Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Second Coming - William Butler Yeats

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 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?

--- William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats' The Second Coming

Happy Easter to all of you who celebrate today's holiday! In the spirit of Easter and the end of a long Lenten season, I had a few poems at my disposal to write about today. A handful of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Catholic priest and wholly original innovator of the English language, were in consideration. Carrion Comfort and God's Grandeur are fantastic poems worth exploring, but I chose to go in a different direction. William Butler Yeats is not only one of the most famous and skilled writers of the 20th century, but he's also one of the poet's I've learned the most from. Reading Yeats is never easy, but the payoff is staggering. After I'd narrowed today's selection down to Yeats I still had some work ahead of me.

Originally I settled upon Easter, 1916, a poem in which Yeats details the Easter Rising of 1916 which saw Irish nationalists rebel against the British government. The leaders behind the rebellion were friends of Yeats and his personal knowledge of them and the situations contained in the poem add an intimate texture to his account of the events. Suppressed in just about a weeks time, the Easter Rising would ultimately lead to the horrific punishment of execution by firing squad for many of the Irish nationalists Yeats was friends with. Easter, 1916 is an honest and, at times, heart breaking dissection of the nationalists and their cause. Yeats crafts an extended metaphor using hearts and stones that reaches these lines: “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.” Shining a light upon their sacrifices, Yeats immortalizes MacDonagh, MacBride, Connolly, and Pearse, he “writes it out in a verse,” ending the poem with a haunting refrain: “Wherever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” Still, the poem is not a propaganda piece; Yeats is not afraid of holding the Irish nationalists to a higher standard and raising concerns. Easter, 1916 is worth your time, please do yourself a favor and read the poem and the history behind it. But, now, we'll turn our attention to the poem I chose for this Easter Sunday: The Second Coming.

It takes very few lines to realize The Second Coming is not an optimistic and hopeful look at the return of Christ. Yeats tackles the faults of the world, including those of organized religion, specifically Catholicism. When Yeats wrote The Second Coming, World War I had come and gone, changing the world forever with an efficient and sweeping ability to mass produce painful death. This evolving barbarism changed all people in the world, including Yeats. With the Anglo-Irish War just around the corner and tensions always rising, Yeats had valid reason to fear the worst. Those fears forged with his amazing poetic skills and created The Second Coming. It certainly isn't the most uplifting poem I could have chosen to focus on for this Easter Sunday, but as Yeats himself wrote in the poem “Surely some revelation is at hand.”

If you just read The Second Coming for the first time you probably noticed some phrases or lines that you've heard before. The most famous among them might be “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” (Yeats is an oft quoted poet in movies, songs, and books---Cormac MacCarthy and The Coen Brothers surely know the first line of Yeats' poem Sailing To Byzantium is “That is no country for old men.”) Rest assured, I did not include this poem just because it is famous. I included The Second Coming because it contains some of the most powerful images in the history of literature. From the initial “turning in the widening gyre” to the “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born,” Yeats layers images that resonate in a historic and religious context. He posits that we are lost in the end of history, lost in the end of this cycle of Christianity, lost as “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” The world is amiss with “mere anarchy” unleashed upon it. Where will hope arrive from? The second coming? Yeats teases us with this hope, asking “Surely the Second Coming is at hand,” only to quickly delineate the horror that accompanies such an arrival. The beast of the apocalypse, as foretold in the Gospel of John, makes an appearance. As Yeats describes, “A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” Again I ask, where will the hope arrive from? Will hope arrive at all?

Here's the conclusion Yeats comes to: “but now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.” This statement casts strong doubts upon Catholicism and Christianity, upon the second coming of Christ. I know that Yeats lost faith in government and he lost faith in certain causes during his life, but there's still a part of me that senses hope in Yeats' hopelessness. This hope is not contained in the poem, but rather in the intentions for the poem and impact it had (and still has) upon readers. Reading The Second Coming is an intense exercise in belief. If you believe we are so forgone as a people that we've brought upon the apocalypse then you see the beast slouching toward Bethlehem and you buy Yeats' assertion that “The best lack all conviction.” If you believe the scenario Yeats presents is a worst case view of the world and that the “blood-dimmed tide” is reversible, that darkness can be eased out with light, then you see the question mark in the final lines as a crucial indicator of uncertainty. With uncertainty, the poem becomes a call-to-action, a frightening motivator to change what some believe to be unchangeable. The message I heard at today's Easter mass is what I choose to follow: We can choose to have faith, even in times of despair, especially in times of despair, and that faith will bring about the fullness of life that cannot happen when we dwell upon the odds stacked against us and the evil amongst us.


Unknown said...

as a student i feel ur ideas are really valuable

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thanks Sofi, I'm glad you enjoyed the essay and I hope you'll check out the other essays on my blog.

All the best,

Anonymous said...

You really analyze all the poems with extreme care and precise detail. In case you didn't know, the book Things Fall Apart takes its title from this poem. The book is by Chinua Achebe, who includes an excerpt from this poem in the beginning of the book. You seem like the type of person who would really enjoy this book. It offers a not-so-widespread view of pre-European Africans.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thanks dzfischer for your comments. You are right about Things Fall Apart; it is a classic and a favorite of mine! Isn't it cool to see how Achebe, a Nigerian, was influenced by Yeats, an Irishman? It shows that good literature spans all times and cultures.

Anonymous said...

That's funny I never thought about it that way! That is one of the many things the IB curriculum tries to teach us though, so that's another good point of yours. Thanks for all your great insight!