The Second Coming is upon us!
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.
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
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
Wind 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?
This poem by William Butler Yeats caught my attention when I first read it because of the violent imagery used and the grand scale that it implies; ‘the end of the world’ vibe is pretty clear here.
But this isn’t any ordinary apocalyptic rant about how the end is near and how we should all fear our ultimate demise, this is a seemingly thought through approach to the topic.
There are of course the explicit references to “revelation” and the concept of a “Second Coming” which is Yeats suggesting that the human race has reached a point of utter turmoil and that surely, Jesus will return to Earth again and start a new era in human history.
The poem was published in 1920, just after the Great War and Bolshevik revolution had happened, so from this perspective the content is no surprise. But Yeats uses more than this to convey the idea of chaos.
The poem is written in iambic pentameter but this is not set, as the meter is often broken. “When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi” seems more like free verse if anything and his rhyming scheme is not regular either, with some coincidental rhymes which add to the idea of confusion: “the head of a man… pitiless as the sun”. The form therefore suggests a degree of disorder.
There are a number of masculine sounding words with sharp syllables used in the poem which convey the idea of violence and strength, which compared with more gentle lines are highlighted as quite a contrast: “rocking”, “a gaze blank”.
The imagery clearly evidences the dystopian world that Yeats is trying to convey to his reader, for example: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed… the ceremony of innocence is drowned”. The “turning gyre” mentioned in line 1 is a recurring image used in Yeats’ work and again can be seen to represent the idea of spiraling out of control. The language also implies a large scale apocalypse as it talks about mere anarchy being loosed on the world and “twenty centuries of stony sleep”, both suggesting a grand scale.
This poem is often considered one that epitomises Modernist poetry. The setting of a wasteland is typical of that literary era and is seen repeated in a number of other writers’ works such as in TS Eliot’s aptly named ‘The Wasteland’.
The philosophical thinking behind this poem can be explored further in Yeats’ book ‘The Vision’. Worth a read I’m sure!
Photograph created by Sarah Kirby using a Canon PowerShot A400 digital camera, taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sphinx.jpg