T.S. Eliot Reads The Hollow Men (Poetry Reading)

The Hollow Men (1925) is a major poem by T.S. Eliot. Like many of Eliot's poems, its themes are overlapping and fragmentary, but it is recognised to be concerned most with post-War 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 Eliot may have been having an affair with Bertrand Russell).[1]

The hollow men sm

"The Hollow Men" by Howard Penning. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Howard Penning.

The Hollow MenEdit

Mistah Kurtz — he dead
A penny for the Old Guy


The Hollow Men 5

"The Hollow Men #5" by Howard Penning. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Howard Penning.

    We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats' feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar
    Shape without form, shade without colour,
    Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
    Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
    Remember us-if at all-not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.


Hollow men 6sm

"Hollow Men #6" by Howard Penning. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Howard Penning.

    Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
    In death's dream kingdom
    These do not appear:
    There, the eyes are
    Sunlight on a broken column
    There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind's singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star.
    Let me be no nearer
    In death's dream kingdom
    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat's coat, crowskin, crossed staves
    In a field
    Behaving as the wind behaves
    No nearer-
    Not that final meeting
    In the twilight kingdom


Power to the people

"Power to the People", by Howard Penning. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Howard Penning.

    This is the dead land
    This is cactus land
    Here the stone images
    Are raised, here they receive
    The supplication of a dead man's hand
    Under the twinkle of a fading star.
    Is it like this
    In death's other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone.


In the news todaysm

"In the News Today", by Howard Penning. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Howard Penning.

    The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
    Sightless, unless
    The eyes reappear
    As the perpetual star
    Multifoliate rose
    Of death's twilight kingdom
    The hope only
    Of empty men.


Primetime web

"Primetime", by Howard Penning. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Howard Penning.

    Here we go round the prickly pear
    Prickly pear prickly pear
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    At five o'clock in the morning.
    Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
                                   For Thine is the Kingdom
    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow
                                   Life is very long
    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow
                                   For Thine is the Kingdom
    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the
    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.

Overview 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:[2] 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.

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, will 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.

This last line alludes to, amongst some talk of war, the actual end of the Gunpowder Plot mentioned at the beginning: not with its planned bang, but with Guy Fawkes's whimper, as he was caught, tortured and executed on the gallows.

Perhaps most revealing, though, is Eliot's response, a 'no', when asked if he would write these lines again:

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.[3]

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 informationEdit

The poem was first published as now known on November 23, 1925, in Eliot's Poems: 1909-1925. [4]

Eliot was known to collect poems and fragments of poems to produce new works. This is clearest 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. [5]>
  • Doris's Dream Songs in the November 1924 issue of Chapbook had the three poems: "Eyes that I last 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. [6]
  • 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. [7]
  • 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. [8]

Critical reception and Eliot's careerEdit

Allen Tate, reviewing Eliot’s new volume in 1926, perceived a shift in Eliot’s method and noted that, ‘'The mythologies disappear altogether in The Hollow Men’—a striking claim for a poem as indebted to Dante as anything else in Eliot’s early work, to say little of the modern English mythology — the ‘Old Guy [Fawkes]’ of the Gunpowder Plot—or the colonial and agrarian mythos of Conrad and Frazer, which, at least for reasons of textual history, echoes The Waste Land.[9] The ‘continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity’ that is so characteristic of his mythical method remains in fine form.[10] Yet Tate is right to point that the practice of this method has indeed changed. Moving away from the bathos and ironic deflation of Eliot’s earlier work, the mocking juxtapositions of Tiresias and the figure of the (sexually, spiritually) exhausted typist have disappeared, leaving the pathos of mental and spiritual exhaustion to deepen even beyond ‘What the Thunder Said’ — The Hollow Men, as Eliot once put it to Pound, was ‘post-Waste’.[11] (This is not to say that such ironic juxtaposition does not happen at all — it does, for instance, occur in each chorus, which seems variably to be made of ‘the hollow men’ and children at play — but this, too, is used to amplify the new emphasis of the poetry.) Rather than enriching a single plane of existence — The Waste Land, for all its mythic expansions, is, like Ulysses, ultimately grounded in the life of a particular city — The Hollow Men is one of the earliest poems to seriously attempt the ‘doubleness’ of action that Eliot later called characteristic of ‘poetic drama’:

<:‘We sometimes feel, in following the words and behavior of some of the characters of Dostoevsky, that they are living at once on the plane we know and on some other place of reality from which we are shut out.’[12]

If The Waste Land’s London, then, shaped by a comparison to Dante’s Limbo (‘I had not thought death had undone so many’), it remains an imaginary, ‘Unreal’ London, but a London nonetheless. The ‘doubleness’ of The Hollow Men, both London and Limbo with its ‘tumid river’ and its ‘wind’s singing’, brings the worldly and the religious into a poetry whose spiritual pregnancy seems well aligned with Eliot’s conversion soon after.

