A Song on the End of the World

Czeslaw Milosz

‘A Song on the End of the World’ by Czeslaw Milosz is an impactful poem that takes a paradoxical view of the apocalypse as a means of underscoring the surreality of facing cataclysm.

Czeslaw Milosz

Nationality: Polish

Czeslaw Milosz was a Polish American poet, translator, and diplomat.

Today he is considered one of the most important poets of the 20th century.

Key Poem Information

Unlock more with Poetry+

Central Message: Calamities akin to the apocalypse occur when we least expect it

Speaker: An omniscient speaker

Emotions Evoked: Confusion, Fear, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Czeslaw Milosz's poem offers a devastatingly emotional vision of the last day of existence, subverting the belief that the apocalypse will be heralded and instead will arrive oddly out of place.

‘A Song on the End of the World’ is one of the many poems found within Czeslaw Milosz’s fourth poetry collection, Rescue, published right after World War II. It covered extensively the horrors the poet witnessed while living in Poland under German occupation.

Such memories were ingrained in Milosz for the rest of his life and led to poems such as this one. Here they paint a peculiar portrait of the end of the world, one that seems at first to clash with the speaker’s insistence that today is the day it all goes kaput. Yet it eventually becomes clear that the poet’s intention is to use the apocalypse as an apt metaphor for the atrocities seen and their traumatic effect.


‘A Song on the End of the World’ by Czeslaw Milosz is a poem that wrestles with the ways in which immense catastrophe doesn’t always arrive in the form we expect it to.

‘A Song on the End of the World’ opens by listing a variety of scenes that are incompatible in every way with a vision of an apocalypse. “A bee circles a clover, / A fisherman mends a glimmering net. / Happy porpoises jump in the sea,” the speaker narrates. The second stanza describes more mundane moments occurring in synchronicity with the end of the world: “A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn, / Vegetable peddlers shout in the street / And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island.”

They reveal that there is no “lightning and thunder” to announce the coming end, nor are there any religious “signs and archangels’ trumps.” The speaker then states that people are in utter disbelief because of the incongruence between reality and expectation. “As long as the sun and the moon are above… / No one believes it is happening now,” they explain. The final stanza ends with the speaker focusing on a “white-haired old man” as he binds his tomatoes. Referring to him as a prophet with no time to be a prophet because he’s “much too busy,” they reveal the words he repeats as he works: “There will be no other end of the world.”

Structure and Form

‘A Song on the End of the World’ is organized into four stanzas of varying lengths. Milosz wrote the poem in free verse, meaning it contains no defined meter or rhyme scheme. This is something that’s very clear through the poet’s use of diverse language. The lines end in very different end-sounds, something that helps give the poem its unique sound.

The poem can be considered to be a carpe diem too. It describes the mundane activities of people on the day the world ends, reminding us to cherish the simple pleasures of life. It ends with the line “There will be no other end of the world,” suggesting that we should make the most of the time we have left.

The poem also explores the complex emotions that people experience in the face of death, such as amusement, sadness, and irony. Ultimately, it is a reminder to live each day to the fullest while acknowledging the inevitability of death.

Literary Devices

‘A Song on the End of the World’ uses a variety of different types of literary devices to create a compelling image of the end of the world:

  • Kinesthetic imagery: “A bee circles a clover” (2); “Happy porpoises jump in the sea” (4); “By the rainspout young sparrows are playing” (5).
  • Visual imagery: “A fisherman mends a glimmering net” (3); “And the snake is gold-skinned” (6); “A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn” (9).
  • Auditory imagery: “Vegetable peddlers shout in the street” (10); “archangels’ trumps” (16).
  • Personification: “The voice of a violin lasts in the air / And leads into a starry night” (12-13).

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

In the first stanza of ‘A Song on the End of the World, ‘ the speaker characterizes the “day the world ends” (1) in a paradoxical manner. The pieces of imagery they catalog in the opening lines evoke both beauty and joy, making them contradictory to the idea of an apocalypse. This includes a visual motif of light that appears throughout the stanza — the “glimmering net” (3) of the fisherman and the “gold-skinned” (6) snake — that oppose with their radiance the bleak and doom-filled atmosphere of the end of times.

Much of the kinesthetic and visual imagery used by Milosz hones in on nature, offering visions of frolicsome creatures. Like the bee circling the clover and “happy porpoises [jumping] in the sea” (4) or even two “young sparrows” (5) playing. The gleeful imagery establishes that the scenery doesn’t reflect the gravity of what’s to come.

Stanza Two

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

The second stanza of ‘A Song on the End of the World’ continues to build on its juxtaposition between the ordinary elements of daily life and the impending cataclysm. Beginning with the same repeated opening line, the speaker offers more detailed images of the events happening alongside the end of the world.

There is a group of women walking through a field with umbrellas, a “drunkard” (9) sleeping on a lawn, and the noise of “vegetable peddlers” (10) shouting in the street. In other words, the day the world ends will appear much like any other. There is even a hopeful bent to the stanza’s final lines, which envision the personified “voice of a violin” (12) as it rises into the “starry night” (13).

Stanza Three

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.

The speaker of ‘A Song on the End of the World’ addresses the poem’s paradox in the third stanza. The first few lines confirm what has so far only been implied: the end of the world will not be heralded by “lightning and thunder” (14) or “signs and archangels’ trumps” (16). Those who believe this are blindsided by disbelief — they “do not believe it is happening now” (17) the speaker ominously asserts.

But the incredulity isn’t just relegated to the religious, as there are plenty of other illusory ways people delusion themselves. Milosz uses anaphora to punctuate the rigidness of such misconceptions. After all, “as long as” there are celestial bodies moving in the sky, bees pollinating, or babies being born — how can the world end?

