Eternal Recurrence: The Permanent Relevance of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” |Essay — Patrick J. Keane
These are End Times—can there be any doubt?—and in this brilliant, dense essay Patrick J. Keane explains how and why Yeats’s prophetic/apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming” has become the byword (and epitaph?) for our world, the modern era, the contemporary predicament. Keane has already published three books on Yeats; he brings an easy erudition and scholarship to the table but also demonstrates a sharp eye for current discourse—wherever an echo of the poem appears, he’s sure to notice and mark it down. We have here also copies of Yeats’s manuscript revisions and Keane’s vivid recreation of the history, influences and states of mind that produced the poem. Yeats was thinking of the slaughter of the Russian Royal Family by the Bolsheviks, but his words reverberate like an ancient premonition.
Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007). He is currently trying to puzzle out the pervasive presence of Wordsworth in almost everything he writes, and recording personal and literary reminiscences, one part of which is “Convergences: Memories Related to The Waste Land Manuscript.”
Eternal Recurrence: The Permanent Relevance
of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”
By Patrick J. Keane
Portrait of Yeats: photo taken by Pirie MacDonald, New York City, 1932
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?
On the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, as I was completing the first draft of this attempt to account for the “permanent relevance” of “The Second Coming,” a friend brought to my attention that morning’s New York Times column by liberal economist Paul Krugman. Addressing what he saw as the failure of the Federal Reserve and of most politicians to grasp the “urgency” of the labor-market crisis, Krugman lamented, as “a tragedy and an outrage,” predictable Republican opposition to President Obama’s flawed but promising new jobs plan, or indeed to any plan likely to make a dent in unemployment. “These days,” charged Krugman, “the best—or at any rate the alleged wise men and women who are supposed to be looking after the nation’s welfare—lack all conviction, while the worst, as represented by much of the G.O.P., are filled with a passionate intensity. So the unemployed are being abandoned.” Would Yeats, a man of the Right, disown this liberal appropriation of his words? Perhaps not; in 1936, as we shall see, he, too, quoted from this passage to make a point liberals would applaud.
But Yeats’s lines, open to appropriation on a more bipartisan basis than anything going on in contemporary American politics, are also repaired to by those on the Right. Following the uninspiring September 23 Republican presidential debate, and registering both the on-stage meltdown of front-runner Rick Perry and the continued right-wing lack of enthusiasm for Mitt Romney, conservative commentator Bill Kristol was driven to fire off a Weekly Standard “special editorial,” titled simply “Yikes!” Kristol—who, along with many conservatives, wants New Jersey’s “tough-love” governor, Chris Christie, to get into the race—ends by quoting an e-mail from a fellow-Republican equally dismayed by the quality of the debate and the caliber of his party’s declared candidates. Concurring with the e-mailer’s allusion—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”—Kristol couldn’t “help wondering if, in the same poem, Yeats didn’t suggest the remedy: ‘And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’ Sounds like Chris Christie.”
Something even larger than Governor Christie seemed headed our way to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who recently blogged that the U. S. economy was “Slouching toward a Double-Dip.” Even that is part of a wider concern, again reflected in the apparent need to quote “The Second Coming.” The whole of the poem’s opening movement was posted in August on the website Sapere Aude!, singled out as the best description we have, not of the U. S. economy or the lackluster field of Republican presidential hopefuls, but of “the dismal state the world is in right now.” There was also an illustration of “the widening gyre,” all supplied by one Ahmet C. Toker (whose suggestive surname reminded me that the irrepressible Kevin Smith, by his own admission fueled by cannabis, has been busy writing a 12-issue Batman comic-book series under the general rubric, The Widening Gyre). That Europe, and perhaps the U.S., may be slouching towards something more ominous than a double-dip recession—may, indeed, be spiraling out of control in a widening gyre—was made graphic in the banner headline and blood-red cover of the August 22 issue of Time, which projected nothing less than “THE DECLINE AND FALL OF EUROPE (AND MAYBE THE WEST).”
In addition to those already mentioned in the text, there are many titular allusions to “The Second Coming.” Canadian poet Linda Stitt considered calling her 2003 collection Lacking All Conviction, but chose instead another phrase for her title: Passionate Intensity, from the line of “The Second Coming” that immediately follows. Describing a very different kind of disintegration than that presented by Judge Bork in Slouching Toward Gomorrah, another law professor, Elyn R. Saks, called her 2007 account of a lifelong struggle with schizophrenia The Center Cannot Hold.
Detective novels, crime fiction, and pop culture in general have drawn liberally on the language of “The Second Coming.” The second of Ronnie Airth’s Inspector John Madden novels is The Blood-Dimmed Tide (2007). H. R. Knight has Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle tracking down a demonic monster in Victorian London in his 2005 horror novel, What Rough Beast. Robert B. Parker called the tenth volume in his popular Spenser series The Widening Gyre. I referred in the text to Kevin Smith’s Batman series appearing under that general title.
Science fiction writers seem particularly addicted to language from “The Second Coming.” Among the episodes of Andromeda, the 2000-2005 Canadian-American sci-fi TV series, were two titled “The Widening Gyre” and “Its Hour Come Round at Last.” But the prize for multiple allusions goes to a project that originally appeared as a six-part e-book in 2006 (marking the 40th anniversary of the original Star Trek series). An omnibus edition, Star Trek: Mere Anarchy, was published in 2009. This “Complete Six-Part Saga” takes from Yeats more than its main title (also borrowed by Woody Allen for his 2007 collection of comedy pieces). All six of the individual novellas in Mere Anarchy (each by a different author) derive their titles from “The Second Coming”: Things Fall Apart, The Center Cannot Hold, Shadow of the Indignant, The Darkness Drops Again, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, and Its Hour Come Round.
The core of the economic crisis is Europe, with the epicenter Greece, in immediate danger of default (with Italy in the wings, staggering under a far greater debt load). The contagion, which began with the U.S. subprime-mortgage meltdown of 2008 and has spread to Europe, threatens to go global. The credit rating of Greek and French banks has been downgraded. The largest French bank, Société Générale, holding billions of euros’ in Greek bonds, is in imminent danger of collapse, a fall that could cause Europe’s already tottering financial house to crumble, sending shock waves into the global economy. A mid-September emergency meeting of European finance ministers—convened in Wroclaw, Poland, on the third anniversary of the collapse of the U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers—ended inconclusively. The debt crisis has only intensified since August, when London and Athens were ablaze with violent protests in reaction to government austerity measures. The meeting in Wroclaw ended, in fact, just hours before the streets were filled with more angry protesters. Given the failure to resolve either the immediate emergency or to address the underlying problem of the inefficient economic policies of the indebted nations (especially Greece and Italy, secondarily, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland), some economists, among them Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff, envisage what the Time cover-article described as “The End of Europe.”
