Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Archibald MacLeish: "The End of the World" - Revisited

I'm re-posting a blogpost from April 30, 2014 because the original got an interesting reception recently, as will be seen further below. But first, the original post:

Archibald MacLeish
Wikipedia

I've long liked this poem by Archibald MacLeish, though only recently did I realize it's a sonnet:
"The End of the World"

Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb --
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.
In fact, I noticed its sonnet form only as I was typing it here, so "recently" was yesterday (now that I'm posting it). I've never read any literary criticism on this poem, though I'm sure that reading some would be enlightening, but I think I previously failed to recognize the sonnet form because I was so taken by the poem's subject matter: the encounter with "nothingness."

Nothingness is difficult to conceive properly because our natural tendency is to ontologize it, i.e., to attribute "being" to it, when "nothingness" is in fact the absence of any and all being.

To get to that radical absence intellectually, one must subtract one thing after another from the world until all has been subtracted, whereupon one also subtracts "being" and finally oneself, the thinker thinking these subtractions.

The mind revolts . . . and fails to notice the sonnet form . . .

And so ends the original post. Now comes the recent, interesting comment, from a Mr. Kevin Lynch:
Mr. GS (i.e., Gypsy Scholar): I was perusing the 2018 Pulitzer prizes and noticed online an article that MacLeish wrote about The Pulitzers. This reminded me of the poem of his that I had been so struck by at about age 18 that I created a large magazine-cutouts collage (now long lost, alas) with the poem affixed in the center of the complex assemblage, though slightly above the center, kind of like a minister surrounded by his congregation. Of course, all the quirky, bizarre vitality of humanity that MacLeish encapsulates and explodes so deftly prompted me to create something which, in retrospect, is somewhat akin to the end of the film "Fail Safe" when the director unleashes a sequence of moments around the world which all skid to an existential dead stop. That film, with its very poetic ending, has haunted me since I first saw it in a way that seems akin to MacLeish's The End of the World, though far darker toned. What still strikes me is this poet's surreal sense of humor juxtaposed to the flash of the transcendent, or God, perhaps, in the "vast wings" and then the way he inductively brings the experience of The End upon us. Thank you for pointing out the sonnet form. I will have to read the poem aloud again and appreciate its musicality anew. I'm also now tempted to revisit The Doors' epic song "The End," which has more to say than its Oedipal scenario. Thanks for posting. Cheers, Kevin Lynch
This is a complex comment, lightly penned, but weighty with the biographical detail of a learnéd man's various interests. Anyway, upon this re-reading, I have come to wonder about these words:
"There with vast wings across the cancelled skies."
Could this line from MacLeish be echoing the following passage in John Milton's Paradise Lost:
And chiefly thou, O spirit, that dost prefer.
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know'st. Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sattest brooding on the vast abyss,
And madst it pregnant.
Mighty wings? Vast wings? Echo? Maybe. Maybe not. But notice the word "vast" in the expression "vast abyss."

Worth looking into . . .

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6 Comments:

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Kevin Lynch said...

Jeffrey,
Yes reading the Milton I can imagine as learned a man as MacLeish drawing inspiration from that. The wings image is very similar phrasing and the "cancelled skies" seems a more contemporary rendering of "the abyss." Life on a planet could not exist with a poisoned, uninhabitable atmosphere, which the big bombs of a nuclear war would possibly produce. Thus the end of the world, surely as we know it. Thanks for the literate observation.

 
At 4:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think MacLeish was going for something more radically "nothing" than the 'nothingness' rendered by nuclear war, but I've not had time to blog well on this issue.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:50 AM, Blogger Bienvenido Bones Banez, Jr. said...

Imagine: Vast Wings, mighty wings and the definition: "Covered by billion angel wings turning to Armageddon!". According from Prophets John the Revelation, and the end of the world. *Bones*

 
At 1:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That'll require a lot of wing-nuts and a charismatic (or two) who bolts.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:03 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I think you have a possible source here. Write it up for Notes and Queries?

 
At 5:41 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe, we'll see.

Jeffery Hodges

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