The Hollow Men

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The Hollow Men 
by T. S. Eliot

"The Hollow Men" (1925) is a poem by T. S. Eliot. Its themes are, like those of many of Eliot's poems, overlapping and fragmentary, but it is recognized to be concerned most with post–World War I Europe under the Treaty of Versailles (which Eliot despised: compare "Gerontion"), the difficulty of hope and religious conversion, and, as some critics argue, Eliot's own failed marriage (Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot might have been having an affair with Bertrand Russell).[1] The poem is divided into five parts and consists of 98 lines of which the last four are "probably the most quoted lines of any 20th-century poet writing in English".[2]

Journey of the character[edit]

Eliot's characters often undergo a journey – either physical or spiritual or both. The Hollow Men seems to follow 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.

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. And as the poem and their journey ends, they see "the horror, the horror" that Kurtz sees in the Heart of Darkness. There is a complete breakdown of language, prayer and the spirit as "the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper".

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:[3] but it is possible that this is one of Eliot's many constructed allusions, and that the title originates 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 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, attempted arsonist of the English house of Parliament, and his straw-man effigy that is burned each year in the United Kingdom on Guy Fawkes Night, 5 November. Eliot's title, "The Hollow Men", obliquely acknowledges the bonfires which accompany the celebration of All Hallows' Eve, falling on 31 October, which particularly in the United States were conflated with Guy Fawkes' celebrations over the course of the 19th century.

Some critics read the poem as told from three perspectives, each representing a phase of the passing of a soul into one of death's kingdoms ("death's dream kingdom", "death's twilight kingdom", and "death's other kingdom"). Eliot describes how we, the living, wish to be seen by "Those who have crossed/With direct eyes ... not as lost/Violent souls, but only/As the hollow men/The stuffed men." The image of eyes figures prominently in the poem, notably in one of Eliot's most famous lines "Eyes I dare not meet in dreams". Such eyes are also generally accepted to be in reference to Dante's Beatrice (see below).

The poet depicts figures "Gathered on this beach of the tumid river" – drawing considerable influence from Dante's 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. Dancing "round the prickly pear," the figures worship false gods, recalling children and reflecting Eliot's interpretation of Western culture after World War I.

The final stanza may be the most quoted of all 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.

When asked in 1958 if he would write these lines again, Eliot responded with a 'no':

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.[4]

Other significant references include the Lord's Prayer, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and Conrad's An Outcast of the Islands ("Life is very long").

Publication information[edit]

The poem was first published as now known on 23 November 1925, in Eliot's Poems: 1909–1925. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

(Publication information from Gallup)[5]

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."[2][6] 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.
  • 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 the line a number of times, mostly in voice-overs.[7]
  • 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."



  • 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.[11]

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".[12]


  • 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.[13]
  • 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 Eilot - He Wanker" which mocked Eilot 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.[14]
  • Jon Foreman of Switchfoot says that the band's song "Meant to Live" is inspired by Eliot's poem.[15]
  • 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.
  • Axel Thesleff created a musical interpretation of the poem in form of a five-track LP.[16]
  • 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[17]
  • 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".


See also[edit]


  1. ^ See, for instance, the biographically-oriented work of one of Eliot's editors and major critics, Ronald Schuchard.
  2. ^ a b "T.S. Eliot, the Poet, is Dead in London at 76". The New York Times. 5 January 1965. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ 'T. S. Eliot at Seventy, and an Interview with Eliot' in Saturday Review. Henry Hewes. 13 September 1958 in Grant p. 705.
  5. ^ Gallup, Donald. T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition) pp. 33, 210–11 (Harcourt Brace & World 1969).
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Dargis, Manohla (14 November 2007). "Southland Tales". The New York Times.
  8. ^ anon. "T. S .Eliot: Timeless Influence on a Modern Generation". Brushed with mystery. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
  9. ^ Not With a Bang But a Whimper: The Politics and Culture of Decline (US edition) (2008) ISBN 1-56663-795-3
  10. ^ Shute, Nevil (1957). On The Beach. NY, NY: William Morrow and Company.
  11. ^ "Chris Marker's short film: Owls At Noon, Prelude: The Hollow Men". 2005.
  12. ^ "Metal Gear Solid 2 ending analysis". Retrieved 6 February 2016.
  13. ^ David Wright, Denis ApIvor
  14. ^ Spector, Irwin (14 May 1969). "On Stage at K.U." Lawrence Journal World. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
  15. ^ "Switchfoot - Behind the Songs of The Beautiful Letdown". Retrieved 25 March 2017.
  16. ^ "The Hollow Men LP by Axel Thesleff". Retrieved 3 June 2016.
  17. ^ "Lyrics To EMF Longtime". Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  18. ^ 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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