform their motions into actions, conception to creation, desire to fulfillment. This awareness of the split between thought and action coupled with their awareness of "death's various kingdoms" and acute diagnosis of their hollowness, makes it hard for them to go forward and break through their spiritual sterility.[2] Eliot invokes imagery from the Inferno, specifically the third and fourth cantos of the Inferno which describes Limbo, the first circle of Hell – showing man in his inability to cross into Hell itself or to even beg redemption, unable to speak with God. He states that the hollow men "[...] grope together and avoid speech, gathered on this beach of the tumid river [...]",[2] and Dante states that at the Gates of Hell, people who did neither good nor evil in their lives have to gather quietly by a river where Charon cannot ferry them across.[7] This is the punishment for those in Limbo according to Dante, people who "[...] lived without infamy or praise [...]"[7] They did not put any good or evil into the world, making them out to be 'hollow' people who can only watch others move on into the afterlife. Eliot reprises this moment in his poem as the hollow men watch "[...] those who have crossed with direct eyes, to death's other kingdom [...]"[2].Eliot describes how they wish to be seen "[...] not as lost/Violent souls, but only/As the hollow men/The stuffed men [...]".[2]

As the poem enters section five, there is a complete breakdown of language. The Lord's Prayer and what appears to be a lyric change of "Pop Goes the Weasel" are written while this devolution of style ends with the final stanza, maybe the most quoted of Eliot's poetry:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.[1]

When asked in 1958 if he would write these lines again, Eliot said he would not. According to Henry Hewes: "One reason is that while the association of the H-bomb is irrelevant to it, it would today come to everyone's mind. Another is that he is not sure the world will end with either. People whose houses were bombed have told him they don't remember hearing anything."[8]

Publication information[edit]

The poem was first published as now known on 23 November 1925, in Eliot's Poems: 1909–1925. [9] Eliot was known to collect poems and fragments of poems to produce new works. This is clear to see in his poems The Hollow Men and "Ash-Wednesday" where he incorporated previously published poems to become sections of a larger work. In the case of The Hollow Men four of the five sections of the poem were previously published:

  • "Poème", published in the Winter 1924 edition of Commerce (with a French translation), became Part I of The Hollow Men[9].
  • Doris's Dream Songs in the November 1924 issue of Chapbook had the three poems: "Eyes that last I saw in tears", "The wind sprang up at four o'clock", and "This is the dead land." The third poem became Part III of The Hollow Men.[9]
  • Three Eliot poems appeared in the January 1925 issue of his Criterion magazine: "Eyes I dare not meet in dreams", "Eyes that I last saw in tears", and "The eyes are not here". The first poem became Part II of The Hollow Men and the third became Part IV[9].
  • Additionally, the March 1925 of Dial published The Hollow Men, I-III which was finally transformed to The Hollow Men Parts I, II, and IV in Poems: 1909–1925.[9]

Influence in culture[edit]

The Hollow Men has had a profound effect on the Anglo-American cultural lexicon—and by a relatively recent extension, world culture—since it was published in 1925. One source states that the last four lines of the poem are "probably the most quoted lines of any 20th-century poet writing in English."[4][10] The sheer variety of references moves some of the questions concerning the poem's significance outside the traditional domain of literary criticism and into the much broader category of cultural studies. Examples of such influences include:


  • Eliot's poem was a strong influence on Francis Ford Coppola and the movie Apocalypse Now (1979), in which antagonist Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) is depicted reading parts of the poem aloud to his followers. Furthermore, the Complete Dossier DVD release of the film includes a 17-minute special feature of Kurtz reciting the poem in its entirety. The poem's epigraph, "Mistah Kurtz – he dead", is a quotation from Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), upon which the film is loosely based.
  • The final stanza is printed one line at a time at the beginning of the television production of Stephen King's The Stand (1994). The poem is also referenced in part by the character who feels responsible for the deadly "Captain Trips" virus being unleashed. *This is incorrect, the poem referenced is The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats ("And what rough beast ...")*
  • The trailer for the film Southland Tales (2006), directed by Richard Kelly, plays on the poem, stating: "This is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with a bang." The film also quotes this inverted version of the line a number of times, mostly in voice-overs.[11]
  • Beverly Weston discusses the line "Life is very long" at the beginning of August: Osage County.
  • In George Cukor's classic remake of A Star Is Born (1954), Jack Carson's film studio PR man Matt Libby refers to the death of James Mason's character Norman Maine dismissively, quoting: "This is the way the world ends: not with a bang - with a whimper."
  • In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the character Harold Oxley (John Hurt) paraphrases a line from Eliot's 1925 poem "Eyes that I last saw in tears," when he says, "Through eyes that last I saw in tears, here in death's dream kingdom, the golden vision reappears." This poem was part of a series of poems published by Eliot in 1924 and 1925, which referenced either "death's dream kingdom," "death's other kingdom," or "death's twilight kingdom," of which several would later be published as Parts I-IV of "The Hollow Men." "Eyes that I last saw in tears," though ultimately not included by Eliot in his published version of "The Hollow Men," may nevertheless be read alongside the published poem, as a sort of apocryphal text, to provide context regarding the development of the composition of "The Hollow Men." Furthermore, the poem fits neatly within the series of poems which were ultimately collected and published as "The Hollow Men," due to its imagery of "eyes" being encountered by the author in relation to "death's dream kingdom" and "death's other kingdom," as in Parts I, II, and IV of "The Hollow Men."
  • Sator (Kenneth Branagh) says that 'the world will end not with a bang, but a whimper' in reference to his Dead Man's Switch device in Tenet.


