William Butler Yeats – The Second Coming

Today is April 1 – known to many as April Fool’s Day, but for me its specialness is being the first day of National Poetry Month!!! Hurray! So for the first poem of my poem-a-day-and-commentary project, I’m doing William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” I know, it’s one of the most famous poems ever, it’s been anthologized a gazillion times, and scores have been written about it; so what new could I have to say about it? Well, whatever…this is one of the first “real” poems I ever got into, thanks to allusions to it by the psycho-killer, who saw visions of the Apocalypse, in the first episode of the (spooky but short-lived) TV show Millennium.

William Butler Yeats – “The Second Coming”

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?

Commentary
This remains one of my favorite poems. If there are any lines of poetry that will stick with me the rest of my life, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” will ever be burned in my brain. The concision and power in Yeats’ images are amazing.

Various critics have commented on this poem, claiming that it represents everything from the idea that the reign of Christianity in the Western world will give way to Paganism, to a disdain for the political turbulence and crumbling of traditional culture at the time.

However, I do not believe Yeats is being didactic here, nor do I believe his words present a definitive outlook on either religion or society. If anything, he closes with a question rather than an answer. The poem is meant as a sort of riddle – fitting with the image of the Sphinx. A chill runs up my spine every time I read those last 4 lines, as I imagine the Sphinx having come to life, crawling from Egypt to Bethlehem, waiting to – what? Be reborn as the second incarnation of Jesus? The anti-Christ (according to traditional Christian eschatology, he will attempt to imitate Christ in every way, and will be born in the East)? Some bestial Pagan messiah/world-destroyer?

There is a weird transition between the two stanzas. In the first, we have “mere anarchy” (mere is quite an interesting adjective for anarchy) loosed upon the world, and the idea of chaos. The second stanza seems to neither continue the idea of chaos, nor suggest some divine restoration of order and judgment. To me, it is an ambiguous image, suggesting both terror and hope. The old world can longer sustain humanity – “the centre cannot hold” – and yet the new world is chaotic, and the exchange of symbolic power – from Christ to the Sphinx – conveys excitement and anxiety over the turbulence and uncertainty that comes from transformation.

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3 Responses to William Butler Yeats – The Second Coming

  1. Angele Ellis says:

    Certainly one of the most powerful and haunting poems of the 20th century. “[The] vast image out of Spiritus Mundi/troubles [the poet’s] sight” as much as it does the reader’s.

    Think of the countless writers who have quoted this searing nightmare-riddle, as well as used fragments of the poem as book titles: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem; The Ceremony of Innocence (many artists, including composer Benjamin Britten, in his opera of the Turn of the Screw); The Widening Gyre (mystery writer Robert Parker!).

    Unlike T.S. Eliot–who always seemed to write as an old man–there is a definite darkening of Yeats’s work as he ages, so strikingly demonstrated in this poem written near the end of his life, and on the eve of the Second World War. He seems to take a bitter relish in the cruelty and destruction of the images of the classical world referenced in his late work.

    Yeats is to me THE anti-political political poet, forever denying and decrying involvement in politics, while continuing to associate with some of the most important figures of the Irish Rebellion–as well as steeping himself in their mythical and mystical Celtic identity. One doesn’t have to agree with Professor Michael Lake’s interpretation of this poem,

    but Lake’s conclusion is provocative:

    “Besides, as few adherents of the present New Age movement, who share so much of Yeats’s spiritual heritage, really want to face, the fact is that Nazi mysticism in Himmler’s SS derived from Blavatsky’s mythical racism and hermetical magic. [“Madame Blavatsky,” 1831-1891, spiritualist and founder of the international Theosophical Society, whose writings have influenced figures as diverse as “X-Files” creator Chris Carter, Einstein, Gandhi, Hitler, James Joyce, Alfred Kinsey, H.P. Lovecraft, and Yeats. She even inspired the title of a “Beavis and Butthead” episode in which the boys visit a psychic.]

    Yeats may have backed off from his association with the Irish ‘Blue Shirts’ [an Irish fascist movement founded by the former Irish president William Cosgrave (1880-1965) to ‘combat the Irish Republican Army, Communism and defend free speech’] before his reputation was utterly lost before his death in January of 1939, but how can we believe that he didn’t yearn to see the rising of a ‘Celtic Reich’ from the ashes of a defunct Christendom annihilated with ‘laughing ecstatic destruction’?”

  2. staringatangels says:

    Angele, thank you for your thoughts on the poem. But why is it that you consider Yeats the “anti-political political poet”? Does he decry or deny political involvement, or simply lament over the violence resulting from political activity, just as “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” does? He certainly didn’t reject politics entirely since he was a senator in the Irish government.

