Today -- Yeats's birthday.
If our age is apocalyptic in mood—and rife with doomsday scenarios, nuclear nightmares, religious fanatics and suicidal terrorists—there may be no more chilling statement of our condition than William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” Written in 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the epoch-ending disaster that was World War I, “The Second Coming” extrapolates a fearful vision from the moral anarchy of the present. The poem also, almost incidentally, serves as an introduction to the great Irish poet’s complex conception of history, which is cyclical, not linear. Things happen twice, the first time as sublime, the second time as horrifying, so that, instead of the “second coming” of the savior, Jesus Christ, Yeats envisages a monstrosity, a “rough beast” threatening violence commensurate with the human capacity for bloodletting.
Here is the entire poem:
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?
As a summary of the present age (“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”), stanza one lays the groundwork for the vision spelled out in stanza two, which is as terrifying in its imagery as in its open-ended conclusion, the rhetorical question that makes it plain that a rough beast is approaching but leaves the monstrous details for us to fill.
As an instance of Yeats’s epigrammatic ability, it is difficult to surpass the last two lines in the opening stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The aphorism retains its authority as an observation and a warning. We may think of the absence of backbone with which certain right-minded individuals met the threats of National Socialism in the 1930s and of Islamist terrorism in the new century. Both dogmas demand of their followers a “passionate intensity” capable of overwhelming all other considerations.
Yeats works by magic. He has a system of myths and masks—based loosely on dreams, philosophy, occult studies, Celtic legend, and his wife’s automatic writing—that he uses as the springboard for some of his poems. In a minute I will say something about his special vocabulary: the “gyre” in line one and “Spiritus Mundi” 12 lines later. But as a poet, I would prefer to place the emphasis on Yeats’s craftsmanship. Note how he manages the transition from present to future, from things as they are to a vision of destruction, by a species of incantation. Line two of the second stanza (“Surely the Second Coming is at hand”) is syntactically identical with line one (”Surely some revelation is at hand”), as if one phrase were a variant of the other. It is the second time in the poem that Yeats has managed this rhetorical maneuver.The first occurs in the opening stanza when the “blood-dimmed tide” replaces the “mere anarchy” that is “loosed” upon the world.
The phrase “the Second Coming”—when repeated with the addition of an exclamation point—is enough to unleash the poet’s visual imagination. The bestial image that ensues, “A shape with lion body and the head of a man,” is all the more terrifying because of the poet’s craft: the metrical music of “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”; the unexpected adjectives (“indignant desert birds,” “slow thighs”); the haunting pun (“Reel shadows”); the oddly gripping verb (“Slouches”); the rhetorical question that closes the poem like a prophecy that doubles as an admonition.
In a note written for a limited edition of his book “Michael Robartes and the Dancer,” Yeats explained that “Spiritus Mundi” (Latin for “spirit of the world”) was his term for a “general storehouse of images,” belonging to everyone and no one. It functions a little like Jung’s collective unconscious and is the source for the “vast image” in “The Second Coming.” Yeats writes in his introduction to his play “The Resurrection” that he often saw such an image, “always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction.”
As for “gyre” (pronounced with a hard “g”), in Yeats’s system it is a sort of ideogram for history. In essays on Yeats I have seen the gyres—two of them always—pictured sometimes vertically, in the shape of an hourglass, and sometimes horizontally, as a pair of interpenetrating triangles that resemble inverted stars of David. The gyre represents a cycle lasting 2,000 years.
But I maintain that knowledge of the poet’s esoterica (as set forth in his book “A Vision”) is, though fascinating, unnecessary. Nor does the reader need to know much about falconry, a medieval sport beloved of the European nobility, to understand that there has been a breakdown in communications when the “falcon cannot hear the falconer.”
Read “The Second Coming” aloud and you will see its power as oratory. And ask yourself which unsettles you more: the monster “slouching toward Bethlehem” or the sad truth that the best of us don’t want to get involved, while the worst know no restraint in their pursuit of power?
—Mr. Lehman’s “New and Selected Poems” (Scribner) appeared in 2009. He teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City.
from The Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2015