  • Stephen King's The Dark Tower series contains multiple references to "The Hollow Men" (as well as The Waste Land, most prominently The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1991)).[12]
  • King also makes reference to "The Hollow Men" in Pet Sematary (1983) with: "Or maybe someone who had escaped from Eliot's poem about the hollow men. I should have been a pair of ragged claws", the latter sentence of which is taken from Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915). There is also a reference in "Under the Dome" (2009), made by the journalist Julia Shumway.
  • Theodore Dalrymple's book, Not With a Bang But A Whimper (2009), takes its title from the last part of the poem.[13]
  • Nevil Shute's novel, On the Beach (1957), takes its name from the second stanza of Part IV of the poem and extracts from the poem, including the passage in which the novel's title appears, have been printed in the front papers of some editions of the book including the 1957 first US edition.[14]
  • Kami Garcia's novel Beautiful Creatures contains this quote.
  • Karen Marie Moning's Fever series novel, Shadowfever, contains quotes from this poem.
  • Tracy Letts's play August: Osage County ends with Johanna quoting, "This is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper" repeatedly.
  • The prologue of N.K. Jemisin's novel The Fifth Season references the last four lines of this poem.
  • V. E. Schwab's Monsters of Verity duology (2016, 2017) quotes the line "not with a bang but with a whimper" throughout the novels.
  • Attia Hosain's Sunlight On a Broken Column borrows its title from Eliot's The Hollow Men
  • Karl Marlantes's novel Matterhorn (2010) of the Vietnam War weaves a quote from Eliot's The Hollow Men into the story: "Between the emotion and the response falls the shadow."
  • Haruki Murakami's novel Kafka On The Shore (2002) mentions the poem as Oshima explain he's most afraid of people lacking imagination, "the kind T.S Eliot called hollow men".


  • Chris Marker created a 19-minute multimedia piece for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City titled Owls At Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men (2005), which was influenced by Eliot's poem.[15]

Video games[edit]

  • In the video game Shadow Man, the final boss, Legion, quotes "this is the way the world ends, Michael, not with a bang but with a whimper" just before giving the final blow to the protagonist in the bad ending.
  • The full poem is included in one of the flashbacks in Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
  • In the video game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the AI Colonel in the final speech quotes "And this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper".[16]


