Sunday Poetry, The Second Coming, by W.B. 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?

– William Butler Yeats
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William Butler Yeats was a grumpy old man, and this poem shows a grumpy old man at odds with his world. Just like Bill O’Reilly or Michelle Malkin, he’s yelling that everything is changing, and the new ways and attitudes suck. I can picture Yeats sitting at home, finishing reading an article in the Sunday paper about new skirt lengths or extending the vote to some undeserving non-white-male group, picking up the nearest pen and paper and giving full voice to his dismay at the prospect of uncontrollable change. The poem was written in 1919, just after the War to End All Wars had ended, just as the events began leading to the war which would make that bloody war merely I of II WWs. The world was in flux, with proper Czars getting toppled and regal Kings getting replaced, and good conservatives like Yeats were grumbling in their oatmeal about “kids these days.”

Yet out of that mundane, eye-rollingly typical picture of conservatism, Yeats managed to bring together a collection of symbols in a poem that haunts me almost 90 years later. He doesn’t list whatever is bugging him – who knows what particular outrage of the times tripped his trigger for this poem? All we really know is that he had the sense of things being ripped apart from the center (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”), that order was collapsing, and that valuable cultural traditions (“The ceremony of innocence”) were being left behind.

And he offers up a line that, to this day and long into the future, comforts those of us who really don’t know what to make of the change we see hurtling toward us – one of the classic lines of all literature – “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.” Roll that line around in your head a while – college students have written volumes of essays struggling with its meaning and application. It could be the rallying cry of those who want to argue that America is really a “center-right” country, but it fails as a real rally cry for anyone who really wants to get going on something, because it accuses you of being the worst if you are full of passionate intensity. So, which should we be? The best who sit around without conviction while the tides of change are swirling about them, or the worst, who are driving the change?

If the poem stopped there, it would be a perfect crystallization of the grumpy old man complaining about change, but not having the drive or clarity to stand up and stop it. It could be a perfect vignette of the effete bourgeois grumbling about the passing of the family estate.

Instead, Yeats pushes things to the next level. He says this is serious – this isn’t just about hemlines or suffrage, this is the whole kit and caboodle. This is War of the Worlds stuff – this is the apocalypse. This is a rough, pitiless beast slouching toward the birthplace of the Christ Child. The entire stanza would make a great horror movie scene – the Sphynx coming to life and slowly walking through the desert. These are eternal truths coming about – we’re going too far this time.

Was Yeats a simple, grumpy alarmist? Do you ever have the sense that there is something more than the headlines going on about us – that the collapse of the Big Three could be a harbinger of greater changes than a rise in unemployment? Is the gathering of powers in the Middle East and the rise of China the beginning of a bigger upheaval? Is a rough beast, it’s hour come at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born?

In 1919, it seems things weren’t quite so imminently apocalyptic. We had the roaring twenties before we even got to Hitler. But that sense of something big happening, of real, seismic change, fires our imagination as we read the poem today, and keeps us on our watch.

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