I once read a poem "The Hollow Men" by T. S. Eliot. The poet ended the verse like this:

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.

What does it mean? What is he trying to tell the reader?

Did Eliot express his own personal life or emotions with these lines?

  • 1
    If you have multiple questions, you should probably ask them separately. The first two in this question: " what does it mean? What is he trying to tell the reader? "Are related enough they can probably be one question. The other question "did Elliot express his own personal life emotions with these lines? "Is a completely separate question entirely. – Please stop being evil Nov 3 '19 at 23:15

While what a poet is trying to tell the reader will usually be a matter of dispute, B. C. Southam shines some light on these lines in A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot, pp. 217-8:

ll. 95-8: a parody, combining a line from the children's song 'Here we go round the mulberry bush' - 'This is the way we clap our hands' - with a distortion of the phrase 'world without end' from the prayer 'Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.'

l. 98: Not with a bang: cf. 'it all ends, not with a bang, not with some casual incident, but in sustained reflection...', in George Santayana's account of the Divine Comedy, in Three Philosophical Poets (1910). Santayana (1863-1952) was lecturing on Dante at Harvard during Eliot's student days.

whimper: Eliot may have had in mind two lines from Danny Deever (1892) by Rudyard Kipling, a poem he knew by heart at the age of ten. Deever, a British soldier, is executed in front of his regiment for killing another comrade:

What's that that whimpers over'ead?, said Files-on-Parade,

It's Danny's soul that's passin' now,' the Colour-Sargeant said.

Eliot referred to this 'remarkable' poem in his Introduction to A Choice of Kipling's Verse (1941) quoting these lines and commenting that Kipling's choice of the word 'whimpers' is 'exactly right'.

The 'whimper' may also combine an allusive reference to Dante, suggesting the cry of a baby, the new-born leaving one world to enter another, just as at the end of the Purgatorio Dante is leaving the sinful, fallen world in the presence of Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise. In xxx, 43ff. and xxi, 64ff, he stands before her, shamed and conscience-stricken, repentant and silent, like a child before a stern mother.


There are two comments/pieces of elucidations I would like to add:

  1. The "mulberry tree" reference can easily be seen as what The Ecclesiastes means when he says: "There is nothing new under the Sun." Namely, all human lives are circular and repetitive - "from the cradle to the grave" and everything in between. Therefore, the proverbial (never-ending?) dance called a round/rondo.
  2. Well before this poem, the scientific speculations were obsessed with the question concerning the End of the World - the fiery explosion and immolation, or the eternal ice, as the result of the Second and Third Laws of Thermodynamics, indicating that the "End" is the absolute zero, without any possible reversal. The biblical and other mythologies are also obsessed with this kind of development. The famous Croatian poet S. S. Kranjcevic, 1865-1908 (q.v.) wrote a memorable poem, entitled "The Last Adam," well before Eliot's use of such a concept, in which the very last human being (another "mulberry tree" concept) dies, surrounded by ice, and his last gesture/"whimper" is scratching a question mark (?), on the ice... "Alas, you, the World, what has this never-ending joke been all about?!"

Having gone through a number of images of the miserable post-WWI world (and the individuals living in it - the Hollow People), just like in his "Waste Land," Eliot tells us clearly that there will be no final and spectacular Bang! - but only a feeble whimper of the dying humans and of the dying/freezing Universe. That's where the two mentioned Laws of Thermodynamics, claiming that the result of Entropy can be only the terminal ice (the hardly audible, human and celestial, whimper), and not the explosive heat (the Bang!) do play their logical role, in this section of the poem and in this entire "whimpering" poem. One of the previous interpretations suggests that this poem does not have anything to do with religion, apart from some marginal references. I would like to express my disagreement, for the concept of despair, the ultimate hopelessness, which runs constantly throughout this truly religious poem, is a well known and recognized "sin"/moral failure, which is traditionally seen as being even worse that the Seven Deadly Sins, and thus is unforgivable. Namely, it implies that a human being/sinner does not WANT to believe that "God" is forgiving and will offer forgiveness and Salvation. In some powerful poetry, throughout the centuries, this concept is known as The Dark Night of the Soul!

  • Welcome to Literature Stack Exchange! (Take our tour) Is this intended to be an answer by itself? I can't see anywhere with a specific answer to what the poem's lines mean. – bobble Mar 24 at 15:30
  • Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Please be aware that answers on this site should provide an answer to the question below which they are posted instead of discussing tangentially related topics. With regard to the content of your comments: (1) Is there any evidence that the circular concept of time/life is relevant to this poem? (2) Are the laws of thermodynamics relevant to the poem? – Tsundoku Mar 24 at 16:08

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