Poetry 47: The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Topsell-manticore-engraving

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 towards Bethlehem to be born?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

10 thoughts on “Poetry 47: The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

  1. I’m intrigued to know what made you post this one, Barry?

    Yeats is one of my favourite poets, and I like both his early poems about Irish mythology and the later ones where he distils his personal experience of the political chaos that engulfed Ireland in the early twentieth century. ‘Meditations on Civil War’ and ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ are some of my favourites. He’s a very singular poetic voice and very much himself. However, he was also philosophically pretty batty: he was a Platonist, went in for automatic writing, and had an elaborate theory of gyres. The poems where his theories take over tend to be the ones I relate to least, and this is one of them.

    I suppose one could relate to it as combining the Shadow and God archetypes, expressing our terror at future events in which things go beyond our control, and drawing on Biblical imagery from the book of Revelation and the vision of Ezekiel. But it also seems to me an example of Yeats being over-portentous and prophetically dogmatic. He appears to be heralding a new age – a disturbing age but one that reaches the inner soul of things – without even really telling us what this new age signifies or how we should relate to it. There seems to be a belief in discontinuity behind it – i.e. in sudden dramatic solutions – which seems to me the most damaging aspect of apocalyptic beliefs, if we turn them into beliefs rather than merely appreciating them as meanings. I’d like to appreciate this one just on an archetypal level, but in this case find the beliefs intrusive and not to my taste.

  2. Hi Barry,
    I wanted to learn more about this poem and so I looked at Utube clips on the subject. I have probably left out or misinterpreted some meanings, but here is my attempt.
    Yeats believed in symbolism which can take a reader to a place they did not know they were being taken, it can arouse unconscious thoughts; the first symbol is ‘the second coming’ I immediately thought of the religious meaning but Yeats was not, he was one of the Transcendalists, he believed in the occult, this poem was published in the Dial, their journal, then in a liberal political magazine and on to a modernist publication in 1920. His ‘turning and turning’ an interesting symbol of confusion perhaps, which referred to the stairs of a tower at the top of which was his office, he had restored an old castle in Ireland, he was Irish. Another symbol is the gyre, a cone shape which Yeats saw as a representation of the soul and civilisation, and there is a wheel with twenty eight spokes and every soul and civilisation has to go through all the spokes or phases to reach the goal, sorry I am not clear about this. The ‘centre cannot hold’ is the moral centre, everything around is falling down, a reference to the Russian Revolution and WW1 that followed soon after, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed’ innocence is drowned, only the loudest win. The ‘Spiritus Mundi’ is the store of images, as Jung writes it is the collective unconscious, not in a mystical sense but collective thought that can be innate. And the Jews thought that the Messiah would be born in Bethleham, which he refers to, but it is not to Jesus.

  3. Hi Robert and Norma

    Elliot Aronson brought it to my attention in his podcast when he drew a comparison with the line ‘the centre cannot hold’ and the messy, chaotic nature of the Middle Way. I like that line too.

    I also found the shadow imagery interesting. The idea that the ‘Bethlehem to be born’ Messiah / Truth bringer’ is not only seen in a positive light but could also be likened to a rough beast. This made me think of the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo’s saying ‘Alongside every truth lies the shadow of violence’and that we should be wary of someone who has all the answers.

    1. Hi Robert, Norma and Barry!

      Your question to Barry, Robert, made me jump, because I was about to suggest to him that he include this poem by Yeats in his poetry blog. It has haunted me since I was a young man. It’s how I often feel. I admit that the imagery is bizarre, but it often resonates with my experience e.g. the ‘blood-dimmed tide’ reminds me of what happens when you wash blood off your hands in a bowl of water, the water is ‘blood-dimmed’: the novel conjunction of those two words is expressly evocative of its appearance.

      My favourite lines, however, are about how “the best lack all conviction” and how “the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

      For many years this apparent contradiction seemed to define me, although I couldn’t say why. But now I begin to see that there is an interpretation, similar to the philosophy of Pyrrho, and the Middle Way, that life is easier and better if I can give up that element of my own passionate intensity that is driven by the terror of being wrong, and fuelled by the desperate conviction that I am right……about so many things, including ‘what and who I am’.

      The fruits of this re-arrangement is that I am friendlier, kinder, and more tranquil. Maybe it’s the medication, but something is changing for the better.

      1. Hi Barry, Robert and Peter,
        Peter, I don’t know about you but I think that the passage of years has contributed to a feeling that I can let go of unimportant stuff and also be less sure of things that I thought I knew, I no longer feel driven to achieve this or that goal, although I still enjoy the learning experience.
        This poem is apt today, I’m thinking of the ebola virus and the effect it has on those afflicted, the bleeding and painful death happening while a war rages on around them in West Africa and beyond.

        1. Dear Norma, I thank you for your thoughts, as usual directed to the suffering of others and not as self-preoccupied as I.

          I’m elderly, not perhaps as elderly as you, and sometimes I feel that I have never grown up and matured. Perhaps this is why “Turning and turning in the widening gyre….” has so much meaning for me, and why I also feel that, like the falcon, I no longer hear the call of the falconer, that I might return to him, and find brief refuge as he pulls the little hood over my eyes, and brushes my feathers with his gloved hand.

          But now I have some hope. I know I often use these pages to chronicle my personal ups and downs. Sometimes I almost despise myself. It may sicken some people to hear my bleatings, I don’t know.

          I have no solutions to the wars that rage, although I see no solution to conflict in the description of our ‘enemies’ as inhuman monsters, mindless thugs etc. I remember similar words were used to describe the EOKA Cypriot freedom fighters in the 1950s, the Mau Mau fighters in pre-independence Kenya, the Vietcong in Asia etc. Nothing seems to change, except the bombing and industrial-scale slaughter goes on and on, and ‘in our name’.

          My strategy now is to work to clean up my own act, and to do what little I can to contribute to the well-being of people whose lives I can still touch with kindness and, sometimes, with good humour.

          I know you and others wish me well in that endeavour.

          Peter

          1. Hi Peter,
            Thank you for your kind comments not deserved because I spent lost years wrapped up in my own problems, emotionally unavailable to those who needed me, that waste has made the present extra precious. The human condition is one of struggle, no wonder that some of us sink under water at times. I think talking to others willing to listen helps sort out thoughts.

  4. Judging by the other comments, this poem obviously has some more profound meanings for others than it does for me, but I wonder if those meanings are mainly responses to particular lines rather than the poem as a whole. I must admit that the poem has some highly resonant lines, and like catchy Beatles song lyrics, they’re of a kind that may surface in my mind unbidden without any necessary relationship to the thing as a whole.

    1. This discussion seems to highlight, what I take to be one of the advantages of Middle Way Philosophy? Perhaps the poem as a whole is representative of Yeats’ batty, occultish philosophy, but if we approach it with integrative and incremental care then we can discover individual lines that are enjoyable and of use? And even as a whole, if one does not agree with the premise, can’t it just be enjoyed for its playful imagery and artistic structure? As long as too many people don’t take it seriously then it is not a problem; obviously if a significant number of people start practising occultism, as a result of reading this poem, then this might be an issue.

      Rich

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