05/29/2011 01:30 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2011

The Apocalypse in Verse

As Harold Camping's judgment hour approached last Saturday, a very small part of me worried that the old man was right. I glanced up at the sky over Union Square, fearing a scene such as Whitman described in his poem "Whispers of Heavenly Death,"

I see, just see skyward, great cloud-masses,
Mournfully slowly they roll, silently swelling and mixing,
With at times a half-dimm'd sadden'd far-off star,
Appearing and disappearing.

There was no great storm brewing, of course. And I was relieved to know that my last act on earth wouldn't be watching Thor in 3D.

But last week's little doomsday scare was just the first of many. Mr. Camping -- fast becoming the boy who cried apocalypse -- has since revised his prediction to October 21st, and, more ominously, the Mayan calendar indicates that the world might end this December.

All of this has inspired me to be a bit more prepared next time, and so I turned to poetry for a little wisdom. Poets have long mused on the end of the world and can offer us insight on a number of imagined endings. Contrast Whitman's vast rumblings to T.S. Eliot's famous conclusion to "The Hollow Men," which is painful for the apocalypse that doesn't happen:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

The American poet Sara Teasdale, similarly, found little fanfare in a world suddenly devoid of humanity in her poem "There Will Come Soft Rains" :

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

The great, brooding Romantic poet Lord Byron, known to sip his wine out of a skull, went all in, imagining a world bereft of light in his chilling poem "Darkness."

I had a dream, which was not all a dream. 

The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars 

Did wander darkling in the eternal space, 

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth 

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; 

Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day, 

And men forgot their passions in the dread 

Of this their desolation; and all hearts 

Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light: 

And they did live by watchfires--and the thrones, 

The palaces of crowned kings--the huts, 

The habitations of all things which dwell, 

Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed, 

And men were gathered round their blazing homes 

To look once more into each other's face;

Thomas Hardy gave voice to souls waiting to be judged in his poem "Channel Firing," in which the dead mistake the racket of artillery fire for the apocalypse. A sardonic God sets them straight about the noise:

"That this is not the judgement-hour
For some of them's a blessed thing,
For if it were they'd have to scour
Hell's floor for so much threatening. . . .

"Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need)."


And many a skeleton shook his head.
"Instead of preaching forty year,"
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
"I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer."

The long-dead Parson Thirdly would, no doubt, also enjoy a little 3D Thor.

Humor aside, I could find no more reassuring poem on the apocalypse than Czeslaw Milosz's "A Song On the End of the World" (translated by Anthony Milosz). In it, Milosz imagines that the world's last day will be a beautiful and a simple one.

A bee circles a clover,

A fisherman mends a glimmering net.

It's a let down, Milosz imagines, to all those "who expected lightning and thunder," and "archangels trumpets." His poem ends with a vision of a far more palatable version of Camping:

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he's much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

And that is an apocalypse I can live with