Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Predictions are always difficult’, an anonymous Danish person (probably not Niels Bohr) is said to have quipped – ‘especially about the future.’ Poets have often dwelt on the past, whether nostalgically or more dispassionately; they have dealt with the current times they have lived through; but they have also sometimes turned their thoughts to the (as yet unknown) world of the future.
Here are ten of the greatest poems to consider the future.
1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 17.
Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were filled with your most high deserts?
Though yet heaven knows it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts …
Shakespeare begins this sonnet – the one preceding his more famous sonnet 18 – by asking who will believe his claims about the young man’s beauty in the future, even though he, Shakespeare, is merely giving credit where it’s due?
The Fair Youth whom he’s addressing really is as fair as Shakespeare describes him, but few readers would believe it. So Shakespeare’s poems praising the Youth will be like a tomb – which hides the body away from the world – and keeps many of his best qualities hidden, because poetry cannot truly capture the Youth’s beauty.
2. Matthew Arnold, ‘The Future’.
But what was before us we know not,
And we know not what shall succeed.
Haply, the river of Time—
As it grows, as the towns on its marge
Fling their wavering lights
On a wider, statelier stream—
May acquire, if not the calm
Of its early mountainous shore,
Yet a solemn peace of its own …
A lesser-known poem by the poet, critic, and educationalist Matthew Arnold (1822-88). The present moment is soon past, to be replaced by the future. As Heraclitus said, we cannot step in the same river twice, and all of life is in flux; Arnold meditates on these features of Time in this poem.
3. Emily Dickinson, ‘The Future Never Spoke’.
The Future never spoke –
Nor will he like the Dumb
Reveal by sign – a Syllable
Of His Profound To Come –
The future, personified in this poem as some form of sentient entity, refuses to reveal to us what is going to happen. Unlike the ‘Dumb’, i.e. humans without the power of speech, the Future refuses to use sign-language to communicate what is going to happen. Instead, it keeps shtum.
Indeed, it reveals what is going to happen ‘in the Act’ – as things are happening. Because the Future only shows its hand when ‘Future’ has already become the present ‘Act’, we have no chance to prepare for what’s in store, either to escape our fate or to ‘Substitute’ or change our path.
4. 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 in his poems, he was sometimes fond of very short and pithy poetic statements.
This is such a poem. 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.
The elements of fire and ice mentioned in the poem, and foregrounded in its title, are two of the four Aristotelian or classical elements, along with earth and air (although ‘ice’ is usually just described as water, Frost – whose very surname here summons the icy conditions of one half of the poem – is purposely summoning these classical elements).
Frost wrote ‘Fire and Ice’ in 1920. This is just two years after the end of the First World War, and a time when revolution, apocalypse, and social and political chaos were on many people’s minds. And especially on poets’ minds …
We have analysed this poem here.
5. Wallace Stevens, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’.
This 1936 poem is about the interplay between the present and the future, and about what will last – what we will leave behind, and how future generations will interpret it. Stevens begins ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’ by declaring that children of the future, picking up the bones of those of us who are alive today, will never know that they were once part of a human who moved as quickly as foxes running over a hill.
Stevens then moves to consider non-human life, imagining a future world (post-apocalypse) where grapes, growing on the vines during the frost, are a distant memory. Still, at least the children of tomorrow will be able to see our bones. What they won’t have is any knowledge of the art and culture we made in response to the world we saw around us.
6. 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 ‘Hollow Men’ of the poem are themselves trapped in some sort of between-world, a limbo or purgatory between death and life, existence and nothingness, light and darkness.
In five sections, Eliot lets the collective voice of the Hollow Men address us from their between-world which is at once a desert space (‘cactus land’) and a place suggestive of entropic decay, as though the end of the world or even the universe has come: that fading star, and the general lifelessness of the world the Hollow Men inhabit, imply that this land of twilight is a world in its death throes.
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.
We have analysed this poem here.
7. Louis MacNeice, ‘Star-Gazer’.
The reputations of the Thirties Poets, and how individual reputations have changed over time, are curious: Auden has remained popular and (thanks partly to Four Weddings and a Funeral) continues to enjoy a very healthy readership; Stephen Spender is now little-read except for a few anthology favourites; and Louis MacNeice, in many ways a more Romantic poet than either of his fellow Thirties Poets, has become more and more acclaimed as time has gone on.
Although, like Auden, he wrote long poems as well as short, and his Autumn Journal is a masterpiece, MacNeice is generally at his best in his short lyric poems.
To look at the night sky is to look into the past: we are looking at stars, not as they are now, but as they were thousands, perhaps even millions of years ago.
Written in 1967 but looking back to his eighteenth birthday some 42 years earlier, MacNeice’s ‘Star-Gazer’ thinks bigger than man’s three-score-and-ten, reflecting on the fact that some of the stars now bursting into life will never be seen by the poet, because they are so far away their light will only reach earth a long, long time in the future.
8. Stephen Spender, ‘The Pylons’.
For Spender (1909-95) in this poem, which spawned the name of a whole poetic movement (the ‘Pylon Poets’ of the 1930s), the electricity pylons springing up across the English countryside are symbols of the future, placed in a landscape that has been largely unchanged for centuries.
Whilst cities have been radically transformed in the last few hundred years by a succession of technological innovations – industry, factories, skyscrapers, the advent of the motorcar – the English countryside has largely remained the same, yet this is precisely where the pylons have been situated … or, at least, is the place where they are the most conspicuous.
9. Simon Armitage, ‘A Vision’.
This 2006 poem depicts the contrast between our idealistic hopes and plans for the future and the somewhat less perfect reality, which often falls short of our expectations. Specifically, Simon Armitage uses the example of town planning and the ways in which the reality of the town, once built, failed to live up to the perfection embodied by the miniature model of the new town.
Everything seems playful, as if life is a light-hearted game: ‘play’ seems to peep out from that ‘display’, as if inviting us to read the word not as showy ‘display’ but as dis-play, a game gone wrong.
The ‘suburbs’ depicted in the sketches and display models of the town are likened to a ‘board-game’, not just because the little models of people and places look like game pieces but because the life they are selling is a carefree one, like playing a board-game.
The bus routes and train lines look like ‘fairground rides’ (for trains read ghost trains) or ‘executive toys’, combining work and play in an unattainable ideal. Even the material from which the model town is constructed is light: balsa wood.
10. Sarah Howe, ‘Relativity’.
Howe wrote this poem about scientific ideas – specifically relating to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and its impact on subsequent physics – and read it to Stephen Hawking, to whom the poem is dedicated. It’s beautiful, moving, and shows that science continues to inspire some of the finest poetry.
Howe turns her thoughts to science as prediction in the second half of this sonnet, making it a fine note on which to conclude this selection of poems about the future.
We will end by giving an honourable mention to a poem by our own Oliver Tearle, ‘The Projection’, a poem about computer modelling and the role it plays in politics and society:
Tiresias models what he’s told.
What nostrum dramas then ensue
he neither sees nor seizes hold.
Someone else has the costs in view,
and has foresuffered all to come
(not personally though of course)
content to weigh the zero-sum
and favour action, if by force …
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.