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A Song on the End of the World

Tom Sturch

1 Boy at End of the World The city must completely disappear from the surface of the earth . . . No stone can remain standing. Every building must be razed to its foundation. —SS chief Heinrich Himmler, October 17, 1944

Here is a poem for Lent that may seem at first counter-intuitive. A Song on the End of the World by Czeslaw Milosz was written in 1944 in Warsaw, Poland in the year of the Warsaw Uprising which saw the city's utter destruction (banner photo) by Nazi forces while the Soviet Army waited on the border for the Polish fighters to be neutralized.

The poem is four stanzas of free verse. The first two stanzas begin with the same line: “On the day the world ends...” and the balance of each stanza is a litany of quotidian life: “A bee circles a clover, / A fisherman mends a glimmering net. / Happy porpoises jump in the sea.”

Foreboding as the subject is, the poem reads with the comforting cadence of a child's bedtime story, idyllic, even as it repeats, “On the day the world ends...” Its very repetition is ironic and a clue that there is something more to the end of the world. Why else would he invoke “the day” twice? Wouldn't “the day”, if it were only “the day”, simply come once?

There is much to consider. Milosz was self-described as an atheist during his college years, but ultimately came to practice Catholicism and spent ten years corresponding with Thomas Merton on all manner of theology and global matters. He moved frequently as a child between city and country, was educated as a lawyer and wrote poetry, worked in the political realm and would not take sides, and staying in Warsaw, he publicly criticized Stalin's provisional totalitarian government. It was on the latter that Milosz wrote his Nobel Prize-winning non-fiction work, The Captive Mind.

Milosz's poems are full of nested references. “And those who expected lightning and thunder / Are disappointed,” begins the third stanza. “And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps / Do not believe it is happening now.” As concrete and pleasant as the first two stanzas are, the third abstracts into cataclysmic images of war and religious eschatology.

The fourth stanza introduces a “white-haired old man, who would be a prophet / Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,” who “Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: / There will be no other end of the world, / There will be no other end of the world.” Is the man mad? Is he singing?

Though not conclusive, there is enough in these verses for the Christian to affirm that life is in the liminal, that life moves from day to night to day, that life has no end. A great deal of secular criticism of the poem hears only lament and madness. But in the middle, at the end of the second verse Milosz affords us this clue: “The voice of a violin lasts in the air / And leads into a starry night.” What comes at the end of this day is a song. It is a song which does not end but lasts and leads. It turns the whole poem on its head. Focus is no longer on “the end of the world” but the song. Moreover, it invokes “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh in which the moon and stars radiate over a field of grain and a village. He painted it, imagining the village, while in self-imposed asylum. “Through the iron-barred window,” he wrote to his brother Theo, “I can see an enclosed square of wheat . . . above which, in the morning, I watch the sun rise in all its glory."

Lent is a time for retreat from a world that is preoccupied with endings in order to gain sight of the one that is ever arriving. It is a time to see our common acts of waking, washing, dressing and working as a faithful refrain we sing to the sorrowful world affirming a hope for the one that comes.

The book of Lamentations is the weeping lament ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah. It is a book of songs for the people of Israel remembering a grievous time. Jerusalem's Temple and walls are in shambles, but right in the middle of the book is this hope: “Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”