Wednesday was William Butler Yeats's birthday. To mark the occasion, I've decided to go with one of his most famous poems, "The Second Coming," which is widely referenced by other poets.
Brief introduction to Yeats
Many people assume, based on the title, that this poem is about the Second Coming of Christ, as foretold in Revelations or the Gospels. That assumption is incorrect. To the extent that Jesus factors in at all in Yeats's System, his Mask (or mirror image, or inverse) would be born at the end of the 2000-year cycle, thereby triggering another cycle. Yeats depicts a male sphinx, awakened from 2000 years of sleep, stalking through the desert toward Bethlehem, where the next "pure soul" will be born, thereby starting the cycle again.
To make sense of the poem, it pays to know a bit about Yeats's life and world view. First and foremost, Yeats was Irish, and kept company with Irish revolutionaries including the great love of his life, Maude Gonne. Yeats was also an occultist, and a member of the Golden Dawn. Yeats and his wife, purportedly a medium, believed in a System in which life is patterned after the Great Wheel of time, a wheel with 28 spokes (derived from the moon cycle). Each soul moves through all 28 phases of the wheel; each complete rotation of the wheel takes 2000 years.
Keats was a believer in opposites -- not just that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, but for every being there is a "mask" -- equal and opposite. He conceived of interlocking (and opposite) spirals -- one is at its widest point when the other is at its base, and vice-versa. These correspond to roughly 2100 year cycles, with something resembling equipoise every 1050 years. For a complete understanding of his theory, read A Vision by Yeats; various summaries can be found on the internet, with a decent representation of the Cycles of History to be found at yeatsvision.com. The gyre of which Keats speaks in the first line of the poem is the outward spiral; if a falcon were to follow the spiral, it would eventually travel so far from the falconer as to be unable to hear commands anymore.
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 the 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 can be classified in part as a war poem, first written in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, when everyone was trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Revolution was still sweeping Europe, including the Russian revolution and, more personal to Yeats, the struggle for Irish independence. In the earlier draft of this poem, Yeats complained "And there's no Burke to cry aloud, no Pitt", referring to two denouncers of the French Revolution. He also made reference to Germany invading Russia; both references were removed, thereby making the poem less specifically about a particular world situation, and rendering it more prophetic in tone.
The first stanza
The first four lines describe the state of the world -- the falcon, a bird typically associated with royalty (or aristocracy) has flown ever higher and wider and farther from its source, until it reaches a point where it has lost contact with its source, the falconer. Oh, how I love the next line: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". I picture a pot on a potter's wheel, flaring out nicely but suddenly wobbling and losing its form. These lines are a refences to the political situation in much of the world at the time -- the old kingdoms were no longer able to hold their shapes, and were blown apart, frequently in violence and bloodshed. The folks who should be there to denounce it lack conviction; only the worst elements in society have "passionate intensity."
The second stanza
After setting the stage, Yeats tries to make some sense of it. He grasps for reasons, as the first three lines reflect with their repetition: "Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand./The Second Coming!"
Here the poem turns to a vision, which Yeats attributes to Spiritus Mundi (or "the world spirit"), a Zeitgeist type of phrase. He describes his vision of the male-headed sphinx (in Golden Dawn parlance, a representation of Sandalphon, with various connections to Elijah and Enoch, who is historically the entity charged with determining whether a child will be male or female). In the vision, the sphinx "is moving its slow thighs," a somewhat sexual turn of phrase, as it moves in the desert.
"The darkness drops again" puts an end to the vision, and Yeats shares its meaning. Twenty centuries of sleep in the desert have ended. A rocking cradle -- here, a sign of instability and not an item of comfort -- has put the sphinx on the move. I can't help but wonder whether the cradle reference is a reference to civilization, which was at the time reeling from so much strife. In any case, Yeats indicates that it was a sign that something big was coming, and that things were about to change (and a new pure soul would be brought into existence, to start the turning of the wheel again).
It bears mention that Yeats paid homage to his two favorite poets, William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley in this poem, first with a nod to Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," and then with a phrase ("stony sleep") borrowed from Blake's "The Book of Urizen." Yeats held both poets in high esteem, and believed that "Prometheus Unbound" should be understood as one of the world's sacred texts.
The final phrase of the poem, "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" is one of Yeats's best-known lines, and one that sticks in the brain, years after reading it for the first time in college, where I also learned about the spirals and cycles and read "Leda and the Swan" and more Yeats. And more Yeats.
Those last lines are a popular reference for poets and other writers. Charles Bukowski referenced it in his collection, Slouching Toward Nirvana. Billy Collins in his poem Dancing Toward Bethlehem. Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Robert Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah.
And for HBO fans, Wikipedia tells me that the poem has been often-quoted in The Sopranos, now at an end. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". Bits of the poem have recently been used to describe the war in Iraq, with The New York Times weighing in on the poem's applicability (or lack thereof) to Iraq.
Gee, that all sounds a bit like a downer, which isn't really where I meant to go with this. Because despite its doom and gloom, I really like this poem. It sticks to your ribs (or in your brain, more likely). And perhaps it helps to know that Yeats didn't see the beast he describes as a bad thing -- in fact, he was to Yeats a most satisfying companion.
For a kinder, gentler Yeats poem, check out today's post by Michele over at Scholar's Blog, who's put up "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven."
And look at these prior posts: The Song of the Wandering Aengus and All Souls' Night.