  • Denis ApIvor wrote a work called The Hollow Men for baritone, male chorus and orchestra around 1939. It had only one performance, in 1950, under the conductor Constant Lambert, and produced by the BBC through the influence of Edward Clark.[17]
  • The American new wave band Devo partially lifted from the poem for the chorus to the song "The Shadow" on their seventh album Total Devo (1988)
  • Australian rock band TISM spoofed the poem's first epigraph for their 1986 song "Mistah Eliot - He Wanker" which mocked Eliot and the concept of Modernism.
  • The song "Hollow Man" appears as the first track on the album Doppelgänger (1983) by the group Daniel Amos; the song is a paraphrase of Eliot's poem spoken over the music of "Ghost of the Heart" played backwards; "Ghost of the Heart" is the last song on the group's previous album ¡Alarma! (1981)
  • Members of the Minneapolis hiphop collective Doomtree have referenced this poem in a number of collective and individual songs, including the single "No Homeowners" on the collective's 2007 album False Hopes, ".38 Airweight" on 2015's All Hands, and in the single "Flash Paper" from member Sims's 2016 album More than Ever.
  • The last line of the poem is referenced in Amanda Palmer's song "Strength Through Music", based on the Columbine High School massacre.
  • Eliot's poem inspired The Hollow Men (1944), a piece for trumpet and string orchestra by composer Vincent Persichetti and one of his most popular works.[18]
  • Jon Foreman of Switchfoot says that the band's song "Meant to Live" is inspired by Eliot's poem.[19]
  • The Gaslamp Killer song In the Dark... has the lyrics "This is the way the world ends" in it.
  • The Greek black metal band Rotting Christ uses excerpts of the poem as lyrics for the song "Thine Is the Kingdom" on their album Sleep of the Angels. The final stanza of the poem is used as the song's chorus.
  • Finnish musical producer Axel Thesleff created a musical interpretation of the poem in form of a five-track LP.[20]
  • British 90s band EMF used the line "this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends" using wordplay to add "not with a band" in their song Longtime on the album Schubert Dip[21]
  • The 2011 release by North Carolina-based band Scapegoat, I Am Alien, references the poem in the title track: "So thank you Mr. Elliot for showing us the way the world will end, Not with a bang, but with a whimper on the wind, And I've come to tell all of my friends, That it starts with a bang, but ends with the wind."
  • Frank Turner references The Hollow Men in his song "Sons of Liberty". His song "Anymore" also contains a reference to the last line of the poem.
  • In 2015, American experimental hip hop musician Lil Ugly Mane repeatedly sampled the line “This is the way the world ends” in the song ”Columns”, from his sophomore album Oblivion Access.
  • Wire's song "Comet" (from the 2003 album Send) features a chorus that references the poem: "And the chorus goes ba-ba-ba-ba-bang....then a whimper".
  • The post-punk / dreampop band Cocteau Twins has a song titled *The Hollow Men* on the first studio album, Garlands, from 1982.
  • The post-punk / gothic rock band The Cult has a song titled *The Hollow Man* on their album, Love, from 1985.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Eliot, T. S. (1927) [1925]. Poems 1909–1925. London: Faber & Faber, 128.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g See, for instance, the work of one of Eliot's editors and major critics, Ronald Schuchard.
  3. ^ Swarbrick, Andrew (1988). Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 45.
  4. ^ a b "T.S. Eliot, the Poet, is Dead in London at 76". The New York Times. 5 January 1965. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
  5. ^ Eliot, T. S. Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909–1917 (Harcourt, 1997) pp.395 ISBN 0-15-100274-6 Christopher Ricks, the editor, cited a letter dated 10 January 1935 to the Times Literary Supplement.
  6. ^ "Gunpowder Plot | Definition, Summary, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 20 March 2021.
  7. ^ a b "Dante's Inferno". Retrieved 20 March 2021.
  8. ^ 'T. S. Eliot at Seventy, and an Interview with Eliot' in Saturday Review. Henry Hewes. 13 September 1958 in Grant p. 705.
  9. ^ a b c d e Gallup, Donald Clifford (1969). T. S. Eliot: a bibliography. Internet Archive. London, Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-08928-4.
  10. ^ Murphy, Russell Elliott (2007). Critical companion to T.S. Eliot : a literary reference to his life and work. New York, NY: Facts On File. p. 257. ISBN 978-0816061839.
  11. ^ Dargis, Manohla (14 November 2007). "Southland Tales". The New York Times.
  12. ^ anon. "T. S .Eliot: Timeless Influence on a Modern Generation". Brushed with mystery. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
  13. ^ Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline (US edition) (2008) ISBN 1-56663-795-3
  14. ^ Shute, Nevil (1957). On The Beach. NY, NY: William Morrow and Company.
  15. ^ "Chris Marker's short film: Owls At Noon, Prelude: The Hollow Men". 2005.
  16. ^ "Metal Gear Solid 2 ending analysis". Retrieved 6 February 2016.
  17. ^ David Wright, Denis ApIvor
  18. ^ Spector, Irwin (14 May 1969). "On Stage at K.U." Lawrence Journal World. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
  19. ^ "Switchfoot - Behind the Songs of The Beautiful Letdown". Retrieved 25 March 2017.
  20. ^ "The Hollow Men LP by Axel Thesleff". Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  21. ^ "Lyrics To EMF Longtime". Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  22. ^ Freeman, Molly (16 May 2017). "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4 Finale Review & Discussion". Screen Rant. Retrieved 18 May 2017.

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