Friday, April 03, 2009

The Second Coming - a National Poetry Month Post

Today's poem choice picks up on the penultimate line of yesterday's post, "A Child Said, 'What is the Grass?'" from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman: "All goes onward and outward -- nothing collapses". That line reminded me of the falcon, turning its widening gyre, until things fall apart, rather the opposite of what Whitman is saying. Turning and turning to a different take on things, today's poem is "The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats, another of the poems that grabbed hold of me in one of my several English Lit. classes in college and never, ever let go.

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

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?

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. Yeats's poem 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 spiraling cycle in which Yeats believed anew.

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, who was 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.

Yeats 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 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, and would therefore lose the centerpoint of its gyre and destabilize its path.


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 for the mystics in my readership, 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 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.

Related references

Some of the lines of this poem are popular references for poets and other writers. Things Fall Apart is a popular English-language text by Chinua Achebe used in African schools. The Center Cannot Hold is a memoir of madness by Elyn Saks. Charles Bukowski referenced it in the title of his collection, Slouching Toward Nirvana. Billy Collins in the title of his poem Dancing Toward Bethlehem. Joan Didion in her collection of essays entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Robert Bork in his conservative political treatise, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline.

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 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.

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, and a harbinger of good things to come.

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Kathleen Ryan said...


I enjoyed reading your post. You've explained the poem beautifully. I love learning something new every day! I can see why the poem made a lasting impression on you.

I've had the good fortune to attend several of Billy Collins' poetry readings, which are always outstanding, of course.

I write non-fiction, but I've been dreaming of writing some poetry; I did in junior high and high school in the 1970s. It's daunting, and I'm mostly afraid I'll get it wrong. One of these days I'll let go of the fear and give it a try.

Thanks for sharing!

Kelly Fineman said...

Kathleen: I hope you won't delay getting started on your poetry writing. The sooner you start writing it, the sooner you can start honing your skills (like everything else, it's all practice-practice-practice). Also, reading a lot of it will help with the writing. I've frequently heard people recommend reading five poems per day, and it's something I try to do myself.

Kathleen Ryan said...

Thanks, Kelly, for the excellent suggestion - I think it's a wonderful one. It's something I'd like to do with my children, too - get them into it as well - reading some poetry every day. What a treat that would be!

Keep up the good work!