For those who have never heard this poem before, you’ve never seen a horror movie or a scary television show. Excerpts from this poem always come up when the end of the world is near in a movie. And it’s a scary poem.
What’s interesting about this poem is that it uses the allusion to the second coming in the bible, Judgement Day, but it is also an allusion to the poet’s own personal mythology. I want to take those two ideas separately.
First of all, I find the allusion (not illusion) to Judgement day interesting because if you’re Christian, Judgement Day is a wonderful day, it’s the second coming of Christ; he comes back, like Superman, to save the day. This is where the dead are lifted from their graves and their bodies are restored to their youthful vigor, earth becomes a new Eden and cotton candy and jelly beans for all the good children, etc… But Yeats has turned this joyous event on its head and made into a horror show. The thing coming is not the King of kings, nor angels heralding in a new heaven, it is a “rough beast” which “slouches towards Bethlehem”. Conjuring up all sorts of frightening images (I know that line gave me nightmares when I first read it).
Here, the myth is being subverted. Instead of illustrating a point or being used to show a point of view it is railing against something that the poet dislikes. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Reminded me of a time when Nobel Peace Prize winners and scientists were being called liars and traitors and blowhards like Rush Limbaugh (who wouldn’t know reality if it bit him on the ass) were being called heroes. The voices of reason politely pointing out that a preemptive strike in a foreign country would become a complete catastrophe and send the United States spinning down an economic whirlpool (which is what happened) were drowned out by those shouting obscenities and screaming for war. People who were Christian, instead of chanting, “Peace on Earth, goodwill to Man,” were demanding war and that the meek should be separated out not to inherit the earth, but to be left to the wolves. The world in America had become a backward place where the best were quiet and the worst were full of passionate. The poet had a point.
I’m not entirely convinced that due to a slipping of morals or empathy that Western Civilization is slipping into a hell on earth (and the lack of response to the warnings of Global Warming could cause the world to physically slip into a hell on earth). I have reason to be optimistic, I think that the world is becoming a more moral place as history moves forward, but the poet saw it differently.
Which brings me to my next point, my original reading of this poem was that the poet was taking someone else’s mythological construct (the New Testament) and subverting it, so that instead of the myth being one of joy it was one of horror, but a closer look at the poem reveals that this was not what he was doing.
I admit, I actually learned this from the textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7 edition, XJ Kennedy). As I said before, Yeats had created his own mythology. “Yeats saw human history as governed by the turning of a Great Wheel, whose phases influence events and determine human personalities [like a Zodiac Wheel]. Every two thousand years comes a horrendous moment: the Wheel completes a turn; one civilization ends and another begins. Strangely, a new age is always announced by birds and by acts of violence.” (page 222) Yeats sighted Zeus coming to earth in swan form and the burning of Troy as the heralding of the Greek world and the bloodshed in Ireland in 1919 and World War I as the heralding of a new modern world. “What sphinxlike, savage deity would appear next..with birds proclaiming [the new world] angrily? Yeats imagines it emerges from Spiritus Mundi, Soul of the World, a collective unconscious from which a human being..receives dreams, nightmares, and racial memories.”
I don’t think that this personal mythology was something being announced by a self-proclaimed profit trying to scare us into believing, warning us to save our souls. It was something that he imagined to help him make the world make sense for himself. The textbook simply calls it a work of art to be admired, an analogy for the world from a particular perspective and stories that resemble mythology. But I’m convinced that though it isn’t a shared or collective story, it’s still a myth just on a personal level. We all have our own personal stories that we use to make sense of the world around us, something we keep hidden in our deepest darkest corners of our minds. We’re not embarrassed by it (though individuality does often feel like a vulnerable spot), it’s simply too personal and, therefore too sacred to be shared.
I do also think that Yeats’s mythology was built on something older and collective, how else could I have mistaken it for an already known mythology? In this way, it actually fits perfectly the definition of a myth.
So, the real question to be asked is how close is his personal myth to the actual shape of the world and if the answer is “very”, is it something to be feared and dreaded or something to welcome with open arms. The world didn’t end the last time, it might not end now.
The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats
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 a 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
The 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?