Saturday, September 26, 2009

T. S. Eliot: September 26, 1888--January 4, 1965

T. S. Eliot--poet, playwright, and critic. He is a favorite of mine, and "The Hollow Men" is one of my favorite poems by him. At present, it's hard to see what Eliot's legacy will be, assuming that he isn't forgotten as the decades pass. Will his poetry be remembered and read by both the public and critics, or will he be read mostly by critics and English majors in class? Or perhaps, he will be remembered only by critics who will discuss his criticism in the future, and his poetry will be ignored, except perhaps as examples of poetry from the first half of the 20th century?

My first encounter with Eliot was at an early age, much too young to really appreciate the poem. In fact, it wasn't the poem but only the last stanza that I read, and I didn't know where it came from until years later. It was used as an epigraph for a SF short story, whose title and author I have long since forgotten. It is the epigraph, not the story, that has stayed with me through the decades.

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.

I read it in the '50s when the Cold War was at its hottest, and nuclear annihilation was one of the most common themes in SF (commonly dismissed as "escapist fiction"). This suggested another way for the world to end, one that was directly contradictory to the prevailing fears of the time--"Not with a bang but a whimper." I found this intriguing, and perhaps hopeful? It was not until perhaps the early '60s in an English Lit class when I discovered the source of the epigraph.

The poem itself has two epigraphs. One, "Mistah Kurtz--he dead" is from Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. It occurs near the end of the novel, shortly after Kurtz has been taken aboard the river boat that has come upstream to investigate strange and frightening rumors that have circulated about his methods. Kurtz is at the "heart of darkness" or perhaps he himself may be the heart of darkness. Kurtz may have recognized this on his deathbed, when he utters his last words--"The horror...the horror."

Francis Ford Coppola, the director of Apocalypse Now, a film inspired? by Conrad's Heart of Darkness, recognizes the relationship between Eliot's poetry and Conrad's novel. Where Eliot echoes Conrad with the epigraph from Heart of Darkness, Coppola reverses the relationship when he has Kurtz quote several lines from Eliot's poetry in his conversations with Willard, the officer who has come to "terminate him with extreme prejudice."

I think Eliot wishes to tie in his formulation of the death of western civilization during the horrors of World War I with Kurtz, a highly civilized man and a paragon of humanitarian motives, who becomes far more savage than the "savages" he is supposed to be bringing the benefits of civilization to.

The second epigraph, "A penny for the Old Guy," comes from the traditions surrounding Guy Fawkes Day. English children (perhaps this tradition now has passed into oblivion) go about with straw effigies of the 17th century traitor Guy Fawkes and ask for pennies for fireworks which will be set off as the effigy is later hung and burned. Perhaps this is Eliot's brief commentary on the strange relationship between the innocence of children and the savagery of "civilized" law.


Mistah Kurtz--he dead

A penny for the Old Guy

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.


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


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.


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.


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.

Any thoughts? Which would be worse--the world ending in a bang or a whimper?


  1. I, too, have high regard for Eliot. However, there is probably no one who reads Eliot's poetry worse than Eliot himself. Check out some of his recordings.

  2. R. T.,

    I don't think I've had the pleasure of hearing Eliot read his poetry, and based on your comments, I think I will forgo it in the future.

    I have a recording by Frost of his poetry and I thought that wasn't bad at all. It seemed to fit the poetry rather well.

    It reminded me of a related experience with voice. One of my instructors in grad school was LD Clark, who has written fiction and I think a biography of DH Lawrence. After taking several classes with him, I discovered a collection of his stories. While reading the stories, I would swear the narrator "sounded" just like him in class. It was like having him there in the room telling me the story.

  3. Perhaps I rather harshly stated the case against Eliot. Check out the many YouTube renditions (featuring Eliot), and you can judge for yourself. He violates all principles of reading poetry aloud that we encourage upon students. He has no interest in either punctuation or vocal variety. For example, check out the YouTube version of Eliot reading "Preludes." That will give you an excellent introduction to what I am talking about here.

  4. R. T.,

    I'm on dial-up modem, so YouTube stuff doesn't come across very well. Also the speakers are the cheapest.

    However, I found that the library has a CD of Eliot reading his poetry (titles not listed) and a Caadmon 3-CD set of various poets reading their poetry. The poem that Eliot reads is "The Wasteland."

    This should be enough to give him a fair test.

  5. Eliot has a ways to go before he's forgotten. In David Lehman's 2006 New Oxford Book of American Verse, Eliot gets the 2nd highest page count, behind Walt Whitman, making him the Greatest English-language Poet of the 20th Century, still.

    Almost all dead poets are "read mostly by critics and English majors in class" - and one more, crucial, group - not-so-dead poets.

  6. Amateur Reader,

    I hadn't known that. Thanks for the information. It's good to see that he is still highly regarded, at least by the establishment anyway.

    And, yes, I guess dead poets in this country, sadly, are read mostly by academics and peers and not by the general public.