Friday, January 11, 2019

Archibald MacLeish: Reflections

In this book, edited by Bernard A. Drabeck and Helen E. Ellis, we find MacLeish reflecting on his writing of "The End of the World" (1926), and he spends pages 32 through 39 (eight pages give or take) doing nothing but talk mostly about the writing of that poem, pages in which he never mentions Milton, though he surely is thinking (isn't he?) of Milton and Milton's image of the Spirit of God hovering over the abyss and impregnating it.

Here is the correctly punctuated poem, the critical edition (I hope):
"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 canceled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.
MacLeish recalls very well the 'raw ingredients' that he says goes into this poem: a gypsy circus with an elephant, a mangy lion, a large, buxom lady who had seen better days, and lots of clowns, plus the gales coming in off the channel, threatening to blow the tents away, or perhaps getting the tents to flapping into the torches and leaving everyone watching the entire performance go up in smoke? Some of this can also be read in Archibald MacLeish: An American Life, by Scott Donaldson.

But why the end of the world? Maybe the carnival atmosphere, that reflection of pandemonium, had come under judgement, the Last Judgement.

Note, anyway, the connection between creating and un-creating.

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