That article, following in the line of Rogoff”s and Carmen Reinhart’s 2009 history of sovereign debt, This Time is Different, notes that Europe is not experiencing a typical, correctible recession or even facing “a double-dip Great Recession.” Rather, writes Rana Foroohar, “the West is going through something much more profound: a second Great Contraction of growth.” And this economic “second coming” rivals the first—the Great Depression—since today’s beleaguered European states have “few resources and tools to cope with a stagnant, high-unemployment environment rife with populist politics, social instability and violence of the kind we’ve most likely only begun to see in the streets of Athens and London.” Much hinges on Europe’s economically strongest state, Germany. In early October, with fear mounting that the situation could “spiral out of control” with devastating global consequences, the Bundestag voted to expand in size and scope the European Financial Stability Facility by boosting Germany’s contribution by 211 billion euros. While this gives Greece and Italy needed breathing room, the German public is wary of further bailing out Mediterranean economies deemed fiscally profligate. And even this enlarged rescue fund seems to many insufficient to stabilize the Eurozone and prevent what George Soros warns might be a “meltdown and another Great Depression.” As Foroohar put it in August: “borrowing costs for Europe’s weaker economies…have skyrocketed as halfhearted measures have made investors suddenly wary that the European center is not going to hold.”
Rana Foroohar doubled down on that allusion to Yeats in her lead-article, “A New Era of Volatility,” in Time’s October 10 “special issue” on the economy. “If there is a poem for this moment,” she begins, “it is surely W. B. Yeats’s dark classic ‘The Second Coming’.” She compares what the poet faced in 1919—”the darkness and uncertainty of Europe in the aftermath of a horrific war”—with the current situation in Europe and the U. S. After quoting most of the opening movement of “The Second Coming,” she observes: “It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent description of our own bearish age. The middle class is shrinking, the markets are flailing, U. S. presidential candidates are bickering, and European policymakers are fiddling while Rome (and Athens and London) burns.” Those making monetary decisions are “anxious and shell-shocked,” and, in any case, none of the “rescue missions on either side of the Atlantic…have managed to arrest the downward economic slide and consequent rise of unemployment.”
While these specifically economic projections are indeed dire, they are, rhetorically, part of a familiar pattern: the apparent compulsion to return in times of crisis to the resonant images of the modern world’s most frequently-cited poem, the now almost talismanic “The Second Coming.” That oracular text is not only the single best-known poem by the major poet of the twentieth century; it has become something of a requiem for that century, now carried over into the first decade of the twenty-first. Its ominous yet expectant final line, “Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born,” has inspired endless allusions, whether from the political left, as in Reich’s case, or from the right. While Bill Kristol may welcome the possible advent of Chris Christie, that most judgmental of judges, conservative legal scholar Robert H. Bork, titled his grim 2003 projection of an America in cultural and moral decline Slouching Toward Gomorrah. Most readers of a certain age are aware of Joan Didion’s 1968 collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and may recall Joni Mitchell’s 1991 song of the same title. Slouching Toward Kalamazoo, the 1963 comic novel by Peter and Derek de Vries, seems little read these days, which is not the case with Things Fall Apart, the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s 1958 elegy over the breakdown of Igbo culture. A half-century later, pundits in countless books, essays, newspapers, magazines, and blogs continue to draw upon “The Second Coming.” The poem’s evocation of cultural disintegration, or imminent violence, political or apocalyptic, seems infinitely applicable. As part of our common crisis-vocabulary, we intone that “things fall apart”; that “the centre cannot hold”; that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”; that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”; that we confront forces “blank and pitiless as the sun”; that one era, symbolized by a “widening gyre,” is ending and another imminent, signaled not by Christ’s return but by a “blood-dimmed tide” of “mere anarchy,” and a “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
Though not the first to consider the poem uniquely relevant to our own time, we have a better claim than most. Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard, recently responded to the dangerous “crumbling” of the old “international order” by quoting the whole of “The Second Coming,” a poem that “seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics.” He concluded “A Little Doom and Gloom” (his survey of crises in Europe, the Middle East, Iran, and Asia): “I hope I’m wrong, but I think I hear Yeats’s ‘rough beast’ slouching our way.” Walt’s concerns are persuasive; and Rogoff and Reinhart may be right; perhaps “this time” is “different.” Or it may be that such projections as those sensationalized by that blood-dimmed Time cover and article are alarmist hyperbole—as charged by one sanguine respondent to the Time issue, who thought “our shifting economies” more likely to be “birth pangs of a new day.” Perhaps; or there may be even more terrifying doomsday scenarios in our future. Either way, Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” already almost a century old, will be in attendance, ready to supply apt metaphors embodying our sense of an ending: the dying of one age, with another, yet unknown, “to be born.”
Despite the conjectures necessitated by the rapid scribbling of a man whose handwriting was maddeningly difficult to begin with, most of the specifics and the gist of what Yeats means are clear in this early draft:
Ever further h[aw]k flies outward
from the falconer’s hand. Scarcely
is armed tyranny fallen when
when this mob bred anarchy
takes its place. For this
Marie Antoinette has
more brutally died and no
Burke [has shook his] has an[swered]
with his voice, no pit [Pitt]
arraigns revolution. Surely the second
birth comes near—
……….intellectual gyre is thesis to
The/ gyres grow wider and more wide]
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
The germans have now to Russia come
There every day some innocent has died
The [ ? ] comes to [?fawn]…[?murder]
In other drafts (all Box 3, Folder 39, W. B. Yeats Collection, SUNY, Stony Brook), Yeats confirms his regret that there’s no Burke or Pitt to arraign Bolshevik crimes as they had French Revolutionary terrorism: “—no stroke upon the clock/ But ceremonious innocence is drowned/ While the mob fawns upon the murderer/ And there’s no Burke…nor Pitt….”; and, again, “there’s no Burke to cry aloud no Pit[t].” Astutely analyzing the drafts in 2001, Simona Vannini had no doubt about the coupling of French and Russian atrocities. But, resisting the “scholarly consensus” (she refers to Donald Torchiana, Jon Stallworthy, and myself), she doubts, based on the drafts alone, that Yeats intended an “explicit correspondence between the murder of the French and the Russian royal families.” But one does not live by the drafts alone.
