The Apocalyptic Movement Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Apocalyptic Movement

The Apocalyptic Movement, or The New Apocalypse, was a loose amalgamation of British, Scottish, and Welsh poets of the late 1930s and early 1940s some of whom appeared in the anthologies The New Apocalypse (1939) and The White Horseman (1941).Writers appearing in these volumes include Dylan Thomas, Kathleen Raine, David Gascoyne, George Barker, Henry Treece, G. S. Fraser, Vernon Watkins, and Herbert Read. While these writers adhered to no specific style or themes, much of their writing shows the influence of Surrealism and Romanticism and uses mythological and prophetic motifs to convey a belief that European civilization was destined to collapse. Apocalyptic Movement writers also reacted against the political commitment of such 1930s Oxford University verse writers as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and C. Day Lewis, and further rejected strict adherence to all social and literary tenets. Henry Treece, in his 1946 book How I See Apocalypse, enumerated the qualities of Apocalyptic Movement writings: “In my definition, the writer who senses the chaos, the turbulence, the laughter and the tears, the order and the peace of the world in its entirety, is an Apocalyptic writer. His utterance will be prophetic, for he is observing things which less sensitive men may have not yet come to notice; and as his words are prophetic, they will tend to be incantatory, and so musical. At times, even, that music may take control, and lead the writer from recording his vision almost to creating another voice. So, momentarily, he will kiss the edge of God's robe.”

The Apocalyptic Movement's anti-political stance is reflected in George Barker's 1939 poem “Elegy on Spain”; the poem's neutral point of view contrasts sharply with other contemporary English poems on the Spanish Civil War. The mythopoeic influences of the writings of William Blake and William Butler Yeats are displayed in the prose and verse works of such Apocalyptic Movement writers as Kathleen Raine and Vernon Watkins. Raine, for example, wrote extensively on the mythological qualities of the poetry of Blake and Yeats, while Watkins's poem, “The Ballad of Mari Lwyd,” reinvents a Welsh New Year's Eve custom as an epic rhyming competition between the living and the dead. The surrealistic component of Apocalyptic Movement literature is evident in the works of David Gascoyne, who adapted the techniques of French Surrealists to his works concerning mortality and Roman Catholic mysticism. While the surrealist, romantic, metaphysical, and apolitical qualities of Dylan Thomas's poetry and the publication of some of Thomas's works in The White Horseman often prompt critics to associate him with the Apocalyptic Movement, Thomas denied any affiliation with the group. His poetry and the poetry of George Barker have been cited by commentators as the best examples of Apocalyptic Movement literature.