Monday, February 12, 2007

Yeats' The Second Coming

Yeats' was Saturday's Poet of the Day, and I mentioned his powerful poem "The Second Coming" without reproducing it. A grave omission, but it didn't fit the hopeful, wistful theme of the day. But current events compel me to correct this error, so here it is:

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?

I'm compelled to reproduce this poem because of the following article in the NY Times:

The Brookings Institution, the prominent Washington research organization, just released a report on the Iraq war entitled “Things Fall Apart.” When Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, took to the House floor last year to demand that President Bush present a plan for Iraq, he called his speech “The Center Cannot Hold.” Blogs are full of the observation that “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed” in Iraq 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.

But after those eight lines, the poem suddenly becomes, as Ms. Vendler notes, “oracular.” Like the Delphic oracle, this Yeats speaks cryptically. “Surely the Second Coming is at hand,” he says — but of course, “surely” here means its opposite: what follows is not certain at all. Yeats goes on to announce “somewhere in sands of the desert/ A shape with lion body and the head of a man” — an indefinite creature in an indefinite place.

The poem reflects, as Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and literary critic, says, Yeats’s belief that a “change in god” was coming, “and that the 2,000-year reign of Christianity was about to end.” But it does not reveal who this god will be. Its last two lines are a question: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”“The Second Coming” is a powerful brief against punditry. The Christian era was about the ability to predict the future: the New Testament clearly foretold the second coming of Christ. In the post-Christian era of which Yeats was writing there was no Bible to map out what the next “coming” would be. The world would have to look toward Bethlehem to see what “rough beast” arrived.

It is bizarre to see shards of “The Second Coming” appended to the Brookings report, or to any of the other plans and prognostications about the war in Iraq. Yeats, who grew up feeling “sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin,” did not just welcome whatever new order his rough beast was ushering in. He believed the only way it could plausibly be spoken of was in the form of a question.

Very interesting, and a great reading of the poem. I have nothing to add. This is one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, and it never ceases to amaze me how every generation will find it relevant to describe the current apocalypse.
For more works that reference Yeats' "The Second Coming", at least what I can think of off the top of my head:

Nick Bantock's 3-D epistolary romance Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence