Friday, January 17, 2014

"The Second Coming" -- an Analysis

The Second Coming

 by W. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre[1]
The falcon cannot hear the falconer[2];
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold[3];
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world[4],
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned[5];
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.[6]

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.[7]
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight[8]: 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.[9]
The darkness drops again[10]; 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?[11]

[1] A gyre, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “spiral” or a “vortex.” The oral Irish culture, of which Yeats and his companions knew so much and with which they were so familiar, is a culture that sees time unfolding not in a straight line, not in a linear, unidirectional way, from a past which recedes into the distance behind us to a future which extends infinitely before us; this linear, uni-directional view is characteristic of literate, not oral cultures. Oral folk see time as a cycle where “everything old is new again,” and “what goes around, comes around.” Cyclical time is the time of birth, development, maturity, degeneration, death, and renewal, a constantly repeating and renewing process that reflects nature and the human experience. So I believe that Yeats here is hinting at our approach to the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new cycle (also borne out, I think, by the title “the second coming,” which not only indicates a renewal but also, in the Christian sense, the apocalyptic vision of “the end of days” and the establishment of the Kingdom of God – except, as we shall see, Yeats has something quite different in mind than the Kingdom of God). The image of the gyre also calls to mind Edgar Allen Poe’s destructive and deadly maelstrom (“Descent into the Maelstrom”): a gyre, like life itself, is powerful and dangerous and deadly and we don’t come out of it alive. But, if we keep our wits about us, the gyre is also beautiful. But as we’ll see, Yeats is suggesting that we’re no longer (in 1919 when he wrote this) keeping our wits about us.
[2] The gyre – spiral, vortex, maelstrom – symbolizes chaos. We are in a situation of chaos. Chaos is a natural function of the material world: entropy. The natural order of the universe is disorder. It is only through reason and the rational exertion of energy that we create and maintain order in the world. This idea is reflected in information theory; the entropy in a communication system (as in any system) yields “noise,” which is actually anything that interferes with the process of transmission/reception of messages. The “widening gyre” is an environment of entropy, chaos, noise and uncertainty. The falcon – bred, trained and nurtured by the falconer – no longer follows his master’s commands. He can’t hear him, can’t understand what he wants. This is a statement of existential anxiety, of a zeitgeist of fear and uncertainty.
[3] Again, entropy: human history is descending into the maelstrom, the ordered universe is coming undone, partnerships unravel, extreme views abound, cooperation becomes difficult if not impossible. No one is listening to anyone else.
[4] “Mere anarchy” has always struck me as a strange sort of phrase. Not being an anarchist myself, I’ve always considered anarchy to be a pretty bad thing. But I believe that Yeats is saying here: “Look at the mess this world is in. 37 million people just died in WWI. Nations are destitute. Revolutions (in Russia, in Yeats’s own Ireland) are disrupting the normal cyclical flow of life. But you think this is bad? This is mere anarchy. What awaits us in the future is even worse.” We’ll soon look back, Yeats is saying, to a time when “mere anarchy” was humankind’s biggest problem.
[5] The “ceremony of innocence” is, of course, the Christian rite of baptism, the ritual washing away of original sin, the sin of Adam, the sin common to all humankind by virtue of its refusal to conform human will to Divine will. This “ceremony of innocence” is now, Yeats tells us, drowned in the “blood-dimmed tide,” a powerful image that evokes the massive destruction and wanton murder of the still-young 20th century. There can be no more Divine forgiveness as humanity has fouled even the cleansing waters of nature with the gore of human hatred and ignorance (in an environment of chaos and failed communication such as Yeats describes here, what else could prevail but hatred and ignorance?).
