Apocalyptic poetry, then and now

Apocalypse, horsemen

Apocalyptic literature dates all the way to the Hebrew Bible and new testament. Apocalyptic poetry has been a prominent feature of apocalyptic literature, and in the last century, an Apocalypse poetry movement emerged in the UK, with many esteemed poets of the time contributing.

Even eternal optimists can concede that there is currently a degree of gloom and dread around. And so now seems like an apt time to share some of my favourite apocalyptic poetry from down the years, and also pick out some new works. With roots in mythology, nightmare and war, I think you will agree that these are some of the most powerful poems you will come across.

T.S. Eliot – The Hollow Men (https://msu.edu/~jungahre/transmedia/the-hollow-men.html)

In 1925, T.S Eliot gave us The Hollow Men. The men described in the poem seem trapped in another world which exists between life and death – a kind of void in the middle of darkness and light. In the same vein as another of Eliot’s most famous poems – ‘The Waste Land’ – The Hollow Men describes lost souls, creating a haunting mood through repetition; repeating the ominous line ‘This is the way the world ends’ three times towards the end of the poem. Large parts of the poem – ‘here we go around the prickly pear’, for instance – are open to interpretation, but the dark sense of all being lost is not.

Archibald MacLeish – The End of the World (http://holyjoe.org/poetry/macleish.htm)

In ‘The End of the World’, MacLeish surprises and even stuns with his sudden switch between describing characters who are part of the circus and utter oblivion. The colon positioned at the end of the first octave, ‘quite unexpectedly the top blew off:’ sets the scene for an alarming second part of the poem, ‘There in the sudden blackness, the black pall. Of nothing – nothing, nothing, nothing at all’. From the lively happenings under the big top to the top blowing open, and what seems like, well, the end of the world, MacLeish was able to create confusion, shock and doom in a poetic ‘bait and switch’.

Czesław Miłosz – A Song for the End of the World (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49451/a-song-on-the-end-of-the-world)

Czesław Miłosz, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1980, begins this poem describing a scene of serenity with bees flying, fisherman mending their nets and women walking through fields. Indeed throughout the poem, there seems to be a lack of urgency; a lack of realisation that this is in fact the end of the world. Even up until the last stanza, the ‘white-haired old man’ or ‘would-be prophet’ described is going about his business ‘for he’s much too busy’, but the last three lines reveal a dark, conclusive truth; ‘Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: / There will be no other end of the world. / There will be no other end of the world’.

Richard Wilbur – Advice to a Prophet (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43044/advice-to-a-prophet)

Written in 1961, Advice to a Prophet is another poem which could chime with today’s society as we face up to a formidable challenge. It asks people looking ahead to the potential destruction of the world not to mourn the loss of people, but to consider what people will be like without the world. As the name of the poem suggests, this advice is given directly to ‘the prophet’. The poem can act as a warning against complacency and self-centredness which humans can be prone to, especially in times which could be considered approaching apocalyptic.

Joy Harjo – Perhaps the World Ends Here (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49622/perhaps-the-world-ends-here)

For those of us dealing with the daily monotony of lockdown, Joy Harjo offers some food for thought – no pun intended – with ‘Perhaps the World Ends Here’. The poem starts: ‘The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.’ This might ring true with many of us whose major adventure of the week has become a trip to the supermarket and back. Her final message seems to be one of hope and humour in the face of a harsh reality: ‘Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.’

I’d like to end with one of my own works; ‘The Horseman of the Apocalypse’, by Stephen Robert Kuta. I have received an overwhelming response to this poem on social media, 43,730 likes on Instagram and 36,600 times on facebook. Here it is:

The Horseman of the Apocalypse

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