Sunday Pages: "The Second Coming"

A poem by William Butler Yeats

Dear Reader,

Has the country gone mad? Because it sure feels that way.

Crisis actors and legit lunatics are disrupting school board meetings in districts where they do not live, to protest the alleged teaching of something in elementary school that is exclusively law school curricula, and to demand the “freedom” to, in effect, kill themselves, their neighbors, and their children by ignoring mask mandates and other public health initiatives.

Disgraced former generals and podcast provocateurs insist that Biden did not win the election, despite not having produced a shred of supporting evidence after 11 months of trying. Federalist Society lawyers devise serious proposals on how to discard the results of the election and make Trump president for life—or at least for another term. A young man with tattoos on his face, including one on his chin, is all in on the MAGA death cult.

On social media, serious people comment on the testicular health of an associate of a cousin of a rapper, and the omission of the “P” in IMPEACH in a bad Photoshop image generated by a high school dropout and food poisoner, the wife of a man who exposed himself to minors at a bowling alley, who was somehow elected to the House of Freakin’ Representatives.

No wonder the falcon can’t hear the falconer.

It feels especially appropriate, for today’s “Sunday Pages,” to look at “The Second Coming,” the apocalyptical poem by William Butler Yeats. As Nick Tabor noted in the Paris Review six years ago —in the halcyon days when Trump was still a reality TV figure and not the slouching monster he’d become—the poem has many choice lines that have been lifted as titles, most notably by Joan Didion in her essay and book, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. “In the wake of Didion’s success,” Tabor writes, “publishers have come to realize they can apply Yeats’s lines to pretty much any book that documents confusion and disarray.” He laments the “minor rock stars and hack writers who’ve salvaged the poem for parts, yanking their titles from it without bothering to understand it.”

But what is the poem actually about? The first verse seems pretty straightforward:

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.

Yeats wrote these lines in 1919, the year after the Great War saw the collapse of three royal houses—the Habsburgs, in Austro-Hungary; the Hohenzollerns, in Germany; and in Russia, the Romanovs, whose double-eagle was replaced by the hammer and sickle insignia of the Bolsheviks—and a pandemic killed off a significant percentage of the population. His was a topsy-turvy world.

A century and change later, the world is just as topsy-turvy. Anarchic forces are again on the rise. There is no center, at least not politically. Things do seem to be falling apart. And there is no question that the worst are intensely passionate. We feel you, Dubya B.

Yeats was interested in the occult. He made horoscopes and read tarot. “The Second Coming” was supposedly the product of some sort of automatic writing, the collective consciousness using him as a vessel to articulate itself. Which makes the second and final verse all the more ominous:

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?

Here, Yeats describes a vision, like something from Revelation—and it’s not a hopeful one. Sure, there is a Second Coming, but the “rough beast” he foretells is not to be confused with the Prince of Peace. And he was right! In 1919, Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin were already walking the earth. Fascism was on the rise. The world had yet to endure the Great Depression, or the unspeakable horrors of the Second World War.

But is the poem really so hopeless? Look closer. After describing his vision—the “revelation at hand,” the creature purloined from the End Times language of John of Patmos—he inserts a semicolon, and the magical word so essential to the poetical form: but. All the poet knows for sure is that the long absence of Jesus has reached an inflection point. In this spiritual vacuum, Yeats asks, so many centuries after the last apostle has breathed his last, what false Messiahs may appear?

What the poem really means, I think, is this: When the leaders of the forces of good are absent—when their voices are silent; when the rest of us must rely only on blind faith that they are working on our behalf at all—the minions of darkness and evil brazenly ascend. In such a void, a rough beast can indeed slouch his way to rebirth at Bethlehem (or, if you prefer a more temporal example, to election to the White House), perverting all that is virtuous and true, and causing those of us fighting on the side of truth and justice to lose faith (“lack all conviction”).

In short, it’s the silence that dooms us.

The falconers need to raise their voices.

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Photo credit: Jim O’Neal, “What Rough Beast.” Soft pastels on 12 by 12 inch colored card stock.