‘Things fall apart’: the apocalyptic appeal of WB Yeats’s The Second Coming | Daily News


 

‘Things fall apart’: the apocalyptic appeal of WB Yeats’s The Second Coming

In April 1936, three years before his death, WB Yeats received a letter from the writer and activist Ethel Mannin. The 70-year-old Yeats was a Nobel prize-winning poet of immense stature and influence, not to mention Mannin’s former lover, and she asked him to join a campaign to free a German pacifist incarcerated by the Nazis.

Yeats responded instead with a reading recommendation: “If you have my poems by you, look up a poem called ‘The Second Coming’,” he wrote. “It was written some sixteen or seventeen years ago & foretold what is happening. I have written of the same thing again & again since. This will seem little to you with your strong practical sense for it takes fifty years for a poet’s weapons to influence the issue.”

Yeats was justified in taking the long view. Written in 1919 and published in 1920, “The Second Coming” has become perhaps the most plundered poem in the English language. At 164 words, it is short and memorable enough to be famous in toto but it has also been disassembled into its constituent parts by books, albums, movies, TV shows, comic books, computer games, political speeches and newspaper editorials.

Words alive

While many poems in Yeats’s corpus have contributed indelible lines to the storehouse of the cultural imagination (“no country for old men”; “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”), “The Second Coming” consists of almost nothing but such lines. Someone reading it for the first time in 2020 might resemble the apocryphal theatregoer who complained that Hamlet was nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together. Whether or not it is Yeats’s greatest poem, it is by far his most useful. As Auden wrote in “In Memory of WB Yeats” (1939), “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.”

As the world is wrenched out of joint by the coronavirus pandemic, many people are turning to poetry for wisdom and consolation, but “The Second Coming” fulfils a different role, as it has done in crisis after crisis, from the Vietnam war to 9/11 to the election of Donald Trump: an opportunity to confront chaos and dread, rather than to escape it. Fintan O’Toole has proposed the “Yeats Test”: “The more quotable Yeats seems to commentators and politicians, the worse things are.”

 

    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?

 

The first stanza is a series of punchy declarations about a crisis of authority, almost as if Yeats were an op-ed writer in full thunder. The oracular second stanza asks why this is happening and imagines what might follow the phase of anarchy: the second coming will be a reversal of the first.

Yeats began “The Second Coming” during the tense, eventful month of January 1919. The first world war was barely over and the Russian Revolution, which dismayed him, still unfolding, while another war was brewing on his doorstep.

On 21 January, the revolutionary Irish parliament met in Dublin to declare independence while, in a quarry in Tipperary, members of the IRA killed two officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary.

The birth of Yeats’s daughter, Anne, in February was also freighted with danger. During her pregnancy, his young wife Georgie Hyde-Lees had been stricken by the Spanish flu that was burning through Europe. Events conspired to put Yeats in an apocalyptic frame of mind.

Control spirit

He found the metaphors to express it via hundreds of automatic writing sessions, during which Georgie convinced her husband that she was channelling the wisdom of “Controls” and “Instructors” from the spirit realm. From these sessions, Yeats constructed an elaborate, world-explaining “System”, which he eventually laid out in bewildering detail in A Vision (1925). Crucial to “The Second Coming” was the symbol of the gyre (a cone or spiral) and Yeats’s conviction that history moved in 2,000-year cycles. The age of Christ (“twenty centuries of stony sleep”) was coming to an end and a new era –– antithetical to progress and reason –– would begin with the birth of the rough beast in Bethlehem.

Early drafts of the poem illustrate Yeats’s dedication to universalising his message, as he deletes specific references to the French Revolution and the first world war and replaces terrestrial images of judges and tyrants with figures from dreams and myths. This “productive vagueness”, says David Dwan, an associate professor of English at Oxford University, is what makes the poem ever-relevant.

Evident, too, in the drafts is Yeats’s painstaking refinement of each line. “All things have begun to break and fall apart” is distilled into “Things fall apart”; “The centre has lost” becomes “The centre cannot hold”. The beast that has blandly “set out” for Bethlehem “slouches” instead. In the final version, every phrase has vigour and weight. The poem is built to last.

 “The Second Coming” was published in both The Nation and The Dial in November 1920 and then in Yeats’s collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921). Yet it did not attain what Dwan calls its “problematic ubiquity” until some time after the second world war. By 1963, the aphoristic couplet about the best and the worst was enough of a cliche to irritate the critic Raymond Williams. “The lines are regularly used as rhetorical tactics in the defence of anybody’s sanity against anybody else’s enthusiasm,” he complained.  -The Guardian  


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