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
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).”