REPENT! NYRB On Why We Write Poems About the Apocalypse
Malise Ruthven's latest for The New York Review of Books wonders at the power of contemplating an apocalypse, religiously, politically, and poetically. He opens with a Robert Lowell's poem, "Fall, 1961," and Thomas Merton's "Figures for an Apocalypse," saying:
The idea of impending doom, whether divinely ordained or inferred by creative imaginations in the wake of absent deities, is a recurring theme not only in the work of writers such as Yeats, Eliot and Beckett. Imagining—or predicting—the end of the world has been the stuff of popular culture from the doomsday panoramas of the English artist John Martin (1789-1853) to the events of the “Rapture” described in the Left Behind series of novels by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. In recent years, apocalyptic rhetoric has turned up in international politics among terrorists and hard-line governments such as Iran, but also their adversaries in Washington, Israel, and elsewhere including the current Republican candidate for president.
The great English critic Frank Kermode thought that poets—unlike some politicians—were proof against enchantment by the dream or nightmare—of the apocalypse. Yeats’s apocalyptic beast that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” (in his 1920 poem “The Second Coming”) is safely wrapped in the allusive language of myth, contained by the broader frame of the poet’s “clerical skepticism.”
But Thomas Merton belonged to a generation that lived through real apocalypses brought about by political actors: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam. Mary Bryden, a specialist in modern literature, suggests that the recurrent apocalyptic motifs that surface in Merton’s writings reflect two somewhat contradictory notions of how the world might end: one emerging from religious expectation, and the other from a more plausible secular angst. In 1968, the year of his death (caused when an electric fan fell into his bathtub) he wrote in his diary that the news of the murder of Martin Luther King had pressed down upon him “like an animal, a beast of the apocalypse.”
Read the full article here.