Stanza Four

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,

Warsaw, 1944

The ending of ‘A Song on the End of the World’ offers space for a variety of interpretations. Here the speaker illustrates one last scene taking place in tandem with the end of the world. The focus shifts to a “white-haired old man, who would be a prophet / Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy” (22-23). The reason for this description lies in the words we are told he repeats as he binds tomatoes: “There will be no other end of the world” (25-26).

One interpretation is that the man’s words are an affirmation of what the speaker has already shown us through their narration of this last day. There will only be one kind of apocalypse — dissimilar in every way to those often depicted in religious texts or art — it will be anticlimactic in comparison.

This underscores the surreal ways tragedy and catastrophe can occur without much warning. While the anticlimax of the apocalypse arriving on a day that seems so unfit for it only deepens the poem’s melancholic and depressed tone.


What is the theme of ‘A Song on the End of the World?

One of the central themes found in the poem is that cataclysm rarely arrives on a day that appears ripe for it. The imagery offered in the poem accentuates only the mundane and beautiful, and nothing tragic or horrible occurs that might herald the end of times.

Why did Czeslaw Milosz write ‘A Song on the End of the World?

Milosz lived in Warsaw, Poland, during World War II and bore witness to horrendous calamities firsthand. He was also present for the failed Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the failure of which prompted German occupying forces to burn and demolition 85% of the city. This, coupled with the location and year included in the poem, makes it likely that the poet relied greatly on his memories of the traumatic events witnessed in Warsaw for inspiration.

What is the meaning of the poem’s title?

The poem’s title mentions a song, yet Milosz chose to write it in free verse. Much like the paradoxical notion that the end of the world will happen on a day so mundane and quaint, this “song” also lacks rhyme as a means to undermine expectations.

Why is the man described as “a prophet / Yet is not” in the poem?

The literal reason given in the poem is that the man simply has no time because he’s too busy working. This is another example of the poem subverting the grand or holy for the mundane. Instead of becoming a prophet to spread their message, they would rather quietly and solitarily grow tomatoes.

Similar Poems

Poetry+ Review Corner

A Song on the End of the World

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Czeslaw Milosz (poems)

Czeslaw Milosz

This poem by Czeslaw Milosz comes from his fourth poetry collection "Rescue," which was published not long after the end of World War Two. It is one of his more famous poems not just within the anthology, but among all his compiled writings. It offers a glimpse into the poet's experiences and perceptions regarding the war.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

20th Century

Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 and has remained an important poetic voice of the 20th century. He lived through Nazi occupation in Poland long enough to see the Soviets take over. Many of his poems like this one offer a glimpse into the past of a world ruined by war and the people left in its wake.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Milosz is considered one of the eminent voices in Polish literature. All of his poems, even after immigrating to the United States, were written in his native Polish and translated either by others or himself to English. Many of his early poems were penned while living under Nazi occupation and about the aftermath of the war.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Disappointment is a minor theme found within the poem. The speaker makes it clear that those who have a certain expectation for what the end of the world will look like will be disappointed. The root of this disappointment is an anticlimax, as the end of the world isn't presented as one sudden rapturous event.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Nature is another theme that is present within Milosz's poem. When the speaker offers descriptions of the day on which the world ends, they appear to focus in particular on images found in nature. In addition, many of these scenes contrast the gloominess of the apocalypse with a frolicking joy.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


War is a central theme of this poem by Milosz. There is a good chance it was even inspired by a famously tragic event known as the Warsaw Uprising which occurred in 1944. This poem underscores the way in which war feels like a perpetual end of the world, one where tragedy can arrive even on days that appear unfit for it.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Confusion is one emotion expressed within the poem. The speaker explains that those expecting some kind of rapture will be disappointed and no doubt confused when the opposite appears to happen. The imagery that Milosz provides accentuates the paradox of the end of the world arriving on a beautiful day in which all of nature appears at peace.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Fear is another emotion found in Milosz's poem. Yet like much in the poem, this fear is characterized a little differently than one might escape. This fear stems from the speaker's continuous contradictions about the end of the world, illustrating its unpredictability and heedlessness of anything besides its own arrival. This leaves the reader with a potent sense of it.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The one emotion that really permeates throughout the poem, especially after multiple readings, is its intense sadness. Even the joyful images offered in its opening stanzas start to appear more gloomy once read with the understanding that the end of the poem offers. It truly captures with poignant precision Milosz's dreary but lucid understanding of war.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The apocalypse of Milosz's poem is defined by its differences from popular visions of the end of the world, be they the ones found in religious texts like the bible or poetry. The main difference is the anticlimactic nature of the poet's description of the end of times, which serves to accentuate the terrible perpetuity of the war.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The poem makes allusions to Christian elements of the apocalypse. This is in keeping with many of his other writings which often contain references to Christian symbols and events from the bible. Here, the poet uses them to make their contradictory vision of the end of the world all the more potent. The poem denies any sort of sudden rapture and instead presents something far more woeful.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Milosz lived in Warsaw under Nazi occupation. His proximity led him to both see and hear many of the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand. Those experiences stayed with him throughout his life and although this poem is not his most explicit regarding the genocide it does still stem from its effects on Poland.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

World War Two (WWII)

Milosz was greatly influenced by the events of World War Two, his poetry collection "Rescue" covering much of what he saw while living in Poland. Through the poet, the reader is offered a visceral glimpse into his ruminations on the effects of war on the citizenry and the pervading sense of dread that fills the world around them.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

Free Verse

This poem by Milosz is written in free verse, as it lacks both a defined rhyme scheme and meter. Yet there is cadence found within the poem that is made apparent through the poet's use of repetition like anaphora. The effect is to create a sad dirge that adds to the poem's already powerful melancholy.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+
Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question? Ask an expert.x
Share to...