Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
In an earlier post, we offered some of our favourite poems about beginnings of various kinds. Now, it’s the turn of the end: below, we offer some classic poems about ends, endings, and conclusions of various kinds, from the end of the day, to the end of life, to the end of the world itself.
John Donne, ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’. Let’s begin this pick of poems about endings with one that rejects the very idea of parting from a loved one as an ‘end’. The occasion of the poem was a real one – at least according to Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler and a friend of Donne’s, who recorded that Donne wrote ‘A Valediction’ for his wife when he went to the Continent in 1611. As Donne writes at the end of this poem:
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
This poem is knotty and metaphysical, but also very touching and intelligent; see the link above to read the poem in full, along with a summary and analysis of it.
Christina Rossetti, ‘An End’. Unlike Donne, the Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-94) here offers us an ending that is final: the loved one is dead and buried in the ground. A fine elegy about the end of a life and the mourning that accompanies it:
Love, strong as Death, is dead.
Come, let us make his bed
Among the dying flowers:
A green turf at his head;
And a stone at his feet,
Whereon we may sit
In the quiet evening hours …
Emily Dickinson, ‘This World Is Not Conclusion’. According to the best editorial guess, the poem was written in around 1862. ‘This World is not Conclusion’ sees Emily Dickinson exploring and analysing our attitudes to death and what awaits us beyond:
This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound …
W. B. Yeats, ‘Death’. In this very short death poem, simply called ‘Death’, Yeats compares man’s awareness that he will die with an animal’s lack of awareness of its own mortality: an animal neither fears death (because it has no concept of dying) nor hopes for life after death (as man does, consoling himself through religion that death will not be the end):
Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all …
Robert Frost, ‘Fire and Ice’. This nine-line 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.
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.
William Empson, ‘The World’s End’. Empson (1906-84) is best-known as perhaps the most influential literary critic of the twentieth century, but he was also a brilliant poet, whose work is heavily influenced by Donne’s metaphysical poetry. In this poem, Empson plays with the idea – new in the late 1920s when he wrote it – that the universe is ‘finite but unbounded’, thus making a mockery of lovers’ desire to fly to the world’s end. Scroll down the link above to find the poem.
David Gascoyne, ‘The End Is Near the Beginning’. Gascoyne (1916-2001) was a member of the Surrrealist movement in poetry, which was especially active during the 1930s and 1940s. Surrealist poetry is not the same as nonsense poetry, and here, Gascoyne presents a series of images which point to old age (the subject is an ageing woman) and ‘the end’, presumably death.
Anthony Hecht, ‘The End of the Weekend’. Inspired by an anecdote from Ted Hughes, this is perhaps the strangest poem on this list, but it’s powerful and strange, and all the more powerful because it is strange: as the male speaker and his female companion are preparing to make love, they are disturbed by a bat in the attic. The poem takes on a Gothic and sinister turn in the final stanza, whose end-stopped lines barely contain the horror.
Mark Strand, ‘The End’. ‘Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end’: Mark Strand (1934-2014) was a Canadian-born American poet, essayist and translator, and in this powerful poem, Strand muses upon ‘the end’ – the end of a life. Technically, the poem shows masterly use of the ends of lines, with ‘the end’ rhyming with itself in the opening stanza.
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.