This period was, in various ways, a kind of extended ‘dark night of the soul’. He was struggling with the failure of Sweeney Agonistes —‘...even Pound thought it might now be “too late” for him’[13]—and his relations to his estranged wife, Vivienne, were continuing to disintegrate; and, since critics like Edmund Wilson, reviewing Ash Wednesday in 1930, could look back on The Hollow Men as ‘the nadir of the phase of despair and desolation’, it is all too tempting to look for expressions of the biographical moment in the poem.[14] Indeed, some, like Bernard Bergonzi, have seen elements of the ‘process poem’ in it: ‘it has the teasing fascination of an almost-erased inscription’; the failed religious conversion echoing Eliot’s failed play and, perhaps, failed marriage vows.[15]

Eliot, of course, did convert soon after; things could only get just so bad with Vivienne; and he was, finally, able to take much from Sweeny Agonistes: Peter Ackroyd suggests that its dramatic form contributed to the clearer, simpler imagism and the ‘uncomplicated accentual meter’ of The Hollow Men.[16] And, if many critics read The Hollow Men as the conclusion to Eliot’s Inferno—with Ash Wednesday beginning the Purgatorio—it is interesting that Ronald Bush, after a study of the textual sources, finds something of the Vita Nuova here: ‘Psychologically, the drama moves downward from resistance to submission, but spiritually it moves upward from proud isolation through humility to a thirst for divine love.’[17] This interpretation assumes, of course, that the eyes ‘I dare not meet in dreams’ are an echo of Dante’s Beatrice, spied but avoided because of shame across the lost Edenic waters in the Purgatorio.

In popular cultureEdit

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. References range from film (Apocalypse Now) to video games (Fable II, the Halo series, and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty)(Citation needed) to Japanese literature (the novels of Haruki Murakami) to American television shows (30 Rock, Mad Men, and The X-Files ("Pusher" episode)).

Sheer variety of reference moves some of the questions concerning the poem's significance outside the traditional domain of literary criticism -- where Harold Bloom, for one, often half-laments Eliot's influence[18] -- and into the much broader category of cultural studies. Here, its history has itself becomes an object for meditation in the work of many critics and artists, including, for instance, film essayist Chris Marker.[19]


  • The poem is referenced in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta graphic novel.
  • The poem is used in the opening of "The Compound" By S. A. Bodeen.
  • The Nevil Shute novel, On the Beach, 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.[20]
  • Stephen King's Dark Tower series contains multiple references to "The Hollow Men," as well as The Waste Land (most prominently the title of the 3rd book in the series, which is The Waste Lands). King also makes reference to this poem in Pet Sematary 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."
  • Dean Koontz's novel, The Taking contains lines that are heavily influenced by this poem.
  • Sharon Kay Penman's novel Falls the Shadow, recounting the life and career of Simon de Montfort, takes its title from this poem.
  • The Hollow Men, a book by Nicky Hager, presumably takes its name from this poem.
  • Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore contains parts of the poem.
  • Louise Lawrence's apocalyptic novel Children of the Dust contains a reference to the last stanza of the poem.
  • Meg Rosoff's book Just in Case that is about a boy and his imminent doom contains the last stanza of the poem and is used in reference to losing his virginity.
  • Tracy Letts' play August: Osage County uses the poem as the skeleton for the story, and is heavily referenced in the prologue and the closing lines of the play.
  • The James Morrow novel This is the Way the World Ends is named for a line in the last stanza of the poem.
  • The novel "Beautiful Creatures" the character Lena quotes the poem on her birthday saying this is the way the world ends, the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper.