Finally, as slowly but surely as the rough beast itself, the poem as we know it begins to emerge:
How has the poem achieved this Bartlett’s-Familiar status? A friend, Bill Nack, biographer of the great racehorse Secretariat and an ardent and informed reader of Yeats’s poetry, remarked of “The Second Coming” in a recent letter: “So many lines and images are written indelibly, chipped in stone on that wailing wall we call the 20th, now the 21st century.” The poem is certainly a mine of incisive and quotable phrases, especially that final momentous question and the opening movement’s bullet-point declarations, combining, or fusing under pressure, metaphor and abstraction, chaos and order. Adding to its mnemonic power, “The Second Coming” also combines sound and sense. For example, its vowels compel us to actively mouth the cyclical movements in the opening “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” and in the final “…its hour come round at last,/ Slouches…” Fleshing out its underlying double-gyre structure (with the “turning” of the falcon recycled in the reeling movement of the desert birds), the two-part poem seems Petrarchan: a remotely-presented “objective” scene, followed by a subjective response to a titanic but indistinct figure that “troubles my sight.” As a verb, “troubles,” aside from its side-glance at the Irish “Troubles,” wonderfully suggests an unsteady, initially blurred vision. The lines are strikingly cinematic: an effect established by the dune-like undulation created by the s-alliteration of “somewhere in sands of the desert…” The “vast image” itself looms gradually and dramatically into focus: first a mere “shape,” then “lion body,” then “head of a man,” finally the creature’s “gaze,” and a stunning movement back out, since that gaze is “blank and pitiless as the sun.” In addition to the tensile strength of its unforgettable verbs (loosed, troubles, reel, vexed, slouches), the poem, obviously, owes much of its extraordinary power to its biblical, Egyptian, and mythological reverberations; to the shock value of the poet’s subversion of the Christian interpretation of the “second coming”; and, above all, to the awe evoked by its troubled yet excited glimpse of a counter-revelation, beast-initiated and mysterious.
Still, there is more to it than that. The poem haunts us precisely because it seems to speak so directly to us, to be so uncannily addressed to “the dismal state the world is in right now.” But, though perhaps never so much as now, it has seemed that way to perceptive readers in every generation since it first appeared. The universal relevance of “The Second Coming” is testimony to its sources in the occult and in the unconscious, a point to which I will return. But its adaptability is also testimony to the success of Yeats’s method in revising the original manuscripts. Written in January 1919, first printed in The Dial in 1920, and collected the following year in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, “The Second Coming” had its sociopolitical roots, as the poet’s widow confirmed in the 1960s, in Yeats’s troubled response to the political situation in Europe in 1917-19. And the drafts of the poem, some of the pages preserved by his wife, reveal that Yeats’s apprehensions about the socialist revolutions in Germany, Italy, and, above all, Russia, during and immediately after World War I, were associated with his reading of the Romantic poets and of Edmund Burke, and their responses to the French Revolution: what Shelley called “the master theme of the epoch in which we live.”
Yeats’s natural affinities were with his major poetic precursors, those permanent revolutionaries Blake and Shelley, and indeed there are unmistakable echoes of Blake’s Urizen and “Tyger,” of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Prometheus Unbound, in “The Second Coming.” But in his own response to revolution, Yeats found himself politically closer to the great Anglo-Irish conservative statesman Edmund Burke, the chief intellectual opponent of the French Revolution and chivalric champion of the assaulted Marie Antoinette. He also found himself surprisingly close to a former supporter of the Revolution (“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive…”): the largely if not completely disenchanted William Wordsworth. Wordsworth reveals his conflicted feelings in the French Revolutionary books of his epic poem, The Prelude, which Yeats was reading along with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France during the period of his composition of the notably conflicted “The Second Coming,” a poem at once horrified and strangely exultant. That ambiguity reflects Yeats’s own mixture of terror and titillation regarding the violent annunciation and historical reversal he claims to foresee in this prophetic poem. His ambivalence, as projected in “The Second Coming,” registers the differing perspectives of Burke and the Romantics on the French Revolution, now refracted through the prism of what Yeats took to be its rebirth in Bolshevism. It also reflects his aristocratic disdain of Christian egalitarianism, one element of his excited response to the “curious astringent joy” he found in his “strong enchanter, Nietzsche,” the tonic source of Yeats’s own crucial oxymorons, “terrible beauty” and “tragic joy.”
In this anti-Robespierre cartoon during the Reign of Terror the pyramids of decapitated heads are meant to indicate that the victims of the guillotine were not only the privileged but “the people” in general.
An idiosyncratic yet often complex and even profound visionary, Yeats was as much a disciple of Nietzsche as of Blake and Shelley, and an occultist to boot. All of these influences, along with his conservative reverence of Swift, Burke, and of an idealized Anglo-Irish aristocracy, as well as his response to Wordsworth’s Prelude, converge in “The Second Coming,” as in its close relatives, “A Prayer for My Daughter” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” All three poems reflect, along with the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, the beginning of the guerilla War of Independence in Ireland. Their elegiac tone, notably the overwhelming of ceremonious innocence, echoes Burke’s great melody in the paean to Marie Antoinette: his emotional response to “that elevation and that fall!,” the sense of “the unbought grace of life” and “the glory of Europe…extinguished forever,” of “all…to be changed.” And the “nightmares” in these poems echo both Burke’s “massacre of innocents” (with the palace at Versailles “left swimming in blood”) and Wordsworth’s “ghastly visions” of “tyranny, and implements of death,/ And innocent victims,” in passages of The Prelude dramatizing his reaction to revolutionary massacre. Such echoes confirm Yeats’s juxtaposition of the excesses of the French Revolution with the contemporary turmoil in which he was writing in 1919.
Deciphering Yeats’s handwriting and interpreting his associative connections, we can trace in the manuscript-drafts of “The Second Coming” not only Burke’s lamentation over Marie Antoinette, but her Alexandra-anticipating execution. Fusing past and present, Yeats connects Russian atrocities (the Romanov family “battered to death in a cellar,” as he cries out in another poem) with French horrors: the September Massacres and the Jacobin Terror—what Yeats, annotating Wordsworth, characterized as “revolutionary crimes.” In the face of “unjust tribunals” and admitted “tyranny” replaced by “mob-bred anarchy,” Yeats laments that there’s “no Burke to cry aloud, no Pit[t]”—no one, that is, to “arraign revolution,” as Burke had in the Reflections and in later speeches and William Pitt in ministerial policy. In further noting that “the [G]ermans have now to Russia come,” Yeats seems to combine the 1917 military invasion of Russian territories with the decisive German role in spiriting Lenin, and thus Marxian Communism, into Russia. As a result, “There every day some innocent has died” in revolutionary purges epitomized by the Bolsheviks’ brutal slaughter of the Russian Royal Family, including the children and the Tsarina, “this Marie Antoinette,” who “has more brutally died.”
Yeats was appalled not only by the sheer brutality of the Bolsheviks’ massacre of Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children, but by the failure of the British king, George V, who had the opportunity, but (for domestic political reasons) failed to rescue the family of his look-alike cousin, “dear Nicky.” Twenty years after the event, the buried thematic seed of “The Second Coming”—the absence of a Burke to champion the cause of chivalry and the family bond in the confrontation between ceremonious innocence and revolutionary brutality—emerged from the manuscripts.
