At once, “The Second Coming” is overblown and understated. Every generation thinks if they do not act, the world will end. Opponents are framed in stark terms, as wreckers of tradition or obstacles to progress. Anger and confusion abound as people try to figure out their true allies, but the conditions for building trust are not optimal, if at all present.
Every generation is right. The world does not need to be at war, mass extinction need not immediately threaten. This planet has been a brutal, cruel hell for millions well after the Second World War, whether they live under totalitarianism or any number of other authoritarian or authoritarian-lite regimes. Issues affecting individuals do not merely contain larger issues, but the largest. For example: if you’re on death row for crimes you did not commit, should the state of world affairs concern you? Shouldn’t the world be concerned for you—with justice, proportionality, equitable treatment, innocence at stake? If it isn’t, isn’t everything over already?
When I turn to Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” I wonder how to grapple with its assertion of an apocalypse. I wonder not just how to deal with the vision it presents, but the very fact it presents a vision. Even in an age where it feels like all could be lost, the world a fireball of war and genocide in addition to being an actual fireball, I tend to focus on specifics of one problem, maybe two at most. Those of us who try to keep up with the news, I suspect, are the same way. We may be furious about Trump’s tax returns or the exorbitant costs of health care or abuses directed at detainees. We’re not quite focused on events which in and of themselves could seal our cosmic fate, such as the falcon cannot hear the falconer:
The Second Coming William Butler Yeats 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?
Yeats’ first stanza accelerates before suddenly stopping; to be more precise, it feels like being caught in a spiral-like motion and then dropped. Turning and turning will make some readers dizzy before any substantial details have been given. Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer takes that confusion and presents it as a product of no less than history and divinity. Yeats outlined the former in A Vision: there, I am told, history moves like gyres which you might envision overlapping. The end of one process, one spiraling motion creating a wide gyre, coincides with a small point creating the next one. I am certainly nowhere near an expert on Yeats and especially not on his ideas regarding history; I refer you to this site on Yeats’ A Vision, which I consulted to understand “gyre” better, if you want to know more.
What I do know is this: historical processes are not abstractions. They have foundations in events which affected real people and were subsequently turned into myths underpinning moral, institutional, and even psychic orders. Typically, we do not conceive eras ending in any way less than cataclysmic. The orders myths spawn result in one or a few parties consolidating power, and those parties push the myths themselves to ludicrous ends, creating room for them to pursue their naked advantage, lose their grip on reality, or both at once. Athens believed it could be a school for Greece, that its innovation and dynamism would show the greatness of its free citizenry. It ended up pursuing war against Sparta until it weakened all of the other Greek city-states, making them targets for acquisition. The Catholic Church was the only serious religious institution in Europe for a thousand years. When it proved itself utterly unwilling to accommodate demands for reform, the result was unending religious warfare and civil strife for the continent. You get the idea—how the gyre starts small, then widens, is intuitive.
Yeats goes further. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” an English devotional poem, shows what’s at stake. Herbert prays to God “O let me rise / As larks, harmoniously, / And sing this day thy victories: / Then shall the fall further the flight in me.” This is almost too perfect for thinking through what Yeats targets, for Herbert sees himself as a lark finding harmony and peace in singing God’s praises. He does not see the Fall of Man as a story of original sin condemning mankind as permanently evil, but he certainly sees his current condition as pathetic. The more evil confronted and overcome, the better Herbert is, the further the lark flies. He is not a complete human being without God; he believes that to even sing praise to God requires God’s help. “With thee / Let me combine, / And feel thy victory: / For, if I imp my wing on thine, / Affliction shall advance the flight in me.”
Herbert has a complete vision where everything in his life depends on God. Pain and suffering are a means to ask God for help. The holiness involved in struggling with sin or overcoming sin also requires Godly power. Singing His praises means finding peace, but if Herbert can embrace “affliction” more directly, he can be far closer to God Himself. The falcon cannot hear the falconer—Yeats sees this theological vision as finished. Its historical moment has passed. God and the bird he commanded no longer communicate. He sits at the bottom of the gyre, whereas the bird—having used His help?—goes higher and further than ever before. Myths fall apart because myths can only say so much, but people realize a near infinite amount of needs over the ages.
God and the world increasingly separate with predictable results: Things fall apart. The old order cannot be restored, hence the centre cannot hold. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, I think, should be treated as having immediacy. We feel the world is falling apart, an era is ending. Maybe this is the end of Christian Europe, as the Sphinx, holding and hiding the question “What is Man,” reveals itself in the second stanza. But what takes precedence over the end of any specific myth is the wars, the lawlessness, the demagogues to which we bear witness. It’s the actual events, inspiring terror in a witness, which lead to the thought that the old order and promises of harmony and peace cannot be taken seriously any longer.