    As for Lake’s essay, which I found on Answers.com and read in its entirety, it’s hard to take very seriously. It seems to be popular now to say that certain intellectuals are “fascist sympathizers” or approving of totalitarianism, yet such claims are rarely based on much evidence. Lake says that Yeats rejects “the implicit egalitarianism of Christ’s teachings,” yet ignores the fact that Christianity has often not manifested itself in very egalitarian ways. He also makes the very dubious connection between Nietzsche, Theosophy, and Nazism.

    Lake sounds as though he is a Christian on the defense against Yeats’ dismissal of Christianity, his embracing of heretical or even blasphemous metaphysics. It seems to me a “Celtic Reich” would have been the furthest thing from Yeats’ mind.

    Michael Valdez Moses explains the misrepresentation that Yeats was a “fascist sympathizer” and that he admired Mussolini (two things I saw as statements of fact on a number of sites, including Wikipedia). It turns out that while he denounced Mussolini otherwise, he did admire the Italian school system.

    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1568/is_9_32/ai_70461593/pg_4/

    His stances as a senator do not seem like the ideas of a fascist sympathizer. As Moses says,

    “Yeats opposed what he regarded as the gratuitous or imprudent use of the Gaelic language for official government purposes. He objected, for example, to the mandatory and exclusive use of Gaelic on street signs and on railroad tickets as a mere cultural pretense, or worse, ‘an attempt to force Irish on those who do not want it.'” Also: “Yeats’ devotion to the rights and liberties of the individual stemmed in no small measure from his belonging to an increasingly beleaguered and vulnerable minority in the Free State: Irish Protestants. It is no accident that Sen. Yeats spoke eloquently and with conviction on behalf of what he hoped Ireland would become: ‘a modern, tolerant, liberal nation.'”

    I don’t read “The Second Coming,” or any of Yeats’ poetry, as an endorsement or criticism of any single political position. I think poems such as these can reflect personal or nonpolitical transformation or “apocalypse” as well; but even in the arena of political/social violence, I think he was depicting the turmoil of conflict and change, rather than saying the violence and turmoil are because X side or group is wrong or right.

  3. Angele Ellis says:

    Andrew,

    Thank you for responding to my comments.

    I did not call Yeats a non-political poet, but rather “THE anti-political political poet,” in an attempt to acknowledge the contradictions and ironies of his lifelong engagement with politics, particularly the politics of Ireland.

    One of the most beautiful versifiers in the English language, Yeats also was an Anglo-Irish elitist with a Hamiltonian disdain for the mob, and a romantic who loved the myths and mysticism of Ireland far more than he loved its contemporary people (like many romantics, he became increasingly cynical with age).

    Along with a number of prominent people of his time and class, Yeats an advocate of eugenics–a “science” taken to horrifying conclusions by the Third Reich– who at the least flirted with fascism. (This charge has been made by a number of critics, as you pointed out.)

    But we are celebrating National Poetry Month, so I will conclude with another poem–W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” which captures the man and the poet.

    In Memory of W. B. Yeats
    by W. H. Auden

    I

    He disappeared in the dead of winter:
    The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
    And snow disfigured the public statues;
    The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
    What instruments we have agree
    The day of his death was a dark cold day.

    Far from his illness
    The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
    The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
    By mourning tongues
    The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

    But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
    An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
    The provinces of his body revolted,
    The squares of his mind were empty,
    Silence invaded the suburbs,
    The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

    Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
    And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
    To find his happiness in another kind of wood
    And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
    The words of a dead man
    Are modified in the guts of the living.

    But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
    When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
    And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
    And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
    A few thousand will think of this day
    As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

    What instruments we have agree
    The day of his death was a dark cold day.

    II

    You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
    The parish of rich women, physical decay,
    Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
    Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
    For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
    In the valley of its making where executives
    Would never want to tamper, flows on south
    From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
    Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
    A way of happening, a mouth.

    III

    Earth, receive an honoured guest:
    William Yeats is laid to rest.
    Let the Irish vessel lie
    Emptied of its poetry.

    In the nightmare of the dark
    All the dogs of Europe bark,
    And the living nations wait,
    Each sequestered in its hate;

    Intellectual disgrace
    Stares from every human face,
    And the seas of pity lie
    Locked and frozen in each eye.

    Follow, poet, follow right
    To the bottom of the night,
    With your unconstraining voice
    Still persuade us to rejoice;

    With the farming of a verse
    Make a vineyard of the curse,
    Sing of human unsuccess
    In a rapture of distress;

    In the deserts of the heart
    Let the healing fountain start,
    In the prison of his days
    Teach the free man how to praise.

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