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?
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.