[6] Hopelessness and despair are the legacy of the immediate past bestowed upon the few who still believe humans can do better and be better; they believe in the potential for human good, for human improvement, somewhere deep in their hearts, but they’ve lost all hope that they’ll ever see it. I’ve always thought Yeats was referring to himself in this part of the poem; descendant of an Anglican cleric, Yeats all but abandoned Christianity but remained a fervent seeker of spiritual realities. Meanwhile, the progeny of the immediate past – the product of warfare and dissolution, denizens of a hellish world, children of the gyre – know better than to hope fruitlessly for the improvement of the species and are certain only of themselves, their own needs, their own desires, their own feathered nests. As hope based on the Enlightenment concept of rational progress gives way to disappointment, frustration, complacency, and apathy, an irrational and entirely emotion self-interest becomes the dominant human ideology. Perhaps Yeats is suggesting – as I believe he is – that in its “passionate intensity” it has even become the new religion.
[7] The first eight lines of this poem are prophetic; in the sense that a true prophet is not the person who sees the future, but the one who sees the present more clearly than the rest of us. Yeats is describing the nightmare world we humans inhabit in the year 1919 and pointing out the ugliness of its reality. The next fourteen lines are also prophetic, but in a different way. They are, again, apocalyptic in that they reveal to us what lies ahead. And, as I pointed out before, Yeats’s use of the phrase “the Second Coming” (capitalized for emphasis) evokes the book of Revelations in the New Testament and the second coming of Christ. But this is a different sort of prophet in the second part of this poem than we read in the first part. While the first eight lines are descriptive and emphatic, the next fourteen are tenuous, fearful, and uncertain. The poet does not know what lies ahead, but he fears what he imagines to lie ahead.
[8] “The Second Coming!” An emphatic statement. All of what we once called “Christendom” knows the meaning of this phrase. It was once a phrase imbued with hope; of salvation, of perfection, of justice, of judgment, of eternal reward. But “hardly are those words out” of the poets mouth when he is struck with the reality he has only finished describing, of the reality of life in the “widening gyre.” And he cannot ignore the image of that Spiritus Mundi – the spirit of the world, the material worldview, the worldview of a people awash in images but bereft of vision (this is the beginning of the age of the image, the graphic revolution, of propaganda and advertising, of the mass marketing of mass commodities). This Spiritus Mundi overwhelms the poet just as the dominance of images overwhelms the peoples’ vision (I’m always reminded, when reading this poem, of the Old Testament book of Proverbs, 29:16: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”).
[9] How’s that for an image? It’s horrible. It’s frightening. It’s mythic. “A shape with lion body and the head of a man…” It is pagan mythology, this sphinx-like being, this nightmare amalgam of human and animal, of civilization and uncivilized nature, of reason and passion. Yeats sees a lion – the “king of the beasts” – crowned with the head of a human – the human intellect? Pure physicality ruled by pure reason. But this is not the human intellect as we once viewed it, the human intellect of Enlightenment humanism. This is a calculating intellect, an intellect devoid of compassion, indifferent to human suffering, “blank and pitiless.” It’s irrational. It is atavistic. It is a (cyclical?) return to pre-religious superstition, an embrace of magic and demons, a denial of monotheism, a rejection of the personal relationship with God shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It runs parallel to the (cyclical?) abandonment of hope based on (linear) rational progress. And above all the while circle the “indignant desert birds,” the vultures turning and turning in the widening gyre, waiting for imminent death.
[10] This is another reference to the cyclical conception of time common to oral (non-literate) cultures. It is also a marker in that cycle, for the poet is telling us we are reentering a cycle of darkness, i.e., ignorance.
[11] This is the payoff of “The Second Coming.” This sphinx-like creature is not the problem, not what the poet fears. It is, remember, nothing more than “a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi,” a bogeyman, a nightmare image, the demon that lives in the closet or under our beds as children, our imaginations playing tricks on us. “Twenty centuries of stony sleep,” two thousand years of Christianity, of a placebo that calms us, distracts us from our imperfect natures, and allows us to sleep peacefully – these twenty centuries of stony sleep are disturbed by “a rocking cradle.” It is whoever inhabits – or will soon inhabit – this rocking cradle that we should fear. Whoever it is whose cradle is being prepared has disturbed our complacency, awakened our fears, and driven this primitive, atavistic sphinx-monster – predatory animal driven by compassionless, calculating intellect – into our nightmares. “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” We don’t know. And that makes its imminent arrival even more frightening.
