Saturday, May 05, 2007

Yeats' Second Coming

Lots of our pearls of wisdom of sayings come from Shakespeare and the Bible, and few of us ever realize it. But there are other sources, too. Take William Butler Yeats' 1919 poem "Second Coming." Adam Cohen parsed the poem in the New York Times recently, in the context of Iraq. It's been quoted amply of late, from "the center cannot hold" to "things fall apart" to the more gruesome and specific "the blood-dimmed tide is loosed."

Here's part of what Cohen wrote, noting that blogs were chock full of Yeats these days:
These phrases all come from William Butler Yeats’s “Second Coming.” Yeats’s bleakly apocalyptic poem has long been irresistible to pundits. What historical era, after all, is not neatly summed up by his lament that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”? But with its somber vision of looming anarchy, and its Middle Eastern backdrop (the terrifying beast Yeats warns of “slouches towards Bethlehem”), “The Second Coming” is fast becoming the official poem of the Iraq war.

The pundits who quote it, though, are picking up on Yeats’s words, but not his world view. As Helen Vendler, the great Harvard poetry scholar, and others have pointed out, “The Second Coming” is really two poems. The first eight lines are filled with the pointed aphorisms that pundits like so much, while the rest of the poem suggests the unpredictability of how history will unfold. This second, less quoted part is the one that speaks most directly to the grim situation in Iraq.
Here's the entire poem:
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?

(found at
Cohen notes that Yeats was more of new age mystic type, and not a Christian. The Bethlehem reference and the title didn't mean to Yeats that Jesus was on his way; what's more, Yeats apparently liked fascism more than quaint democracy.

Critic Harold Bloom says the poem is meant to describe the end of Christianity and the beginning of something else, a new god. None of that is what the pundits had in mind when they quoted the poem.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I discuss Yeats' poem at:

My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions! The Secret Rapture soon, by my hand!
Read My Inaugural Address
My Site=

12:02 PM  

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