A Song on the End of the World

by Czesław Miłosz

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

Divided into four stanzas, this twenty-six-line poem with its portentous title turns out to be wryly quiet, an ironic contrast to the dramatic events some have expected would accompany the end of the world. Concentrating on a description of vivid yet commonplace, daily realities, Czesaw Miosz fashions a deliberately simple, naive narrative of events.

The first stanza is devoted to descriptions of what might be called miniature worlds: “a bee circles a clover,” describing quite literally the circumference of its world. Similarly, the fisherman mending a “glimmering net,” “happy porpoises” jumping in the sea, the young sparrows playing about the rainspout, and the “gold-skinned” snake each express a world or a dimension of the world “on the day the world ends.” There is a willed quality to this catalog of activities, a denial of change that is most explicit in the poet’s insistence on the snake’s color, which is “as it should always be.”

The second stanza shifts to an emphasis on collective and individual human activity—women walking through the fields “under their umbrellas,” a drunk growing sleepy “at the edge of a lawn,” vegetable peddlers shouting in the street—while off in the distance can be seen a “yellow-sailed boat.” Rather than the end of the world, again announced in the first line of the stanza, the descriptions seem to emphasize its continuity—like the “voice of a violin lasts in the air.”

The third stanza takes up the disappointment of those who had assumed the world would end violently, with “signs and archangels’ trumps.” There is no unusual noise, no disruption of the common pattern of the earth. As long as nature and the elements continue in their course, as long as rosy babies are born, it is hard to believe that the world is ending now.

In the fourth stanza, a single witness, busy at his work but with the insight of a prophet, “binds his tomatoes” and repeats to himself twice that “there will be no other end of the world.” The implication seems to be that the world will not end in some remarkable event but will complete itself in the same manner as the old man who is busy binding the tomatoes, or the bee circling the flower, or the fisherman mending his net. And again, the repetition of the last lines suggests a determination to celebrate the rudimentary values of labor and persistence that has no time for profound thoughts on the end of the world.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

The strength of the poem inheres in the unity and pattern of its imagery. Images of light, for example, suffuse the poem with radiance. Often associated with a feeling of hopefulness, these images seem to contradict the announced subject of the poem. The fisherman’s “glimmering net,” the “gold-skinned snake,” the “yellow-sailed boat,” and references to the sun and moon, to lightning and “a starry night,” give the poem a strong tension, a counterforce to the gloomy announcement that this is the day the world will end.

At the same time, the evocation of sounds accompanies the light imagery, especially in the second stanza’s description of the vegetable peddlers shouting in the street and violin’s voice lasting in the air. These are sounds that have an end, no matter what their length, and lead into “a starry night,” or the end of day.

The poet’s use of imagery and sound, then, seems paradoxical, evocative of both the beginning and end of the natural and human cycles. The cycle of day and night, of sounds and sights, seems reassuring and yet leads to the figure of the “white-haired old man” and to his enigmatic statement that “There will be no other end of the world,” implying that the world is already at an end. Does his white hair imply he is wise? Certainly the suggestion that he “would be a prophet” adds support to the idea that his point of view speaks for the poet’s.

The old man’s words provoke questions: Are the things of the world the very “signs” of its end? Is this how the old man interprets things, suggesting that the world ends in the very process of renewing itself, of binding itself up, of completing a cycle? The repetitiveness of his statement seems to mirror the repetitiveness of the world that must come to its own conclusion, as he comes to his own.

The poet’s aim apparently is to make one see every day as a portent of the world’s ending, as the old man does, and see it only in the images, in the scenes described, not in arguments or spectacles of the world’s end, or in some special announcement, a trumpeting of the end. The shift to the present tense in the poem’s last two lines emphasizes that there can be no more ending to the world than there is in the poem’s present.

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