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Apocalypse as Conveyed in the Romantic Movement: Not World’s End!

John Martin – The Great Day of His Wrath (1851) – Public Domain

Although the word “apocalypse” is always pictured as an end-of-the-world scenario, the word carries more meaning than is typically understood. ‘Apocalypse’ connotes a prophetic revelation regarding a catastrophic event which will bring with it vast scenes of violence and destruction but which ushers in a new peaceful millennium. In Christian doctrine, it also relates to the conflict between the forces of good and evil, and concludes with the victory of God. This article examines the Romantic conception of the word, and how three of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement used the concept and imagery associated with the apocalypse and millennium in some of their works.

William Blake’s Internal Apocalypse

The themes of apocalypse and millennium are central ideas in Blake’s poetic and artistic works. Blake did not merely regard the apocalypse in the traditional sense of external wreckage but as a deeply personal, individual event.  In the notes to his 1808 painting, A Vision of the Last Judgment, he expresses his belief that  “Whenever any Individual Rejects Error & Embraces Truth a Last Judgment passes upon that Individual”.

The use of the word “Individual” is notable; it implies that the apocalypse according to Blake is not a single large-scale event, but a series of progressive changes that may occur inside each human spirit. It involves a process of first looking into oneself to discover “Error”, and the confrontation that takes place with this current flawed condition gives birth to an internal (rather than external), state of psychological chaos. The process culminates in the attainment of knowledge, an acceptance of “Truth”, which symbolizes the arrival of the new millennium.

William Blake – A Vision of the Last Judgment (1810) – Public Domain

The human mind is not the only landscape in which apocalyptic events occur. William Blake utilized the city in his works as a location in which great corruption is present along with purification and rejuvenation. It functions as a reflection of the spiritual state of its inhabitants.

Golgonooza, his representation of a “Spiritual Fourfold London”, illustrates this. He describes it as “continually building and continually decaying desolate! / In eternal labours.” Echoing the idea of apocalypse as an on-going series of mental events, the spiritual portrayal of the city is that of a place that is constantly falling into decay which is followed by rebirth.

His portrayal of London in his poem of the same name is a powerful criticism of the detrimental effects of the Industrial Revolution. In Songs of Experience, London is described as an apocalyptic entity, filled with images of ethical and physical degeneration.

“In every cry of every Man, / In every Infants cry of fear, / In every voice: in every ban, / The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” (London)

His mention of the “mind-forg’d manacles” brings us back to the idea of an individual Last Judgment. The city, then, is a sort of macrocosm of its residents who are shackled by their mental inhibitions. An attainment of truth would require what Blake describes in another poem as a “mental fight”, and so long as the people are intellectually imprisoned, they remain in an undeveloped state. They are unable to evolve mentally and spiritually, and therefore individual and universal millennium cannot be reached.

When placed side by side with lines from his poem “Jerusalem”, it becomes clear that Blake saw the land as a place in which a new order may be created out of or despite the existing chaos:

“I will not cease from mental fight, / Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land.” (Jerusalem)

The attainment of Jerusalem represents the achievement of millennium and therefore “England’s … land” itself is seen as the landscape in which the apocalypse occurs (as represented by London), in the form of urban moral deterioration, and in which a new age follows.

Lord Byron’s Prophecy of Darkness

“And man in portions can foresee / His own funereal destiny” (Prometheus)

William Adolphe Bouguereau – Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850) – Public Domain

So wrote George Gordon Noel, better known as Lord Byron, in his poem “Prometheus” in 1816. He would later on express this prophetic ability of man in his own bleak vision of the end of the universe. “Darkness”, written in the same year, is a crystallization of this idea. Unlike William Blake’s belief in spiritual and psychological upheaval, Byron depicts an apocalypse of a universally and physically destructive nature. The latter poet’s version is far more pessimistic. In contrast to Blake’s hopeful conviction that through mental struggle it becomes possible to build a New Jerusalem out of moral decadence, this poem is concluded in a note of complete desolation. No new age, no peaceful millennium rises from that senseless tumult of Byron’s appropriately-titled “Darkness”. Nothing remains but “A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay”.

The interpretations of this poem differ but it does, in any case, present an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenario where all life existing in nature and mankind is extinguished.

