Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
In mid-twentieth-century Britain, there was a whole literary movement devoted to the end of the world: the Apocalypse Poets were a group of British writers inspired by Surrealism, and their work is awash with nightmarish images of war and chaos. But poets ranging far and wide have addressed the idea of apocalypse or the end of the world. Here are some of the very best apocalyptic poems.
1. W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds …
This poem prophesies that Christ’s Second Coming is due, and that the anarchy that has arisen all around the world (partly because of the events of the First World War) is a sign that this Second Coming cannot be far off. The ‘gyre’ metaphor Yeats employs in the first line (denoting circular motion and repetition) is a nod to Yeats’s mystical belief that history repeats itself in cycles. But the gyre is ‘widening’: it is getting further and further away from its centre, its point of origin. In short, it’s losing control, and ‘the centre cannot hold’.
But what sort of Second Coming will it be? It’s almost been ‘twenty centuries’, or 2,000 years, since Christ came to Earth in human form and was crucified; what ‘rough beast’ will reveal itself this time? Perhaps it will not be a Christ in human form, but something altogether different. The reference to Spiritus Mundi, literally ‘spirit of the world’, is, like the ‘gyre’, another allusion to Yeats’s beliefs: for Yeats, the Spiritus Mundi was a sort of collective soul containing all of mankind’s cultural memories – not just Christian memories, but those from other societies.
2. Robert Frost, ‘Fire and Ice’.
Robert Frost (1874-1963) is regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. And yet he didn’t belong to any particular movement: unlike his contemporaries William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens he was not a modernist, preferring more traditional modes and utilising a more direct and less obscure poetic language. He famously observed of free verse, which was favoured by many modernist poets, that it was ‘like playing tennis with the net down’.
Many of his poems are about the natural world, with woods and trees featuring prominently in some of his most famous and widely anthologised poems (‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, ‘Birches’, ‘Tree at My Window’). Elsewhere, he was fond of very short and pithy poetic statements: see ‘Fire and Ice’ and ‘But Outer Space’, for example.
This nine-line poem sees Frost telling us that he has heard some people say that the world will end in fire, while others reckon it will end in ice. In other words, the world will either burn up or freeze up. Frost’s speaker goes on to assert that his own view is that fire is more likely, especially in light of his experiences of desire (which is often linked with fire and heat, e.g. we talk of ‘burning with desire’ for someone). However, ice comes a close second for him: he’s also experienced enough of the destructive power of cold, icy hatred to see how that might consume the world, too, and be sufficient to destroy it.
The poem was supposedly the inspiration for the title of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and lends a curiously apocalyptic meaning to Game of Thrones. Will the world end in fire or ice? These images suggest various things – fire suggests rage, war, passion; ice suggests cold indifference and passivity – and can be interpreted in a number of ways, which lends this classic short poem about the end of the world an ambiguous, symbolic quality.
We have analysed this poem here.
3. T. S. Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’.
Published in 1925, this poem by the author of The Waste Land picks up on that earlier poem’s theme of the end of civilisation, but this time the stakes are raised: ‘The Hollow Men’ is about the end of the whole world.
The poem famously ends by telling us that the ‘world ends’ with ‘a whimper’ rather than a bang, and the poem is shot through with purgatorial imagery of limbo and twilight. The references to a ‘fading star’ suggest a possible context in 1920s physics, and debates surrounding entropy and the slow heat-death of the universe.
4. Archibald MacLeish, ‘The End of the World’.
Although he elsewhere sometimes wrote in free verse, the American poet-librarian Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) here offers an English or Shakespearean sonnet on the end of the world. The repetition of ‘nothing’ in the poem’s nihilistic final line is reminiscent of King Lear’s despairing ‘Never, never, never, never, never’.
5. Clark Ashton Smith, ‘After Armageddon’.
Smith (1893-1961) was a pioneering author of pulp fantasy in the United States, but also a poet whose work is shot through with a belated Romanticism. Here, Smith imagines God wandering through the ‘gardens of a cold, dark star’ following the end of the world.
6. Czesław Miłosz, ‘A Song for the End of the World’.
Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, for being a writer who ‘voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts’. But in this famous end-of-the-world poem, he begins with an altogether more serene and placid description of apocalypse, where women are walking through fields carrying umbrellas and bees continue to fly. As with Eliot’s poem, the world ends not with a bang but a whimper.
7. Judith Wright, ‘Eve to Her Daughters’.
This dramatic monologue sees the Biblical Eve transported to a post-nuclear landscape where man has succeeded in destroying the Edenic paradise of the world as we know it. Watch out for the play on the word ‘fallout’: both the quarrel between husband and wife (Adam and Eve) and nuclear fallout from the war. An apocalypse poem that is also an anti-war poem and a feminist poem.
8. Richard Wilbur, ‘Advice to a Prophet’.
In this poem, the American poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) addresses a prophet who warned of the destruction of the world. The poem is a witty and powerful attack on mankind’s complacency and hubris.
9. Eliza Griswold, ‘Ovid on Climate Change’.
With an echo of Geoffrey Hill’s poem about Ovid in the Third Reich, Griswold, an American poet born in 1973, offers a short poem about climate change, summoning the rising temperatures of equatorial and sub-Saharan Africa (Griswold, too, mentions Ethiopia). In Greek mythology, Phaethon was the young boy, the son of Helios, who drove the sun across the sky every morning in a chariot; the sun, Griswold suggests, has got out of control and is burning up the planet.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.