A Song on the End of the World

by Czesław Miłosz

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Themes and Meanings

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At the end of the poem, Miosz appends a place and date: “Warsaw, 1944.” At this time, the Nazis were destroying the Polish city—literally leveling it to the ground, so that it might have seemed as though the world were coming to an end. The poem contains no direct reference to this event or to the war. Indeed, it is astonishingly tranquil, and its evocation of nature is beautiful. The closing lines have a remarkable force considering how Warsaw was coming to its end.

It is as if the poet took the major event of his time, the devastation of Poland and of much of Europe, and decided to dwell on the universal patterns of nature and of human labor and not on the immediate evidence before his eyes. He does not forget his time and place—indeed, he carefully notes them at the end of the poem—but he superimposes on his present a vision of the nature of things, of the old man’s steady work and the knowledge of the world he repeats to himself, of the bees, porpoises, sparrows, vegetable peddlers, and so on that bring the world to quite a different end from the one the Nazis believed they were achieving.

In an interview, the poet has acknowledged that he was describing an ideal world, that his poem was a deliberate exercise in naïveté akin to William Blake’s great poem “Song of Innocence.” Miosz wanted to capture in poetry an undefiled world as a counterweight to the horror of war. Even though his conception was artificial, it had a therapeutic value and an ironic thrust, showing that the poet could still imagine an ordered, aesthetically pleasing existence no matter how grim the reality of Warsaw’s destruction actually became.

Very much a poem about how to relate to the world, it is, paradoxically, an expression of hope, for the world does not end in bombing and killing, or in “lightning and thunder,” but in an old man’s words, indefatigable and indomitable, as he tends his plants and finds his rootedness in the world. There is no other way to conceive of the ending of the world, in other words, except in his terms, and in the poem’s attentiveness to the world’s life, which is honored in and for itself, and as an extension of the poet’s imagination.

There is no forcing of a point, no world order or philosophy imposed on the structure of the poem. Indeed, the poem rejects people’s preconceptions of the way the world will end; it rejects, in total, any interpretation imposed on the evidence of the world it presents. In this respect, the old man’s words are the wisdom of age, of the absence of ideology; his thoughts seem to arise out of the imagery of the world and prompt a return to a reading of that imagery and an enjoyment of the poem that is an end in itself.

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