The term “theme” may be defined as “the central idea embodied by or explored in a literary work. . .” (Gardner 1437). Some students, and even some instructors, may undervalue the importance of theme. However, the importance of theme can be better understood when we view it as a way to bridge the gap between literature and “real life” events. For example, with the spread of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) causing most colleges to transition from on-ground to online teaching within a matter of days, our students are contemplating the pandemic’s worst-case outcomes. How can we as instructors help to put these concerns in context? Perhaps by teaching the theme of apocalypse, which reminds our students that they are not alone: authors have contemplated the end of the world for centuries.
The double threats of pandemic and climate change have engendered an increasing concern for the health and well-being of Earth and its inhabitants. Science fiction author Sheila Finch suggests that apocalyptic literature provides a type of catharsis for the reader: “There’s something compelling about other people’s horrendous events, the greater the destruction the greater the fascination, just as long as we ourselves are safe” (104). We can illuminate this fascination for our students by comparing the work of two poets: William Butler Yeats and W.S. Merwin.
The apocalyptic imagery throughout W.S. Merwin’s poetry mirrors similar imagery in William Butler Yeats’s work; specifically, his poem “The Second Coming.” Yeats was influenced by the carnage of the First World War to imagine a time when “things fall apart” (3). Merwin evokes images of ecological disaster rather than man’s inhumanity to man in “Rain Light” when he describes a hill emblazoned with “the washed colors of the afterlife” (9) at a time when “the whole world is burning” (12).
In the first stanza of “The Second Coming,” Yeats tells the tale of a time of chaos in which humanity is separated from nature and God. Nature, in the form of a falcon, tries fruitlessly to reconnect with man: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (1-4). Merwin also uses avian imagery, as well as the image of an endless and pointless loop, in his poem “The Speed of Light”: “…we did not see that the swallows flashing and the sparks / of their cries were fast in the spokes of the hollow / wheel that was turning and turning us taking us / all away as one with the tires of the baker’s van” (16-18). The natural world succumbs to industrialization as the speaker laments the end of the day: “… we thought it was there and would stay / it was only as the afternoon lengthened on its / dial and the shadows reached out farther and farther…” (22-24). The speaker begins to realize too late that the end has arrived: “…we began to listen for what / might be escaping us…” (25-26). Finally, Merwin brings us to the end of the day “…the village at sundown calling their animals home / and then the bats after dark and the silence on its road” (27-28).
In the second stanza of “The Second Coming,” Yeats describes a perversion of the Second Coming of Christ: after 2,000 years of Christ’s guardianship, 20th-century Earth has given birth not to a savior but a destroyer; a god of war: “A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…” (14-15). Yeats ends his nightmare vision with a rhetorical question that leaves no hope for the future: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (21-22).
Merwin evokes his own nightmare in his poem “Rain Light.” The speaker recalls the dying words of his mother: “…my mother said I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right” (2-3). Perhaps the speaker’s dead mother is the ghost of Mother Earth. The speaker is mankind, who is left to tend a world in tatters. The world has lost its luster and is now only a shell: “…the patchwork spread on the hill / the washed colors of the afterlife / that lived there long before you were born” (8-10). Merwin’s poem ends on a bittersweet note, as the still-alive flowers provide a glimmer of hope: “…see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning” (11-12).
In his poem “My Friends,” Merwin addresses a theme visited by Yeats in “The Second Coming”: the devastating effects of war. Merwin’s speaker laments the degradation and ultimate loss of his comrades in arms: “My friends without shoes leave / What they love / Grief moves among them as a fire among / Its bells…” (3-6). These witnesses to war’s devastation lose their ability to see, but they can still hear the world ending: “My friends without fathers or houses hear / Doors opening in the darkness / Whose halls announce / Behold the smoke has come home” (21-24). Who is to blame for this destruction? Is it the predatory desire to destroy that is embedded in the human heart? “This message telling of / Metals this / Hunger for the sake of hunger this owl in the heart” (27-29). We are doomed to destroy the Earth and each other because we are predatory owls, hungering for the next kill.
Will the apocalyptic visions of William Butler Yeats and W.S. Merwin cause your students to work harder to prevent the cataclysm of pestilence or climate change? Perhaps. More likely, the study of apocalyptic themes will cause your students to realize we are not alone: for centuries, literature has motivated us to weather the storms that assail us.
Which authors do you use to teach the concept of theme? I would love to hear from you.
Finch, Sheila. Myths, Metaphors, and Science Fiction: Ancient Roots of the Literature of the Future. (Conversation Pieces Number 39). Seattle, WA: Aqueduct Press, 2014.
Gardner, Janet E., et al. Literature: A Portable Anthology. Fourth Edition. Bedford, 2017. p. 1437.
Merwin, W.S. “My Friends.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. n.d. https://poets.org/poem/my-friends. 14 November 2019.
-----. “Rain Light.” The Merwin Conservancy. 2019. https://merwinconservancy.org/2013/10/rain-light-by-ws-merwin/. 14 November 2019.
-----. “The Speed of Light.” The Merwin Conservancy. 2019. https://merwinconservancy.org/?s=the+speed+of+light. 14 November 2019.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” Literature: A Portable Anthology. Fourth Edition. Ed. Gardner, Janet E., et al. Bedford, 2017. p. 500.