So, what does it all mean? Is it a “religious” poem? I don’t think so, no. Yeats was not religious in that sense, despite his ancestry. He dabbled in Theosophy, attended séances, and befriended spiritualists, but he was not “religious” in the common sense of the term.
It is clearly a fearful and anxious poem, perhaps a cynical poem, certainly far from a hopeful poem. Yeats seems to have lost hope in humanity. As a younger man before World War I, Yeats had been something of an idealist and was a central, driving force in the so-called “Gaelic Revival” in Ireland. Yeats saw Gaelic-Irish culture as being less refined and, therefore, more “pure” and “authentic” than English culture, and his poetry and plays highlight the nobility and heroism of the ancient mythic figures of Cuchullain, Finn MacCumhall, Oisin, and Mebd. Bourgeois English and Anglo-Irish culture lacked conviction (beyond commerce and profit); ancient Irish folk culture had a passionate intensity to it. And Yeats championed that culture and brought it to the people with the same sort of passionate intensity. Yeats’s work – along with the work in general of the Gaelic Revival – was also a source of passionately intense inspiration for the Irish revolutionary movement. He later worried (in his 1938 poem “The Man and the Echo”) “Did that play of mine (“Cathleen Ni Houlihan”) send out certain men the English shot?”
By 1919, too, Yeats had suffered the loss of a romantic dream. As a young man he pursued the affections of Maud Gonne, another leading Anglo-Irish figure of the Gaelic Revival. He was rebuffed by her on many occasions (although they remained friends and many – myself included – believe he never surrendered his love for her) because he lacked sufficient revolutionary fervor and finally married George Hyde Lees in 1917. There was a lot of youthful idealism in Yeats’s life that he saw crushed by the spiritus mundi.
As banal as this sounds, I believe Yeats was (as we say colloquially today) “in a bad place” when he wrote “The Second Coming.” He was an aristocrat who, as a youth, turned his back on (English) aristocratic manners and aligned himself with the common folk. Yet he hated Marxism and could never muster a lot of sympathy for the plight of the proletariat. He was a romantic who had his heart broken and settled, in his marriage, for second best. He was an idealist who eventually saw all his ideals destroyed by the ugly realities of the 20th century. And he had only just witnessed millions of lives being destroyed in a war like no one had ever seen before.
As popular as “The Second Coming” has become since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I don’t think Yeats was trying to write a political poem, either. It is nothing more than the mark of good art that people found so many parallels between Yeats’s poem and the Iraq war.
If there’s any real identifiable target of criticism in Yeats’s “The Second Coming” I would say it is the moral bankruptcy of commercialized mass culture and the banality of commoditized information. He makes no direct references to either culture or media, to be sure, but even a cursory knowledge of 20th century history would suggest Yeats would not be blind to the effects of media on culture. The radiotelegraph brought news of the sinking of the Titanic to the world in 1912. Broadcasts of music and speech were common by 1919. Propaganda had driven all sides of the conflict in World War I. “Mass production demands the education of the masses,” said Edward A. Filene, scion of the Boston department store empire, in 1919. “The masses must learn to behave like human beings in a mass production world.”  Walter Lippmann published “Public Opinion” in only 1922 (“When all think alike, then no one is really thinking…”) and Edward Bernays “Propaganda” in 1927 (“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country…”).
This is my and only my opinion, but I believe that William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” is an expression of his despair over the decline of transcendent values in the new century, the decline of a compassionate humanism founded on and supported by those values, and the loss of his own idealism.


Anonymous said...

This is really good stuff. Putting into words so succinctly what I know and am experiencing about the Life process takes a whole lot of awareness. A tip of the hat from one recovering Irish catholic to another. TS1

Peter K Fallon, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, TS1. Your words are generous and appreciated. For the record, I believe all Catholics are recovering ones, and so I count myself among them. But I also am a practicing Catholic, and intend to keep practicing until I get it right. Our new Pontiff is encouraging me.