  • 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.[21]
  • "The Hollow Men" were a neo-psychedelic rock band from Manchester, England who rode the Madchester sound to US college radio success in the early 1990s
  • Eliot's poem was the inspiration for The Hollow Men, a piece for trumpet and orchestra by composer Vincent Persichetti.
  • The song "Hollow Again" by the Christian rock band Project 86 is based on this poem and the line "This is the way the world ends" is repeated many times.
  • The song "Meant to Live" written by Switchfoot lead singer Jon Foreman and his brother Tim Foreman is based largely on this poem.[22]
  • The song "Young Shields" written by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone frontman Owen Ashcroft is a modern interpretation of this poem.
  • The song "Longtime" by the band EMF samples T. S. Eliot's reading of this poem.
  • The song "The Shadow" by Devo (Total Devo, 1988) contains the lines, "Between the emotion/And the response/Falls the Shadow"
  • Sections of the poem are used in the song "The Straw" by musical group Idiot Flesh on their album "Fancy".
  • The song "The Chemicals Between Us" by Gavin Rossdale and his band, Bush featured the line "we're of the Hollow Men, we are the naked ones"
  • The song "Thine is the Kingdom" by Greek metal band Rotting Christ contains Part III and Part V of the poem.
  • The song "Hollow Men" by Minneapolis post punk group Rifle Sport quotes extensively from the poem.
  • The song "Hollow Man" appears as the first track on 1983 album Doppelgänger 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! released in 1981.
  • The song "Perineum Millennium" by Tim Minchin was heavily influenced by T. S. Eliot, with the end verse written as almost a direct reproduction of the last stanza of The Hollow Men.
  • The song "No Homeowners" by Twin Cities hip hop collective Doomtree contains the lyric (rapped by fellow Doomtree member Dessa): 'It goes thanks, T.S., but the world ends like this / Not a bang, not a whimper, but a sibilant hiss.'
  • The song "Beast" by Riverside Lawn-based band Tusk takes all of its lyrics from Eliot's poem and ends with the line "Not with a bang, but with a whimper."
  • The song "Greenwood" by folk band Peter, Paul, and Mary contains the line "Is this then the whimper and the ending?"
  • The Cult penned the song "Hollow Man" on their LOVE album.
  • John Cooper Clarke's poem "Psycle Sluts Parts I & II" ends with the lines "or the burger joint around the bend, where the meals thank Christ are skimpy; for you that's how the world could end, not with a bang but a Wimpy."
  • The last line of the poem is referenced in Amanda Palmer's song "Strength Through Music," based on the Columbine Shootings.[23]
  • Andy White makes reference to the work among others in his song "Speechless" (1992), a savage critique of the Gulf War: "...for we are The Hollow Men, our heads stuffed with straw..."[24]
  • In "Sons of Liberty", Frank Turner describes the "hollow men" in government who have eroded people's civil liberties in the name of national security (for example in the use of CCTV and ID cards in the UK). Turner has also referenced Eliot in the titles of two other songs: "Journey of the Magi" and "I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous"
  • The line "This is how the world ends... not with a bang, but with a whimper" is used in the song "Nightman" by the band The Acacia Strain
  • The UK electronic music duo Vent (Sam Ashwell & Dan Havers) utilize parts of the poem in their song "Shape Without Colour"

Film, television and gamingEdit

"The Hollow Men" read by Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now05:27

