Reasonable Violence: A Reading of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”

The Second Coming
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 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?

Comment:

1. The repetition of “turning” disorients us, and it is difficult to know at first whether the gyre is a spiral, or the motion is more or less spherical. Again, it seems like we’re “turning and turning,” until the falcon and falconer suddenly appear, and perhaps we are turned around completely at this point. We know the falcon brings forth the idea of Christ Himself (cf. Hopkins’ “The Windhover”). In Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” a brief glance at the form recalls the “gyres,” and while the poem explicitly mentions “larks,” there is also “imp,” a term from falconry where  feathers are grafted onto a trained bird [need to check whether the term was used this way exactly in Herbert’s time. Anyone have an OED?].

The more conventional point, made in the “Easter 1916” commentary, is that the falcon is spiraling out of control precisely because of the will of the falconer. He has let it go ever higher and higher, continue a path both started, to the point where communication falls apart.

From motion, we arrive at “things” falling apart, and with the “center” not holding, two things are “loosed:” anarchy and “the blood-dimmed tide.” Note the structure of the poem: the first stanza is one sentence. After that, there are four other sentences, the third of five total – the center – being “The Second Coming!” and the final one being a question. The “revelation” is in the revolution. “Loosed” is the Greek “luo,” “to loose” [“luo” isn’t the infinitive, I know] – it is how slaves would be freed. That same “luo” is in the word “analysis:” it is no stretch to say the mind conceives “mere anarchy,” and that motion destroys bodies of all sorts. There can be no proper rituals, no recognition of good in-and-of itself, in a world dominated by fear and the lust for power.

2.  “Passionate intensity” results in “troubles,” but for Aristotle “sight” was the sense most removed from “touch.” “Things” are absent in the second stanza. “Revelation” is followed by “the Second Coming” and then “The Second Coming!” – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’s triune nature are realized here, with a dark twist: it is precisely “Spiritus Mundi” that is the end of a world. From Nietzsche:

The dogmatists’ philosophy was, let us hope, only a promise across millennia – as astrology was in still earlier times when perhaps more work, money, acuteness, and patience were lavished in its service than for any real science so far: to astrology and its “supra-terrestrial” claims we owe the grand style of architecture in Asia and Egypt. It seems that all great things first have to bestride the earth in monstrous and frightening masks in order to inscribe themselves in the hearts of humanity with eternal demands: dogmatic philosophy was such a mask; for example, the Vedanta doctrine in Asia and Platonism in Europe.

– from the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann

The end of the world is the replacement of one Idea by another. The “beast” is the Sphinx, who destroys merely by asking questions. The “gaze blank and pitiless” tells us that many answers will not suffice, and time is growing short. Light burns: it will separate the darkness no matter what. And yet – we close with two sorts of darkness, “shadows of indignant desert birds” and the speaker’s vision collapsing. Two things have been “loosed:” there are falcons everywhere, whose motion may be forced but are not out of control. And it is possible to see enough.

The “indignant desert birds” may be a trap: there’s never a point where one can be convinced civilization is completely gone, perhaps, even if it is completely gone. “Stony sleep” tells us that the inanimate – the dead – have risen and are indeed going to fight the living. In the midst of dead fighting the living, past vs. future, it is not clear who we are, where we fit in. Rationality now depends on visions, and only after a course has been completed can we look back, judge, and see for ourselves what happened. The Second Coming is what happens after cataclysm, the reestablishment most certainly not worth the cost of descent into the abyss.

8 Comments

  1. “but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,”

    I see “stony sleep” as a reference to the creature that is part lion and part man (the Sphinx) who is stirred to wakefulness by “a rocking cradle” (my best guess is Christ but then it could also refer to the infant Beast (anti-Christ). I do need help here. Did Yeats intend to perform ambiguity or is it just me?

    The poem seems to be on the whole a “retelling” of a portion of Bible prophesy (specifically The Book of Revelation). Yeats is disturbed by events around him in the world. He represents a Catholic POV. But I’m bothered by his lack of specificity. Seems more like free floating anxiety has produced a poem that sounds beautiful but isn’t all that satisfying to our rationality.

  2. Addendem: for more on masks, take a look at the movie “The Dark Knight,” and ask why it is Batman can’t remove his mask and Joker (who represents some kind of questioning that will never stop/”truth” perhaps) is his mask (he wears “war paint,” one villain says).

    @ David: there are at least two schools of thought on the end of civilization type stuff. One is that we live in a perpetual republic, set up to keep order and give good people a chance to preserve what’s worthy. This was Machiavelli’s teaching: the idea was that Rome had most of the right ideas, but didn’t prevent its own decline into Empire because it didn’t the mechanisms of government seriously.

    Another school of thought is like Yeats’ – “all things fall and are built again.” This is more in line with the classics, where all governments, all civilizations, do reach an end and new orders are established.

    So yeah. I dunno.

    @ lilamae: Yeah, I don’t know what “rocking cradle” could mean. It probably is anti-Christ, given that something is heading to Bethlehem to be born.

  3. (I posted this comment on DIGG but it is not showing up in my profile).

    Perhaps there is a subtle contrast Yeats makes available to the reader; a falcon in a “widening gyre” is unfocused on it’s prey–only searching. (When it is focused it moves centripetally–inward–and drops) He seems to indicate that this “lack” of “conviction” is the perspective of the falcon who is flying unguided (he “cannot hear the falconer”).

    He contrasts that falcon’s path with a centrifugal explosion from the center–“things fall apart” “full of passionate intensity.” Later he furthers this imagery as the birds’ shadows reel–and darkness drops.

    He seems to be saying that the absence of any centripetal force (the widening/weakening spiral) is what allows the anarchy to be loosed. If we make the application to society–he is suggesting that both weak moral principles and silence by those who know better contribute to destruction.

    The sudden darkness then lulls the senses and conceals the evil.

    I know these images well–I have seen the falconers from Abu Dhabi hunt with their falcons in the desert. The poem is filled with powerful imagery on a potent topic. Thanks for sharing…

  4. Some of your correspondents show a great understanding of Yeats. In today’s world of ecological danger, how would Yeats’ poetry be evaluated? See my essay: “Yeats and Environmenal Ethics in a Time of Apocalypse” which discusses this poem “The Second Coming” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus” in this regard

  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(poem)
    The phrase “stony sleep” is drawn from the mythology of William Blake. In Blake’s poem, Urizen falls, unable to bear the battle in heaven he has provoked. To ward off the fiery wrath of his vengeful brother Eternals, he frames a rocky womb for himself: “But Urizen laid in a stony sleep / Unorganiz’d, rent from Eternity.” During this stony sleep, Urizen goes through seven ages of creation-birth as fallen man, until he emerges. This is the man who becomes the Sphinx of Egypt

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