The theme, as always, is repetition. A long-time reader reminded me that–though we just read a poem by him–it is time for a re-read of William Butler Yeats’s "The Second Coming." And my old friend Seamus Deane–in his 1997 book, Strange Country–reminds us that "The Second Coming" was supposedly written about the Russian Revolution of 1917. Deane gives a marvelous reading of this most famous poem in his chapter on "Boredom and Apocalypse," and what follows is only my attempt at a summary. Deane is fitting the poem to a broad historical statement about the culture, politics, and development of modern (mostly 20th century, in this chapter) Ireland, with competing strains of nationalism and anti-colonialism as the backdrop. It’s a dense, theory-laden investigation, and yet he puts the most elemental poetry-unpacking tools to splendid use along the way.
Repetition, for example. In this poem about historical apocalypse, concerned with both ending and beginning, the first 11 lines produce an overabundance of repeated words: turn/turning, falcon/falconer, loosed, the second coming, surely, at hand. In addition, the definite article "the" is deployed 11 times, implying a knowingness shared between reader and speaker. What are "the" worst and "the" ceremony and "the" widening gyre? We know from the surrounding poems in the volume Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921). From the collision of opposites in a grand, universal, omni-temporal struggle, burst demonic forces; forces that Yeats’s readers had already seen in the first World War, the Easter Rising, and the Russian Revolution–not to mention the Book of Revelation.
But the Second Coming is not the rebirth of Jesus at all. Instead, it is bestial, clearly catastrophic. The "rough beast" is also vague, as the second stanza favors "a" over "the." A "vast image," it bursts into the poem as the second stanza (which should have been 6 lines) metastasizes into a sonnet all its own. And yet the horrible vision heralds a birth, destruction the compensatory price for the emergence of transcendent energies into the physical world.
"Can the Bestial find a Bethlehem in which it can be born again as the demonic? Can the mob be born again as a people, as a nation? That would truly be a second coming. It became known as fascism… The coming of that civilization is always a second coming, a return, and is also always coming, always revealing itself, in a second, in a series of repeated lightning flashes. Any time now it will happen; that is the temporality of Yeats’s work; and it will happen now because it has happened before; that is his chronology." -ed.
THE SECOND COMING
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 toward Bethlehem to be born?