In the 1938 “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” the last of the Crazy Jane poems, the most memorable of Yeats’s female personae expresses the poet’s smoldering indignation. Resurrected for the occasion, Jane has found “something worse” than her old antagonist, the Bishop, “to meditate on”:
A king had some beautiful cousins,
But where are they gone?
Battered to death in a cellar,
And he stuck to his throne.
Perhaps Yeats needed the voice of his least inhibited Wise Fool to finally say publicly what had been bothering him in the drafts of “The Second Coming.”
On his first appearance, in On the Boiler, the poem was accompanied by an angry, but fair, attack on George V for his failure to aid his cousins—despite the fact (which Yeats did not know) that the offer of asylum was initiated by the Mensheviks, the Russian Provisional Government. That offer was withdrawn when the Bolsheviks seized power.
Thus, in the drafts at least, Marie Antoinette and Alexandra, though destroyed by power from below, anticipate the mythic roles of Leda and Mary, women overwhelmed by power from above—as dramatized in “Leda and the Swan” and “The Mother of God,” Yeats’s avian “annunciations” in which Zeus as Swan, the Holy Spirit as Dove, sexually engender the Homeric and Christian ages. And these ravished women have another sister under the skin: the gentle victim assaulted, in Shakespeare’s early narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece,” by Tarquin, whose threatening sword seems “a falcon tow’ring in the skies,” and who is himself described as “the rough beast.” Yeats’s “rough beast” was in fact originally a bird: “Surely the great falcon must come/ Surely the hour of the second birth is here.” The crucial point, however, is that, as he continued to revise, Yeats stripped “The Second Coming” not only of this overt connection with his own bird-and-lady-centered historical myth of cyclical transformation, but of all these particularized references, rendering the specific and temporal general and universal. What prompted him to do this? The drafts themselves offer intriguing clues.
In the most dramatic of the visions induced in Yeats during some 1890 symbolic- card experiments with MacGregor Mathers (the head of Yeats’s occult Order, the Golden Dawn), the poet suddenly saw, as he records in an unpublished memoir, “a gigantic Negro raising up his head and shoulders among great stones”—a vision transmogrified, in the published Autobiographies, into “a desert and a Black Titan.” Even in this dramatic instance, Yeats continues, “sight came slowly, there was not that sudden miracle as if the darkness had been cut with a knife.” In the drafts of “The Second Coming,” groping for figurative language to introduce the mysterious moment immediately preceding the vision of the vast image rising up out of “sands of the desert” and “out of Spiritus Mundi,” Yeats first wrote: “Before the dark was cut as with a knife.” Whether examining the finished poem or the drafts, we are surely justified in locating one of the principal origins of the rough beast in Yeats’s occult experiments with MacGregor Mathers.
We may also have, in the cautionary example of Mathers himself, a key to Yeats’s abandonment, in the course of revision, of the historical figures and events either specified or alluded to in the drafts. Yeats found his occult friend’s apocalyptic imagination, “brooding upon war,” impressive when it remained “vague in outline.” It was when Mathers “attempted to make it definite,” that “nations and individuals seemed to change into the arbitrary symbols of his desires and fears.” As his language here reveals, Yeats was aware—having read some of the writings of one of the most formidable interpreters of the Book of Revelation, the twelfth century Calabrian abbot, Joachim of Fiore—of the long history of historico-prophetic readings of that menacing and mysterious text. Faced with Revelation’s plethora of provocative but often inexplicable details, exegetes tended to discover, or invent, correlations with current events, typically applying the obscure symbols of Revelation primarily or exclusively to the world-historical crisis of their own particular moment in time. This is what Mathers was in the habit of doing and what Yeats had initially done, as evidenced by the manuscript-drafts of “The Second Coming. (Of course, it was what the Apocalyptist himself had done. Unlike many that followed, John avoids specifying that, for example, “the beast rising out of the sea” represents the Roman Empire. But he does insist, following Jesus himself (Mark 9:1, 13:3), as well as Paul, that the promised second coming was imminent. Implicit throughout Revelation, that prophecy is explicit and particularly resonant at the end, where John puts the premature parousia in Christ’s own mouth, “Surely, I am coming soon,” and concludes by intensifying the urgency in his own voice: “Come, Lord Jesus!” [22:20].)
Of course, with the passage of time, all exegetical attempts to simplistically correlate specific events with Revelation’s profusion of apocalyptic imagery were exposed as limited, misguided, and often embarrassing. The same is true in the modern world, not only in the obvious case of Fundamentalists who read Revelation literally, but in the case of politically-oriented theologians who apply Revelation to current events, and so repeat the limiting errors of such history-centered exegetes as post-Reformation Luther. Though certainly engaged and stimulated by the immediate historical crises registered in the drafts of “The Second Coming,” Yeats, as an artist, was even more interested in mining Revelation—along with comparative mythology and the unconscious, the “Spiritus Mundi” of the poem—as a rich source of apocalyptic symbolism. He was especially fascinated by sublime aspects of the Beast: simultaneously menacing, exciting, destructive, and potentially renovative—what he himself called, alluding to the first coming of Christ, “the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”
The vast image or animated sphinx “out of Spiritus Mundi” has many “sources.” As we’ve seen, it can in part be traced back to the most dramatic of the mental images—the titanic figure rising up ominously (and sexually) among stones or from desert sands—induced in Yeats during an 1890 symbolic card experiment with MacGregor Mathers. Other components are drawn from Shelley’s stony pharaoh Ozymandias (his wrecked statue almost lost among the “lone and level sands”) as well as from his Demogorgon (in Prometheus Unbound): a nightmare denizen, along with the “rough beast” of “The Second Coming,” of the mysterious “Thirteenth Cone” in Yeats’s occult book, A Vision.
One aspect of the beast reflects the poet’s exhilaration in the face of ruin. In his “aversion” from the myth of “progress,” Yeats adopted a counter-myth, first crudely dramatized in 1902 in his Nietzschean-Christian apocalyptic play Where There is Nothing. The beast Yeats says he began at that time to “imagine,” and to associate with “laughing, ecstatic destruction,” was (he claims) “afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’.” When the protagonist in that 1902 play calls for the destruction of “everything that has law and number” in order “to bring back the old, joyful, dangerous, individual life,” he reveals himself as a disciple of both Nietzsche and Blake, linked by Yeats as liberators and transvaluers of values.
