November 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous and influential poems of the 20th century. It is titled “The Second Coming.” It was written in 1919 by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.
To understand the enduring power of “The Second Coming,” it helps to know the historical and personal context in which it was written. For Yeats in 1919, it must have looked as if the world was falling apart.
World War I, the so-called Great War, was over, but not its terrible consequences of death, injury, madness and dislocation. The Russian Revolution shook the world order. An Irish rebellion for independence from the British was crushed. And the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 had killed millions. Yeats wrote the poem while his pregnant wife was recovering from a near-death struggle with the disease.
In short, things were falling apart. Sound familiar?
Here is the poem in its entirety — 22 lines, republished for educational purposes:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center 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 blind 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 toward Bethlehem to be born?
In spite of the way it brims with Christian symbolism and iconography, this is not the kind of poem you read at a Christmas Eve party over eggnog — unless you are really hip.
Yeats invokes the common language of scripture: the Biblical plague that turns the water of the Nile into blood; King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents; the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem; the second coming of Jesus to redeem the world. Those images represent the story of salvation history that Yeats — and all of Christian Europe — had inherited.
But how does one reconcile a narrative of hope and peace and rebirth with a world where human beings spread such anarchy and violence across the world?
From the first words of the poem, we gain the sense that no one of good intention can exercise any control. The falcon soars to escape the control of the falconer. The center cannot hold, that center being the institutions of culture and civilization and government that form the social contracts that build community and hold off the forces that would destroy it.
In the absence of those forces, what “rough beast” will move in to replace it? An anti-Christ slouching toward Bethlehem to poison a 2000-year message of good news of great joy? The imagery is pagan, a Sphinx-like stone creature scattering the birds of the desert. If we imagine the poem as prophetic, can we see the image as presaging a particular person or movement: the rise of fascism and Hitler?
The poet Ezra Pound, a contemporary of Yeats, once described literature as “news that stays news.”
That statement comes to life in the century of Yeats’s poem. It endures as a kind of clairvoyant warning, dragged out and waved like a flag any time the world appears to be falling apart. Like now! But doesn’t the world always appear to be falling apart? Doesn’t the center always appear to be approaching disintegration?
The most famous influence of “The Second Coming” can be seen in the work of American author Joan Didion, who titled a collection of her essays from the 1960s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” That title is no mere allusion. The book begins with Yeats’s poem in its entirety, and then these words from her introduction:
This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there. The widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun; those have been my points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is also the title of one piece in the book, and that piece, which derived from some time spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, was for me both the most imperative of all these pieces to write and the only one that made me despondent after it was printed. It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart: I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.
The Yeats poem became the antidote to Didion’s despair, inspiring this lead paragraph of her essay:
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.
I invite whoever is now reading this to try to write a paragraph, inspired by Didion’s, that captures the many ways in 2020 that our center is not holding.
It is possible — even desirable — to embrace the poem without embracing the poet. When the center will not hold, the question remains how do you pull things back together again? In America in 2020 we might say by supporting scientific research and revitalizing democratic institutions. Yeats hated the idea of democracy. He believed in aristocracy and hierarchy, in eugenics to weed out the weaker races, and he was an early advocate of fascism — as a buffer to communism — until Hitler demonstrated where that path led.
It is unclear whether Yeats warns us against that rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem, or welcomes it as a leviathan to quell the chaos and control the masses.
Dead poets cannot control how their work is received, and Yeats died in 1939. His poem now belongs to us. I agree with literary scholar Louise Rosenblatt that the author may create the text, but it is the reader who turns it into a poem. I was also schooled in college in a way of reading called the “New Criticism,” which argued for close readings of texts to extract their meanings and ambiguities, without regard for the historical context, the life of the author, or even the declared intention of the author.
In short: Just the text, ma’am, just the text.
I had a teacher, Rene Fortin, who appeared to have memorized Shakespeare’s most important soliloquys, reciting them to classes by heart. I am not much for memorization, but I do try it on occasion. I can recite the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in Middle English; I can render Macbeth’s nihilistic “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” reflection; I can rap the first two stanzas of the musical “Hamilton”; and I shock audiences with a rendition of Dr. Evil’s life story from the Austin Powers movie.
At a literary conference in St. Augustine a few years ago, I asked Peter Meinke a question about the continuing relevance of “The Second Coming.” Peter is from St. Petersburg (where Poynter is based), a good friend, and now the poet laureate of the state of Florida. He recited it from memory for the audience. On the spot. Just like that.
My resolution for 2021 is to commit Yeats’ poem to memory before I get vaccinated.
My lessons for writers from reading “The Second Coming.”
- Don’t be afraid to let your public writing be informed by literature, news that stays news.
- All writers need backup singers, the people we quote or allude to in our texts. Poets are good ones.
- Misinformed, myopic, immoral, even vicious people can create great works of art and inventions that help all humankind. It is not wrong to embrace the art or the invention, as long as we are willing to be transparent about the failings of the creator.
- In 2020, things seem to be falling apart. The center is not holding. But I felt that way in 1968 as well, a year of futile wars, assassinations, racial violence and police riots. I’m sure my parents felt that way during the Depression and into World War II. In other words, things always seem to be falling apart. Don’t fall into the Myth of the Golden Age, the idea that there was some ideal moment in the past when things were a lot better. One simple question: If you had the virus, would you rather be in a hospital in 1920 or 2020? \
- When things are falling apart, it is crucial for public writers to focus some of the work on the people who are trying to hold things together. To neutralize the poison of fatigue, it is crucial for creative people to publish work that is uplifting, humorous, whimsical, hopeful and distracting — in every platform.
- Introduce poetry into your reading and writing. Discover or rediscover a favorite poet. Read the ones you love aloud. Try your hand at it.