In the first line, Byron claims that he is recounting a “dream, which was not all a dream”. This implies that the images of a barren and devastated earth which he describes might truly come to pass and that this “dream” is, rather, a prophetic vision of the future. Stating that it is “not all a dream” serves to highlight the idea that, despite the fantastical nature of these occurrences, this vision is partly rooted in reality and this makes it all the more frightening.  It is believed by some that the poem, because of its detailed descriptions of a failing natural world, paints a picture of an “environmental apocalypse”.  This can be glimpsed from the following lines:

“The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, / The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before; / The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air, / And the clouds perish’d” (Darkness)

The exalted status of Nature in the works of Romantic poets pervades the literary works of that era. It is not surprising, therefore, that the large-scale exploitation of the natural world which occurred during the Industrial Revolution became a source of grave concern to them; many expressed fears about the possible adverse effects of urbanization on the environment. It is possible that the apocalyptic nature of the poem was intended as a warning of the ruinous effects of industrialization through its reminder that humanity is essentially dependent upon the natural world.

The central event which triggers the sequence of occurrences that will ultimately end with the extinction of the human race starts in nature. It is the darkening of the sun, symbolic of life:

“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” (Darkness)

This order of events illustrates the power of the natural world over humanity. It leads to a disintegration of the outward marks of rank and prosperity, which become useless in the face of such an adversity, and this can be seen in how “the thrones, /The palaces of crowned kings … Were burnt for beacons”.

Another related aspect that is interesting to examine is Lord Byron’s condemnation of mankind throughout the poem. He presents the apocalypse as an event that will bring out and fully demonstrate humanity at its most primitive and self-centered state. Desperation drives people to become devoid of human emotion and empathy; “no love was left”. It forces them into a condition where “All hearts / Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light” and where each individual remains “sullenly apart / Gorging himself in gloom”. Its destruction thrusts mankind into an animalistic struggle for survival, which can be seen in how “The meagre by the meagre were devour’d”. The self-destructive nature of man is also shown in that they “fed their funeral piles with fuel”. The only example of loyalty present in the poem is that of a dog which refused to leave the side of its master’s corpse, till it eventually fell dead as well.

Lord Byron’s prophetic description of the apocalypse is rife with scenes of external carnage and death, which drearily end with nothing other than a “void”. The total obliteration of life is complete by the end of his gloomy “dream”, when darkness does not just consume the Universe, but actually becomes it:

“Darkness had no need / Of aid from them – She was the Universe” (Darkness)

Percy Shelley’s Rebellious Apocalypse

Apocalypse and millennium materialize in Percy Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy” as manifestations of political ideology. Shelley was famous for his pacifist views and this is given expression to in the poem, where he urges the realization of millennium through the application of nonviolent resistance.

Richard Carlile – Peterloo Massacre (1819) – Public Domain

The poem was written as a response to the Peterloo Massacre which took place in the city of Manchester in the year 1819, when several protesters were killed by the cavalry for demanding parliamentary reforms. Shelley uses biblical imagery from The Book of Revelation to condemn this action. However, unlike Lord Byron’s “Darkness” which ends with the complete destruction of all life, the tone of despair that “The Mask of Anarchy” begins with shifts near the end of poem and Shelley expresses the possibility of bringing about a new peaceful age.

The massacre of protesters is presented as an apocalyptic vision, with three of the leading political figures at the time portrayed as three of the four horsemen from The Book of Revelation, who are harbingers of the day of Final Judgment. They become symbols of the vices Murder, Fraud and Hypocrisy.

Shelley’s mention of these individuals by name further emphasizes the political and ideological nature of this vision. The character of Murder, which is described as having “a mask like Castlereagh”, is ascribed to Lord Castlereagh, who was then Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons. Fraud was based on Lord Eldon, the Lord Chancellor: “Next came Fraud and he had on / Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown”. Lord Sidmouth, the Lord Chancellor follows: “Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocricy / On a crocodile rode by”.

The fourth horseman is then revealed to be a personified Anarchy, and Shelley draws a clear association with the biblical account of the apocalypse:

“Last came Anarchy: he rode / On a white horse, splashed with blood: / He was pale even to the lips / Like Death in the Apocalypse” (The Mask of Anarchy)

In the following lines, he also alludes to the Mark of the Beast, thus creating further apocalyptic connections with the figure of Anarchy:

“And he wore a kingly crown; / And in his grasp a sceptre shone; / On his brow this mark I saw – / ‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’” (The Mask of Anarchy)

Therefore it is clear that he regarded the anarchic actions of the government as resembling the chaos associated with the apocalypse.

The poem ends with an optimistic tone where Shelley expresses his conviction that true change, symbolizing millennium, will finally be achieved. He predicts the demise of the forces of evil, who will “return with shame / To the place from which they came / And the blood thus shed will speak / In hot blushes on their cheek”. In addition, he encourages the people of England to “Rise, like lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number!” The final line of the poem is intended to assure the people of their strength and to express the certainty of eventual success and reformation: “Ye are many – they are few!”


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