Since Yeats is thinking particularly of Blake’s revolutionary Marriage of Heaven and Hell, we may see the rough beast of “The Second Coming” as a fusion of Nietzsche’s savage cruel beast (along with the beasts and dragons of Revelation and of comparative mythology) with aspects of Blake’s Tyger and his bestial Nebuchadnezzar, crawling on all fours at the conclusion of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In the 1795 color print reproduced here, Blake returned to the image he had engraved on the final plate of The Marriage. In Daniel 4:33, the Babylonian king, cursed and “driven from men,” ate “the grass as oxen”; his hair “grew like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.” Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, his mind darkened, stares, unseeing, directly at us. Though his “gaze” is as “blank” as that of Yeats’s “rough beast,” Blake’s king is more terrified than terrifying. But his bestiality, rough “thighs,” and slouching posture are likely to have contributed to the composite beast of “The Second Coming.”
Above all, Yeats as visionary would have had no desire, by binding his prophecy to particular events, to make himself ridiculous or a crank—as had many of those historicist biblical scholars, or MacGregor Mathers. That would be to succumb to what Alfred North Whitehead would later call, in one of Yeats’s favorite books, Science and the Modern World, “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” St. Jerome, aware of the many historically-specific misreadings preceding his translation of the Bible, was content to revise previous commentaries on the Book of Revelation rather than venture one of his own. As he observed in a letter, “Revelation has as many mysteries as it does words.” The same might be said of the final version of “The Second Coming,” which retains Yeats’s own “desires and fears” without limiting those generalized (“abstract”) emotions to the specific (“concrete”) historical events that originally provoked them.
In the final poem, freed of limiting historical associations, the rough beast and the blood-dimmed tide of anarchy that drowns the ceremony of innocence take on, though remaining paradoxically distinct and defined, the mysterious vagueness of the Sublime. That the beast slouches, in the single vestige of specificity, towards Bethlehemmakes the creature a type of the Antichrist. But Yeats was hardly, like John and the army of Christian apocalyptists that followed, a conventional Christian pitting sectarian goodness against Satanic and bestial evil. In fact, while the final poem and title refer to Christ’s parousia, the original drafts repeatedly refer, not to the “second coming,” but to the “second birth,” echoing Wordsworth’s “nightmare” premonition in The Prelude that the September Massacres were not the end of revolutionary violence in France, but a precursor of the far worse Terror to come, “for all things have second birth.”
Not only does Yeats’s troubled and troubling vision in “The Second Coming” subvert orthodox Christian belief; it does so with an audacity worthy of Nietzsche, author of The Antichrist, and prophet of the advent of a “savage cruel beast”—a Dionysian, libidinal, eruptive force incapable of being “mortified” by what Yeats’s “strong enchanter” called, in Beyond Good and Evil, these “more humane ages.” Nietzsche’s critique of “pity” and of “progress” (for Nietzsche, a “modern and therefore a vulgar theory”) and his “curious astringent joy” appealed to Yeats, whose youthful “rebellion against my elders took the form of aversion to that myth [of progress]. I took satisfaction,” he continues in this 1934 note to his play The Resurrection, “in certain public disasters, felt a sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin.” In the year he discovered Nietzsche, he “began to imagine a brazen, winged beast [“afterwards,” he claims in a footnote, “described in my poem ‘The Second Coming’] that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction. Then I wrote Where There is Nothing.”
In that uncanonical play of 1902, Yeats’s apocalyptic anarchist, Paul Ruttledge, envisages a beast named “Laughter” and cries out that “we must destroy everything that has law and number” in order “to bring back the old, joyful, dangerous, individual life.” This assault on material conformity and liberation of vital energy reminds us that, in the most momentous of his imaginative fusions, Yeats argued that “Nietzsche completes Blake and has the same roots,” and that Nietzschean thought “flows always, though with an even more violent current, in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.” The Romantic poet who fiercely condemned the nightmare of cyclicism would hardly have endorsed the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, but Yeats had of course a point in aligning Blake and Nietzsche as great liberators, each a prophet of his own version of what Nietzsche called a transvaluation of all values. The transvaluation enacted in “The Second Coming”—if we accept the gyre-reversing note appended to the poem, in which Yeats welcomes (“Why should we resist?”) a new aristocratic age—seems altogether more Nietzschean than Blakean. “The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out” than the poet envisages, instead of the return of Christ, the coming of a sinister rough beast, its “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” Apparently moribund for two millennia, this sphinx-like “shape with lion body and the head of a man” is now, ominously and sexually, “moving its slow thighs,” while “all about it/ Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.” Those circling scavengers, reenacting the falcon’s initial “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” had mistakenly thought the creature mere carrion; hence their understandable indignation. But, in fact, the beast had been imperceptibly stirred into antithetical life by the rocking of Jesus’ cradle two thousand years earlier. Now, provocatively and precociously, it slouches towards that infant’s birthplace in order itself “to be born.”
Despite this inversion of Christian expectation, the poet was responding less to Matthew 24 and Revelation, or even to Nietzsche, than to contemporary revolution. For Burke-echoing Yeats, the September Massacres and the Terror of the French Revolution foreshadowed the emergence in Bolshevik Russia of that “Marxian criterion of values” he described in a letter of April 1919 as “in this age the spearhead of materialism and leading to inevitable murder.” In terms of imagery, attitude, and actual verbal details, “The Second Coming” would be a very different poem if it had not had precisely this twin historical genesis. Finally, however, the poem is not “about” either of these revolutions. Nor is it about the Fascist or Nazi revolutions, though many readers have taken it that way, especially since Yeats himself, in a 1936 letter condemning Hitlerism, cited the most Burkean line in the poem as evidence that he was not “callous”: “every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.” In applying to Nazism and the threat of a second world war an image he drew from Burke and applied to the First World War and the threat of Jacobinism reborn as Marxist-Leninist Communism, Yeats was being neither hypocritical nor intentionally misleading. Indeed, he was participating in a tradition of allusion that goes on to this day. And justifiably. For if “The Second Coming” were “about” any one of these historical cataclysms, it could hardly accommodate, as it does, all of them.
If “The Second Coming” has become the most-quoted poem of the past century, Picasso’s Guernicahas probably been the subject of more discussion than any other modern painting. The extraordinary impact and resonance of both works are attributable to identical phenomena: the artists’ transformation of their respective genetic materials, and the roots of their bestial and human symbolism in the unconscious.
Both poem and painting were inspired by specific historical events—in Picasso’s case, the devastating April 26, 1937 raid by the German air force on the Basque town of Guernica in Northern Spain. Sixteen hundred non-combatant civilians (one third of the town) were killed in this major event of the Spanish Civil War: a gratuitous “practice run” for the Luftwaffe resulting in the deliberate massacre of innocent men, women, and children. The atrocity shocked the world and prompted Picasso, a normally apolitical artist, to begin painting his masterpiece.
