Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Archibald MacLeish: "The End of the World"

Archibald MacLeish

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 . . .

Labels: ,


At 7:43 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Mr. GS: 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

At 4:15 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. Here's my response.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Mr. GS, Saw a friend of mine yesterday who is dying of cancer. He's a poet, and was a lawyer, maybe even a good poet, damn good lawyer-- it's possible, think Chaucer. But while good books are fine, if I read poetry, I want to read great poetry. So I found W. H. Auden's "Funeral Blues" and was struck that if you changed "pour out the water--to pour into the water and sweep out the wood and nothing in the world can ever come to good," you would have an excellent description of the climate crisis. Mcleish's "End of the World" was a natural progression. Never realized it was a sonnet either. Enjoyed your analysis.

At 8:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Mr. Unknown. I'm glad you liked my analysis, but I'd bet you could find better analysts than I am.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home