An Irish Classic in Honour of St Patrick’s Day: ‘The Second Coming’ by Yeats (1919)

I’ve been wanting to write a post about ‘The Second Coming’ for simply ages.  It is one of the most brilliant poems ever written in the English language, but it’s just so depressing no one ever seem to want to anthologise or teach it.

image

To give some background, if you are new to this wonderful text it was written in 1919 and is very clearly about a world in conflict. Nearly a century later, it still seems incredibly relevant, mostly when feeling deeply depressed about the state of the world.

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?

Every time I read this poem, I’m struck by just how powerful the introductory image is.  Frankly, Yeats starts where most poets would be happy to end, because that description of the falcon and falconer would be the fitting climax to any text.  The complex relationship between movement and stasis, man and nature, restraint and freedom, master and slave is conveyed with the utmost economy and precision.  One issue that is explored beautifully is that of control.  When we’re told that the centre of the ‘gyre‘ (the falcon’s widening spiral) ‘cannot hold‘, I’m tempted to think of the whole image as a metaphor for the poet’s impossible task as he tries to convey the depths of his emotions in a highly restricted literary form.  It’s the kind of epigram you would expect at the end, not the start, of a poem and this is where I’ll try to impose my own reading of hope onto the text.  The title of the poem suggests development and sequence; there will be a ‘second coming’ after the first.  For Yeats the prophesy is  clear, the world will end and the First World War was an apocalyptic moment.  For us, though, reading so much later, there is an element of historical comfort to be had.  What sometimes seems like the end, might really be only another in a sequence of new beginnings.  While the post-Modern world is fractured and frightening, Yeat’s words give us a powerful framework through which to view crises.  Even structurally, his poem delights while it disturbs and the fact that the opening image is so successful is, in  itself, an example of the order that the rest of the poem so desperately seeks.

Another powerful moment in the poem is the shift from anonymous images to a direct indictment of society.  We’re told ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’  Reading the news, overhearing conversations on buses, even talking to friends and colleagues, it’s often hideously easy to agree with Yeats’ claim.  I don’t think that humanity are as helpless as he makes out though, and I believe the poem supports me in this.  Earlier in the verse, ‘mere anarchy’ is described.  It’s one of the most  unexpected adjectives in any poem.  My favourite interpretation is that the reason anarchy is described as ‘mere‘ is the narrative voice desperately positioning him or herself as one of ‘the best’.  Surely only someone who ‘lack[s] all conviction‘ could pick this adjective and so content themselves with describing anarchy so mildly.  I take hope from this; it suggests no one needs to be resigned to apathy, that there are still choices to be made.  It is in our power to become better than the poor ‘best’  offered by the poem and we can have agency in the world, as long as we don’t buy into the negative rhetoric which insists such activity is impossible.

My final point is about what the poem has come to represent.  A literary masterpiece in its own right, it is inextricably linked in my mind with Chinua Achebe’s classic ‘Things Fall Apart’. Achebe did not disguise the pessimism inherent in his source material, but he is still an inspirational figure in post-Colonial and world literature.  Another cause for tentative optimism is the way these two texts informed one of the most interesting debut novels of 2015, Obioma’s ‘The Fishermen’ (reviewed here).  Although Yeats was predicting the end of the world, what he actually produced was a literary battering ram for exposing evil and injustice.  His poem does not hide from the all too real problems in society, but it is also a tool for discussing them.  It’s a call to be fearless in confronting the present and, if there’s no real hope in its lines, it is at least a wonderful, powerful and inspiring piece of poetry.

For more examples of how the poem has been used to provide titles and ideas in recent writings, I really recommend Nick Tabor’s excellent article in ‘The Paris Review’.

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11 Responses to An Irish Classic in Honour of St Patrick’s Day: ‘The Second Coming’ by Yeats (1919)

  1. BookerTalk says:

    Thanks for this analysis. I’m intrigued by the lines about the shape in the desert with the body of a lion and a mans head. What do you think he is saying here?

    • The Reading Bug says:

      It makes me think of the sphinx, although I know that’s really a woman’s head. But the idea of the sphinx coming to life is pretty chilling – I’ve always found the last two lines of this poem, the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem like something out of a horror film as well.

    • I certainly think there’s something supernaturally terrifying about this creature. It seems to me to be a cross between the sphinx from Classical mythology and the hybrid animals seen in visions in the Bible. I think it’s certainly powerful in embodying the of terror in the poem.

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    Chilling how topical (or perennial, rather) these words remain:
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    Can refer to EU referendum, migration issues, US elections – pretty much anything.

  3. A fabulous analysis of a favourite poem. I think of this one quite a lot. It unfortunately almost perennially feels pertinent.

    I almost had Yeats beaten out of me at University, where one of the specialists on Yeats taught a Yeats course, but found my way back to him later

    A very fitting Begorrathon post. That kind of – joy – in language, not to mention fluidity, ease with metaphor, soulful quality seems to me to be in a lot of Irish writers.

    I’m hoping to do a post of my own on something. I might even attempt another Yeats poem which has haunted me with 4 lines of it all my life.

    • I’m intrigued … looking forward to finding out what the haunting poem is!

      It’s so upsetting to hear about people getting put off books or authors by teachers! Thank goodness you managed to appreciate Yeats for yourself at last!

  4. roughghosts says:

    A timeless, powerful poem. Love your analysis. Looking to my neighbour to the south (the US), lines from this piece keep coming to mind…

  5. Wonderful post Shoshi – I love this poem and it never loses its power.

    • I know, though as some of the comments here have shown, it does encourage pessimism. It should be continually re-read, but also (I think) taken in some moderation to avoid complete despair in the human race…

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