Though the overarching brutality conveyed in the mural is obvious, viewers and critics have had widely varying interpretations of its enigmatic details. Though he referred to the painting as allegorical, Picasso himself never fully explicated the symbols he had employed. Along with the overt and agonized depiction of human and animal suffering, the images evoke thoughts buried in the unconscious. As in the case of the images in “The Second Coming,” that unconscious is ours as well as that of the artists. Cryptic references have been found in Guernica to figures as disparate as Vishnu, Pinocchio, and Hitler. The echo of The Rape of Europa proved not only appropriate but prescient when Titian’s great painting became, soon after, the most famous of the masterpieces plundered by the Nazis.
By then, Guernica was seen as a prophetic vision of the horrors of the Second World War. That was true as well of Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” But, again as with Yeats’s poem, Picasso’s mural is not frozen in time. An impassioned response to the massacre at Guernica, the painting subsumes and transcends its originating event, and even the worldwide cataclysm that followed. It seems, in short, a visual companion to “The Second Coming,” both of them works of art generated by specific historical events, but finding their deeper meaning beyond limitations of space and time. Guernica has become what the artist (consciously or unconsciously) intended from the outset: a personal and yet universalized comment on all wars and all victims. The major theme of the mural—a slaughter of the innocents—has become fused with another: life out of death. Guernica is now recognized throughout the world as an icon for peace.
As we have seen, “The Second Coming” was also generated by reaction to a slaughter of innocents; in Yeats’s case, royal rather than peasant victims. The rough beast slouching “to be born” is hardly the occasion for a rebirth of hope for most readers. And yet, like all prophesies, this visionary poem seems simultaneously a warning. Yeats may be compelling himself and us to confront an image of the “worst” in order to rouse the “best” to change if we are to avoid the ultimate nightmare he foresees: a blood-dimmed tide brutally, perhaps permanently, overwhelming the ceremony of innocence. At the very least, inhumanity has, in both mural and poem, met the human at its best. Chaos has been organized. Blood-dimmed destruction and anarchy have been shaped by master artists into the fearful symmetry of aesthetic form.
No less a figure than Goethe has said that to be fully understood, works of art must, to some extent, “be caught in their genesis.” The manuscript versions of “The Second Coming” serve a legitimate purpose in revealing the original historical counterparts of what became a universalized prophecy of an unleashing upon the world of anarchy and blood-drenched violence. But when “the darkness drops again” over the manuscripts, as it should, we are left with what really matters—the public text of the poem, freed of the umbilical cord attaching it to its genesis, and thus limiting its evocative power. If, in studying any poem, particularly one responding to contemporary events, we were to focus unduly on generative intention, and on the immediate context of its creation, the poem would inevitably dwindle in meaning and impact as that particular moment receded. Yeats’s realization of this explains his deletion, in revising “The Second Coming,” of specific historical details. In Waiting for Godot, Yeats’s fellow Irishman Samuel Beckett achieved symbolic resonance by avoiding all overt reference to the historical-political matrix of the play: the German Occupation and French Resistance. Similarly, by cancelling allusions to the Irish situation and all specific references to past and contemporary revolutions, to Burke, Marie Antoinette, Pitt, Germany, and Russia, Yeats liberated his poem from those localized events destined to be assimilated like so many grains of sand in the desert of time. As an anti-Marxist, Yeats would have enjoyed the effect, since it is Marxist critics above all who have been disturbed by the autonomy of works of art, by their capacity to outlive their particular hour—what Geoffrey Hartmann has memorably called art’s “aristocratic resistance to the tooth of time.”
“The Second Coming” does, of course, transcend the minutiae of its origins. But it is one thing to simply be general and abstract, quite another to generalize after having delved deeply into, and worked through, materials that are concrete and specific. The method of Yeats, who always insisted that “mythology” be “rooted in the earth,” falls into this second category. In the case of “The Second Coming,” the specific details of its political genesis have been buried; but the poet’s rooting of his fears and cryptic prophecy in contemporary history—significant soil enriched by the conflicting responses of Burke and Wordsworth, Blake and Shelley, to the great upheaval of their era—surely contributed to the unique power of a disturbing poem whose vision of violent transformation haunted the rest of the twentieth century, and shows every sign of haunting ours. Without that rooting, idiosyncratic theories and his obsession with what Joyce mockingly called Yeats’s “gygantogyres” could easily have produced oracular bombast that would be truly “callous” and shapelessly rather than sublimely vague.
What we have instead is a poem in which Yeats has it several ways at once. The seer casts a cold eye on the whirling of gyres beyond our control, yet seems, at least in part, excited by the rebirth of cyclical energy. But any minor note of boredom-relieving anticipation detectable in “its hour come round at last” is offset, not only by the elegiac Burkean music of the opening movement, but by the poem’s deepest tonality. For the real surprise, trumping the irony that this “second coming” will take a very different “shape” than that expected by naïve, optimistic Christians, is that Yeats’s own expectation will be exposed as a pipedream. We must trust the tale and not the teller. For the poem itself, less aloofly visionary than human, suggests that the antithetical era being ushered in will not assume the form of the aristocratic civilization depicted in Yeats’s long note to the poem. Instead, the newborn age is likely to take the chaotic shape prefigured by its brutal engendering. With that deeper insight, that peripeteia or sudden plot-change and readjustment of apocalyptic expectation, both the theoretician and the cold-eyed oracle in Yeats yield to the poet and man whose vision of the beast truly “troubles my sight.”
That dramatic plot-change, foreshadowed in the drafts, is reflected in the poem’s punctuation. Violating the grammatical logic of its own peroration, “The Second Coming” ends in a question, leaving us with an open, apprehensive, awestruck glimpse of imminent apocalypse, or transformation, or the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide of terror that may constitute (to again quote Shelley on the French Revolution) “the master-theme” of the post-9/11 “epoch in which we live.” Yeats was even more honest when, in the drafts of the poem, he explicitly acknowledged that whatever gnosis was involved was not his, but the beast’s: “And now at last knowing its hour come round/ It has set out for Bethlehem to be born.” In the poem as published, we are left with human uncertainty rather than prophetic certitude. The syntactical and vatic momentum that follows “but now I know…” is retained, and yet the poem ends with a genuine question: the mark of interrogation that always, according to Longinus, attends the mystery of the Sublime.