"The Hollow Men" read by Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now

  • Eliot's poem was also a strong influence on Francis Ford Coppola and the movie Apocalypse Now. In the film, antagonist Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando) is depicted reading parts of the poem out loud to his followers. Furthermore, in the Complete Dossier DVD release of the film, there is a 17 minute special feature of Kurtz reciting the poem in its entirety. The poem's epigraph is "Mistah Kurtz - he dead" which is a quote from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, upon which the film is loosely based.
  • The CBS television show, Beauty and the Beast, created by Ron Koslow also shows influence of Eliot's poem. The nineteenth episode in season two was entitled "The Hollow Men" and featured two young men who murder women soullessly and without remorse.
  • The Hollowmen is an Australian comedy series on ABC1 about a small group of government advisers.
  • The BBC science-fiction programme Doctor Who references both the "Falls the Shadow" section (the words had also been used previously as the title of a Doctor Who novel) and the "This is the Way the World Ends…" conclusion in the 2007 episode The Lazarus Experiment.
  • Barry Evans' character in the film Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967) states "This is the way the world shall end. Not with a bang, but with a Wimpy."
  • The final stanza is printed one line at a time at the beginning of the Television production of Stephen King's The Stand. The poem is also referenced in part by the character who feels responsible for the deadly 'Captain Tripps' virus being unleashed.
  • In the game Myth: The Fallen Lords, the Soulless units were nicknamed Hollow Men, floating ethereal skeletons that served as ranged attack units for the antagonist in the single player campaign, and as controllable units in the multiplayer portion.
  • Before the release of Halo: Combat Evolved, a series of emails were transmitted to a gaming website. The emails contained what would later be known as the Cortana Letters. In the first transmission, the letter makes reference to Eliot's last stanza when it states: "Oh, and your poet Eliot had it all wrong: THIS is the way the world ends." The cryptic message would be elaborated upon in the game's sequels, another appearance in promotional material for Halo 3, spoken by the character Cortana. The aforementioned scene was included in the final version of the game with Cortana speaking the line at a critical moment in the story when all hope seems lost. Also, the character Gravemind is heard speaking broken-up lines from this poem in the background at various points in Halo 3. Towards the end of the game, Sgt. Johnson states "Send me out with a bang" as he dies. The final section of the last level is titled "The Way the World Ends". Also, there are three reversed messages in the Halo 3 Soundtrack, one of them making reference to lines from the poem.
  • In Metal Gear Solid 2, near the end, the protagonist, Raiden, has a conversation with an A.I. construct about the saturation of information caused by the internet, and other modern communication advancements. The A.I. tells Raiden: "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper."
  • The trailer for the 2007 film Southland Tales, 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.
  • In White Wolf Game Studio's World of Darkness roleplaying game Mage: The Ascension, the "Hollow Ones" are a Tradition of Mages named after Eliot's poem.
  • The poem appears in the PC game Super Columbine Massacre RPG! during a cutscene in which Dylan Klebold remembers how he was always the only one sitting alone in the cafeteria.
  • In the 1954 movie A Star is Born when James Mason (as Norman Maine) kills himself, the film studio publicist quotes from the poem, saying "This is the way the world ends; not with a bang but with a whimper."
  • The Broadway play August: Osage County quotes passages from "The Hollow Men," stating "This is the way the world ends", and "Life is very long."
  • In the June 3, 2009, episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert signed off by reciting the poem's last four lines, with the word "show" substituted for "world". He then added, "See? You did use your English degree."
  • In Shadow Man, if one loses the battle to Legion, he quotes the final stanza to Michael just before he begins the Apocalypse.
  • In the episode "My Old Kentucky Home" of Mad Men the character Paul Kinsley recites the concluding part of the poem.
  • The penultimate episode of the TV series Dollhouse is titled "The Hollow Men," and concerns the characters' failure to avert a coming apocalypse.
  • In an episode of the television series Frasier entitled You Scratch My Book..., Frasier's short-time lover Honey Snow dismisses him by quoting the last line of The Hollow Men, telling him "the world ends not with a bang, but a whimper".
  • The mini series version of The Stand features the ending lines of the poem.
  • In the anime Highschool of the Dead, the line "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper" was quoted at the end of episode 12.
  • In the movie Easy A, Emma Stone is making a webcast that has different parts, and at the start of each part is a short introduction written on a notebook. The last one was "Not with a fizzle, but with a bang", referencing the poem.
  • The sixth season finale of Dexter, which deals with religious and apocalyptic themes, is titled "This is the Way the World Ends."
  • The poem was used in the R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour episode "Scarecrow," in which a scarecrow salesman's wares are the cause for mass disappearances.
  • In an episode ofThe Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper says, "To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a nephew."


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


  • The Acid1 test page for web browsers contains the phrase "the world ends" followed by two radio buttons labeled "bang" and "whimper".[25]

See alsoEdit


  • Gallup, Donald. T.S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition) (Harcourt Brace & World 1969).


  1. See, for instance, the biographically-oriented work of one of Eliot's editors and major critics, Ronald Schuchard.
  2. Eliot, T. S. Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (Harcourt, 1997) pp.395 ISBN 0-151002-74-6 Chistopher Ricks, the editor, cited a letter dated 10 January 1935 to the Times Literary Supplement.
  3. 'T. S. Eliot at Seventy, and an Interview with Eliot' in Saturday Review. Henry Hewes. 13 September 1958 in Grant p. 705.
  4. Gallup A8 p. 33
  5. Gallup C158 p. 210
  6. Gallup C158a pp. 210-11.
  7. Gallup C159 p. 211.
  8. Gallup C162 p. 211
  9. T. S. Eliot: the Critical Heritage. Michael Grant ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.
  10. 'Ulysses, Order, and Myth.' Selected Essays T. S. Eliot (orig 1923).
  11. A guide to The Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, 6th edition ed. B. C. Southam.
  12. ‘John Marston.’ Selected Essays T.S. Eliot (1934).
  13. T. S. Eliot: A Life. Peter Ackroyd. NYC: Simon and Shuster, 1984. p. 147.
  14. Article in Grant.
  15. T. S. Eliot. Bernard Bergonzi. London: Macmillan, 1972.
  16. See entry in Grant.
  17. T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. Ronald Bush. (1983).
  18. Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence
  19. Chris Marker's short film, OWLS AT NOON Prelude: The Hollow Men, is one such meditation.
  20. Shute, Nevil. "On The Beach". William Morrow and Company, NY, NY, 1957.
  21. David Wright, Denis ApIvor
  22. [1]
  23. [2]
  24. [3]
  25. display/box/float/clear test

External linksEdit

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