‘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.
Explore A Song on the End of the World
‘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.
‘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).
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.
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).
And those who expected lightning and thunder
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?
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- ‘They Feed They Lion’ by Philip Levine – this poem also explores the apocalypse as viewed from the perspective of a rebellion.
- ‘The Powwow at the End of the World’ by Sherman Alexie – this poem captures a mythic vision of the end of the world as a method of retribution.
- ‘Alarum’ by Amanda Gorman – this poem views the effects of the climate crisis as the greatest existential threat to the planet.