As the twentieth century’s preeminent visionary poet, Yeats was telepathically attuned to the dangers of hubristic Enlightenment faith in reason and the utopian myth of collective moral progress. But he was even more alert to the paradoxically-related loosing of the tides of irrational fanaticism. Religion obviously plays a role in a cyclical poem in which the Christian era’s twenty centuries of “stony sleep” are said to have been “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,” a nightmare that takes the shape of an apocalyptic beast returning to Bethlehem to be born. But in the twenty-first century, there is an even more terrifying twist on the visionary “nightmares” that rode upon Yeats’s sleep in “The Second Coming” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” For today, the forces of irrationalism threatening civilization are quintessentially theological and, actually or potentially, armed with the most nightmarish, even apocalyptic, weapons. The military and political strategy of the United States in our mis-named and quixotic “global war on terror,” whatever the unpredictable and unplanned-for negative consequences, may be intended to achieve an ultimately positive end. But the injection of God into an evangelical, Bible-influenced foreign policy—an aspect of the Bush administration’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq—can prove less providential than dangerous when theological certitude is combined with massive, if not always adaptable, military power. Ironically enough, and worst of all, in the case of such stateless actors as Al Qaeda and affiliated jihadists, our global war creates more terrorists than we can kill. We confront a metastasizing religious fanaticism impervious to traditional forms of rational or military deterrence and driven by the mad conviction that any and all forms of terror against the infidel West are part of a holy war carried out under the auspices of their approving God.
The principal competing visions may both be described as apocalyptic, with each side embarked on a sacred mission to combat and eradicate perceived evil. There are, to be sure, less spiritual considerations also motivating U.S policy. But we have, when it comes to the Greater Middle East, our own share of religiously-inspired militants, ranging from Rapture-ready End-timers to apocalyptic Christian Zionists to well-meaning theoconservatives still certain that it is our messianic mission to extend to all cultures, however little we may understand the ethno-sectarian complexities, what President Bush used to habitually invoke as “the Almighty’s gift of universal freedom.” Still, there is a difference in kind and degree between the combatants: a distinction made very nearly apocalyptic by the potential threat of a divinely-sanctioned nuclear attack. Despite denials and in defiance of sanctions, theocratic Iran continues its drive to acquire a nuclear weapon, risking a preemptive strike. A more immediate nightmare scenario involves the nuclear arsenal of Pakistan, a state—like neighboring Afghanistan, despite a decade of American intervention—on the verge of chaos. Those warheads could fall into the hands of Islamic jihadists operating out of Pakistan’s northwestern mountain enclaves, terrorists clearly willing and eager to use even these ultimate weapons in the name of Allah.
Though he admired much in the Islamic and Asian traditions, Yeats, who had read Spengler, feared a decline of the West accompanied by the rise of a barbarous fanaticism that would threaten all civilization. Recent events—Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis, imperiled major banks, growing income- and wealth-disparity and unemployment, the growing threat of a second Great Depression—suggest that thepotential cataclysm may be initially economic, accompanied by protest, violence, even panic. Describing current alarm about the situation in Europe, and the danger, as we repeatedly hear, that it will “spill over” or “spiral out of control,” the author of that Time article I began with fell back on the language—“the centre cannot hold”—of Yeats’s history-based vision of impending European disintegration: a centrifugal blowing apart triggering a decline and fall of the West as a whole. Confronting crises economic and political, domestic and international—our continuing wars in an ever-more turbulent Greater Middle East, the ultimate threat of nuclear terrorism, and the intensifying, apparently irresolvable impasse between Israel and the Palestinians, the setting for the biblical myth of Armageddon—we have ample reason to fear that some momentous change is “at hand,” attended by anarchy and violence. Many of us, even those most skeptical of oracular clairvoyance, find ourselves caught up in the mingled terror and apocalyptic shudder of the Yeatsian Sublime. No matter how novel the specific threats that arise, we can’t seem to find better or, indeed, other words than those Yeats put on paper almost a century ago.
That is not, I think, an accident. Insistent that the power of his images derived in part from their roots, Yeats declared in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the greatest of his late retrospective poems: “Those masterful images because complete/ Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?” “The Second Coming” arose out of two sources, particular and universal. The specific events that provided its initial stimulus helped to shape the final poem. But Yeats, who was, like Carl Jung, fascinated not only by the occult but by alchemy, knew what he was doing when he transmuted the base metals of his historical minute particulars into the poetic gold of universally-resonant archetypes. The archetypal symbols he received, or evoked, especially that mysterious “vast image” taking form “somewhere in sands of the desert,” came, he asserts, “out of Spiritus Mundi”: out of the World Soul that Jung—who, not so coincidentally, reported strange beasts troubling the dreams of many of his patients during the First World War—called the Collective Unconscious. That storehouse of archetypes causes universal symbols to arise in individual minds. But if the symbols in “The Second Coming” reflect Yeats’s own immersion in what he called the “Great Memory,” it is also, since each mind is linked to it, our Unconscious as well. In the dialectic of Yeats’s symbolic poems, myth is personal and experience is mythologized. In a similar reciprocity, allusions to “The Second Coming” register individual responses to current crises, contemporary forebodings which, simultaneously, resonate with eternally recurrent archetypes transformed by a great poet into masterful images.
Written first, “The Second Coming” initiates the last of Yeats’s three Ages. Though Marie Antoinette (and her doomed counterpart, Alexandra) remained in the shadows of the drafts, the overwhelming of female innocence by brute male power became explicit in the two later poems rounding out Yeats’s cyclical myth: the 1924 sonnet, “Leda and the Swan,” and the 1932 dramatic monologue, “The Mother of God.” The progeny of the sexual union of the Swan-god and Leda included Helen and Clytemnestra, and thus the seeds of the Trojan War and its aftermath. In the poem initiating the Christian era, 2,000 years after the Homeric Age, the speaker is Mary herself, the terrified young girl divinely chosen to be Jesus’ mother. Here the “feathered glory” of Zeus becomes—in a more sublimated, but still recognizably phallic image—the “flare” that penetrates the vaginal “hollow” of Mary’s ear. Yeats is recalling the Byzantine iconography elucidated by Freud’s disciple Ernest Jones in “The Madonna’s Conception through the Ear.” Like “The Second Coming,” both poems are shockingly dramatic, cinematic, and sublime. Indeed, even more than “The Second Coming,” “Leda and the Swan” and “The Mother of God” are riddled by questions, the perennial mark of the terrible beauty of the Sublime.
