|<- Back to main page|
by Joel Van Valin
The falcon has been circling up there for quite some time, and the beast does not seem to be in any hurry to get to Bethlehem. A century has almost gone since the November 1920 publication of William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” in The Dial. It was also included in his celebrated collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer, published the following year, and continues to be a favorite doomsday poem, oft anthologized and quoted by those who feel that things are falling apart, and that our days (or at least the days of Western Civilization as we know it) are numbered.
Yeats was not normally alarmist or particularly fatalistic, and the apocalyptic predictions of the poem are a bit of a departure for him. But in the year 1919, when he wrote the poem, he was surrounded by a maelstrom in both public and private life. The two decades between 1900 and 1920 saw the greatest leap forward in technological innovation in history: airplanes, cars, electric lights, telephones, gramophones, motions pictures, and numerous other inventions were transforming everyday life in basic ways. World War I, which turned those technologies on the killing of humans with machine guns, mortars, aerial bombardment, tanks, barbed wire and mustard gas, had just wrapped up with the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, and nine million young men were in the ground. The Spanish flu pandemic was killing many millions more. Closer to home, the Irish War of Independence was in full swing, with Irish republicans fighting openly with Ulster unionists and the British Army, including volunteers known as the Blacks and Tans—mainly unemployed British soldiers who had returned from the trenches. Although an Irish nationalist, Yeats was from a Protestant background, and felt conflicted about the conflict. On the personal life front, he had recently proposed to Maude Gonne for at least the third time, then proposed to her daughter Iseault, and was turned down by both. Finally, in 1917, Georgie Hyde Lees, a friend of Dorothy Shakespear who was half his age, accepted his proposal. Despite the age difference and Yeats’ old flame for Maud, the couple got along well. But in 1919 a pregnant Georgie contracted the Spanish flu, and the survival rate for pregnant women was only about 30%. So the poor man could be forgiven for any end-of-the-world visions he might have had.
Reading over the poem (reprinted below) in the middle of a different pandemic, I wondered if Yeats really had experienced the vision of the sphinx (the “shape with lion body and the head of a man”). When I first read “The Second Coming” as a college student, I assumed it was just another poetic fiction, like the raven speaking to Poe. But perhaps he really did receive a “vast image out of Spiritus Mundi” in that fateful year of 1919, or something like it.
On their honeymoon, he and his wife had begun automatic writing, with Georgie going into a trance and writing down the observations and injunctions of “spirit instructors” from the Beyond. There were various presences, who had names such as Geraldus, Thomas of Dorlowicz, Ameritus, Leaf, and Apple. This automatic writing and other occult influences (he was as a young man a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn) contributed to A Vision, Yeats’ grand treatise on the nature of the universe. Wheels, gyres, and the phases of the moon figure largely in his system, and he believed that history moved through cycles of roughly two thousand years. Hence the “turning and turning in a widening gyre.” And the title of the poem, which the pagan Yeats borrowed from Christian tradition, brings to mind the return of Christ as predicted in Revelations—some two thousand years after the Crucifixion. But in place of Jesus we have the much older image of the sphinx, a mythological Egyptian beast that guarded the tombs of the pharaohs and was known for posing riddles. Just what happens when this “rough beast” gets to Bethlehem is left for the reader to imagine, but its “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” and the cries of the indignant desert birds make me fear the worst. Instead of the true Second Coming, is this, in fact, the birth of the Antichrist?
“The Second Coming” has many hallmarks of a Yeats poem, including Classical allusions and vague, high-sounding phrases like “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” (What might this ceremony might be? Sex? Marriage? High school graduation?) Like the Beatles, Yeats had two distinct periods, and fans tend to be drawn strongly to one or the other. There is his early work, before 1910 or so, cloaked in Romanticism and Celtic mythology, as though he were trying to clothe Ireland herself in the robes of nobility. Later on the scope of his poetry widened to include all of Western Civilization, but also grew more personal. He pushed aside the veil of sentiment somewhat, and could become obtuse and didactic at times.
“The Second Coming” belongs solidly to this later period. There is no Oisin or Maeve to be found here, no wistfulness of unrequited love, and the symbols are Egyptian and early Christian. However, it is atypical of his later verse in two respects. First, notice the lack of rhyme after the first “gyre/falconer” couplet and the “hold/world” slant rhyme that follows. The poem, like humanity itself, is not able to hold itself together, and apart from the curious repetition of “hand” at the beginning of the second stanza, and “man/sun” a few lines later, never returns to form, though the iambic pentameter is constant throughout.
The other novelty here is that Yeats puts on the crown of a poet-seer—and wears it as convincingly as William Blake ever did. And, as with most pronouncements of seers, its interpretations are legion. The falcon and falconer, for instance, might be human society losing touch with nature. Or, a society grown ungovernable by its rulers (Yeats was, it must be admitted, a bit of a snob, and feared the rule of “the multitude” without proper guidance from an elitist upper class). Again, “the center cannot hold” easily fits as a metaphor for political instability—and in fact Yeats was a centrist who later served as a Senator for the new Irish republic. But “the center” could also be read in terms of social class, or even the fraying of traditional values (the “custom” and “ceremony” that Yeats mentions in “A Prayer for My Daughter”). In any event, with “the blood-dimmed tide” we seem to be on a war footing, and “things fall apart” and “mere anarchy” suggest revolution. And this is all just a buildup for the vision itself.
Followers of Nostradamus might read a prophecy of World War II into the lines of “The Second Coming”. The rise of fascism, the campaigns in the North African desert, Hiroshima—all can be interpreted out of Yeats’ cryptic imagery. But the poem can be made to fit almost any conflict, and ever since its publication, it has been quoted as a warning to others. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” could describe, for example, the current nationalist political climate in the US, with PC liberals facing off against the followers of Donald Trump.
In the end it’s Yeats’ mastery of music and language that have kept us turning and turning yet again to “The Second Coming”. He had the perfect trifecta as a poet: the lyricism of Swinburne, the intellectual scope of Browning, and a flair for dramatic narrative that combined both musical and imaginative elements. He also had a knack for memorable phrases (see our list of Yeats quotes below), and this poem has several, including “Things fall apart” and “What rough beast”. So even though, toilet paper shortages aside, no Second Coming appears eminent, there’s no harm in dreaming. Give the beast another hundred years, and see how far he slouches.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
“When You Are Old”
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun
“The Song of the Wandering Aengus”
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
“No Second Troy”
A lonely impulse of delight
“An Irish Airman foresees his Death”
A terrible beauty is born
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will
“A Prayer for My Daughter”
That is no country for old men
“Sailing to Byzantium”
Of what is past, or passing, or to come
“Sailing to Byzantium”
Man is in love and loves what vanishes
“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
“Among School Children”
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion”