Saturday, January 12, 2019

Archibald MacLeish: An American Life, Scott Donaldson

Scott Donaldson

MacLeish here says much the same as what he says in "Reflections" when asked how he had come to write the poem "The End of the World":
In August the weather off the Atlantic turned foul. A tempest washed the beach away, and the winds, howling at night, spoke of menace. A small traveling circus — "one tent, a very few animals, a few clowns, a few acrobats, and that was it." All the MacLeishes went one evening, watching the performers in the eerie light of torches: "One touch of the torch on the canvas roof and we were gone." The phrase that came to Archie a few days later, as he sat in his room high above the Atlantic trying to shut out the noise of the yelping dogs and of Ada singing Stravinsky, was “quite unexpectedly.” Just that most unpoetic phrase, "quite unexpectedly," and then the repetition, "quite unexpectedly the top blew off." So commenced the composition of "The End of the World," another of his best and most widely anthologized poems:
Quite unexpectedly as VasserotThe armless ambidextrian was lightingA match between his great and second toeAnd Ralph the lion was engaged in bitingThe neck of Madame Sossman while the drumPointed, and Teeny was about to coughIn waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb --Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there, hung overThose thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,There in the starless dark the poise, the hover,There with vast wings across the canceled skies,There in the sudden blackness the black pallOf nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.
The jury is deadlocked on how to interpret this poem. To some, it reads like yet another statement of postwar disillusionment and emptiness: man confronted with a universe that has no connection with him and nothing to say. Yet others detect a kind of excitement at the very prospect of the tabula rasa out in space, awaiting those who will inscribe their message. Technically, most critics agree that the poem derives its power from the extraordinary contrast between the lively and busy octet – the hurly-burly of the circus underneath the tent – and the slow, measured pace of the sestet depicting the starless skies and ending in a memorable string of four negations. Because of this remarkable contrast, it is one of MacLeish’s poems most often set to music.
But my question is: what is the connection between this poem above with its "vast wings" (in what appears to be an un-creation) and Milton's lines on the mighty wings outspread (in what is clearly a creation event).

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