Leda and the Swan
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
……………………..Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
The Mother of God
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
Responding to “The Second Coming” in our own troubled moment of history, we sense—now as always, though perhaps now more than ever—that “the centre cannot hold.” Like the “falcon [that] cannot hear the falconer,” things seem to be whirling giddily out of human control. We suspect that centrifugal forces we have ourselves unleashed—sociopolitical, technological, military, economic, the overarching global climate change we have exacerbated—are now in the saddle and ride mankind. There seems little consolation to be found. We in America—to adapt Yeats’s outward-inward gyre—gaze out at what, despite or in part because of free-market globalization, is an increasingly unstable world: overpopulated, often impoverished, violent, threatened by terrorism and the overreaction to it, and groaning for deliverance. Freedom is stirring, but in such a world even the hopeful Arab Spring is rapidly losing its early bloom. Revolutions devour their own children. Caught up in the region’s cross-current of sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and geographic tensions, old parties and elites are contending with long-suppressed but well organized Islamists, and those who actually initiated the Arab Awakening are quickly becoming yesterday’s news. History “Whirls out new right and wrong,/ Whirls in the old instead,” to quote “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” a sequence originally titled “The Things That Come Again.” As Middle-East experts Hussein Agha and Robert Malley concluded in their September 2011 essay “The Arab Counterrevolution,” whatever the outcome of this struggle, “victory by the original protesters is almost certainly foreclosed.” If so, an optimistic, near-millennial anticipation of beneficial change will have been once again shattered by what Agha and Malley call, perhaps echoing the Yeatsian widening gyre, “centrifugal forces.” Many in the Middle East are already wondering what comes next—or, in our own recurrent image of expectation-reversal, what rough beast is slouching their way.
Looking homeward, we are psychologically dismayed by our own beasts within, and frustrated by a venal and dysfunctional political system, divided by a partisan rancor that often transcends “politics as usual,” because of something more profound: a widening cognitive gap. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s reminder that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” seems to have been trumped in recent years by political expediency and, in some cases, by actual or willful ignorance. In the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter devoted two books to “anti-intellectualism in American life” and “the paranoid style in American politics.” One needn’t accept every nuance of what those on the right might consider his “elitist” condescension to conclude that Hofstadter’s fears are, today, far more justified than they were when he was writing a half century ago. What would he make, for example, of the spectacle of Fundamentalist resistance not only to ACLU excesses but to the very concept of the constitutional separation of Church and State? Or of the religious right’s self-congratulatory challenge to the validity of science; most notably, dismissal of the scientific consensus on a partial but manifest human impact on global climate change and, most mind-boggling, the faith-based denial of the demonstrable truth of evolutionary biology?
Here, too, the center cannot hold; and in such ideologically and theologically polarized circumstances, it is usually—to revert, with my own spin, to the Yeatsian contrast earlier, and antithetically, employed by Paul Krugman and Bill Kristol—the “worst” who “are full of passionate intensity,” while the “best,” or at least the less ill-informed, vacillate ineffectually. Meantime, the majority, our collective sight “troubled,” peer into the dark forward and abysm of time. Readers of “The Second Coming,” persuaded that something ominous is afoot, are curious only, ironically enough, about which of our own current crises, circa 2011, might emerge as no less transformative than those to which Yeats, writing in 1919, was responding in the manuscript-drafts of “The Second Coming,” but which he wisely chose to delete in the process of revision.
Though deleted by the poet, and partially erased from our collective memory by a historical flood bringing even greater calamities, those events, it should be said in conclusion, were not idiosyncratically chosen. Whatever one thinks of the poet’s politics in 1919 or of the hapless Romanov dynasty, Yeats was not simply—to cite Tom Paine’s trenchant critique of Burke’s tear-stained apostrophe to Marie Antoinette—pitying the plumage while forgetting the dying bird. Alexandra (“this Marie Antoinette” who has “more brutally died”) was battered and shot to death with her husband and children in the “House of Special Purpose” in Ekaterinburg. Though there was no signed order, the ultimate decision was Lenin’s. Those cold-blooded murders marked a pivotal moment when—in the summation of historian Richard Pipes in his magisterial study, The Russian Revolution—history made a turn toward genocide, when human beings were placed on a list of expendables and the world entered “an entirely new moral realm.”
Yeats sensed this seismic change, and registered it in the drafts from which “The Second Coming” evolved—though he saw it not as “an entirely new” moral phenomenon but as a “second birth” of revolutionary massacre. The execution of the Russian Royal Family—the barbarous slaughter, in particular, of the children, shot, clubbed, and stabbed to death by drunken incompetents—was Yeats’s contemporary example of the loosing of a blood-dimmed tide: a slaughter of the innocents that, for him, hearkened back to the French Reign of Terror and, for us, as readers of “The Second Coming,” prefigures all the horrors of the twentieth century, and beyond: war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, genocide, famine, economic chaos, political anarchy….In its revised and final text, Yeats’s prophetic poem—as open to interpretation as the Beasts and Dragons and Horsemen of the Apocalypse—envisages, or can be made to envisage, any and all of these nightmares. Yeats ends with a question, and so must we. Precisely “what rough beast,” we wonder, “its hour come round at last,” slouches towards us?
Yeats in old age. Retired to his “small old house” at Riversdale, “strength of body” gone, Yeats conceded that “my temptation is quiet,/ Here at life’s end.” But, his mind and imagination still active, he took to heart Nietzsche’s warning against the weariness of old age and his advocacy of imaginative “frenzy.” Inspired by the rage of Shakespeare’s Timon and Lear, and, far more, by the creative energy of the aged Blake and the Sistine audacity of Michelangelo, he cries out in the 1938 poem, “An Acre of Grass”:
Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon or Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;
A mind Michelangelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.
—Patrick J. Keane
Also by Patrick J. Keane on Numéro Cinq: Convergences: Memories Involving The Waste Land Manuscript (Feb 22, 2011), Rintrah (July 23, 2011)
This is so excellent. I think about this poem all the time when I’m writing about politics. It’s just incredible how larger than life it has become and this piece touches on so many of the reasons.
Magnificent. Good old-fashioned literary scholarship in which the scholarship IS literature. Thanks to the author for writing it and Numero Cinq for publishing it. Not only superbly well written but badly needed now.
Thanks, Sarah. The poem does seem unavoidable.
Thanks so much, Keith. I agree on the urgency and deeply appreciate the aesthetic compliment.
I saved this e-mail for a long time and only just read the essay, very appropriate for New Year’s Eve. It’s fascinating and wonderful, like the poem itself, and I will save and re-read for a long time.
Thank you, Maggie. It is a great essay.
Thanks, Maggie. I was just browsing the Archive Doug set up, and finally saw your comment. For a moment, I imagined you sipping a flute of New Year’s Eve champagne as you were perusing the Apocalypse. And that in turn stirred up memories of Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” which in turn recalled the “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” in the “Ode to a Nightingale.” And then I stopped.
It’s January 26, 2016. It occurs to me that the time has come to update this essay, originally written during the primary season leading up to the 2012 presidential election. As we slouch toward Iowa in 2016, “things” (national and international) continue to “fall apart,” the “worst” are certainly “full of passionate intensity,” and there are at least two, perhaps three, prime candidates eminently suited for the role of Yeats’s “rough beast.” I’d better get to work before the the Apocalypse is upon us. .