The immediacy of the first stanza makes it work. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned—the first stanza accelerates, such that one might miss a “ceremony of innocence,” a baptism, being drowned in blood. That detail may be thought too dramatic. Still, it’s real enough, as there are mass graves being dug and filled as we speak. A world aflame makes perfect sense after a perfunctory look at how we live, and we can only manage a perfunctory look as things fall apart ever more rapidly. Immediacy and the process of acceleration reach a sudden end with the last lines of the first stanza: The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. All of a sudden, the gyre stops, as if one were to say “I want to know exactly why I lack conviction. I want to know why those who are terrible are so motivated.” The chaos of the times collapses into a moral question, one tormenting an individual.
Yeats’ apocalypse convinces because it is personal, all too personal. The end of an era is an inner turmoil as well as an external collapse. Things fall apart. What is left for the individual—and maybe the world—is a vision.
The vision is born of desperation. It may signal the advent of another age, it may be prophetic truth. Yeats starts with what he knows: a cold, frightened sweat. Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand—”surely” indicates the uncertainty, “the Second Coming” indicates the torment felt. Perhaps it would be better if the world ended right now, that all things ceased, rather than guess for any more length of time what these attendant horrors mean.
The desperation felt echoes in what Yeats tells us is the source of the vision. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out / When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight. He exclaims “The Second Coming,” surprising himself. He understood before that the world was in trouble. But is this it? The moment where everything will come to an end? This is an old thought, in a sense older than time itself. To believe, even for a moment, that this is the end is to be in dialogue with the prophets, with God made Man Himself. This is why the “vast image,” I think, is from “Spiritus Mundi”—by implication, he is asking what the spirit of the world actually is. What exactly is this moment? What led us here and why?
Yeats’ vision holds far more detail than his implicit invocation of God in the first stanza (“falconer”). He provides a location, physical description, facial description, and movement of a monster: 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. We can identify the monster as the Sphinx, whose riddle is “What is man?” The Sphinx hides the riddle, of course, because it is a monster. Similarly, all constitutions, with fairly strong opinions about “what is man” which are backed up by deadly force, do not typically countenance terribly serious discussions of the principles underlying them. We need not say anything about religion. If one takes “What is Man?” to its utmost, it not only calls for theoretical reflection but immediate action. If you truly discover who you ought to be, you must act on it. An age will end at great cost and another will be born at great cost.
Again, the question is hiding. This is critical: people are trying to answer the question to its utmost without realizing what they’re doing. They’re creating titanic orders and monuments and mass graves all at once in its service. Yeats’ details about the Sphinx reveal it to be an extension of the first stanza. He repeats its location, “desert:” the violence which kills has left a barren land. God created by parting the waters, but there is not a drop to be found. He mentions its “lion” body, which can only speak to violence and pride. It cannot attempt the fully human despite a human head. “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” references both the centre cannot hold and the worst are full of passionate intensity. The sun has ceased being a source of life and is only an energy of death. It is no longer a “centre.” In like manner, society has given way, and men’s purposes are blank and pitiless. Without any semblance of a moral order, how can trust even be conceived? Recall that they do not know they act in the service of “what is man” even operating under organization. Finally, there’s the motion of the beast, slow but oblivious. It pays no attention to the life around it, the “indignant desert birds.”
It just marches, as if it will become something. It is pure resentment. The darkness drops again; but now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle—before the present, collapsing era, there were other modes and orders. The Sphinx itself we know from Ancient Greece. Whatever those modes and orders were, they were eclipsed—not completed—by Christianity. With the end of the age coming, one could say the older questions, the older concerns are back. Of course, they are not back alone. They are in a monstrous guise, having a monstrous effect on the lives of others. They are only what is recognizable in the midst of chaos.
One might say a monster holding a permanent question, i.e. “What is Man,” meeting Christianity, merely signifies the end of the Christian era. But that does not do justice to the world Yeats has painted. The world burns: And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? The moment creating the next era can be described as the present era exhausting itself, revealing unknowingly the power of the era previous. But the future? That may be none of the above. The Sphinx is a monster which will give birth to a god. This myth hasn’t been written yet. All we know is that what is present and previous is rearranging, realigning. We see, but we’re caught in the midst of it. We can only witness.