Monday, 7 October 2019

WB Yeats and The Second Coming

"Throughout the whole absurd life I’ve lived, a dark wind had been rising toward me from somewhere deep in my future, across years that were still to come, and as it passed, this wind levelled whatever was offered to me at the time, in years no more real than the ones I was living."

                                         - Albert Camus

W.B. 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?

                                      - W.B. Yeats

News of Ciaran Carson's death came on the same day that I attended a discussion to mark the centenary of Yeats' poem, held by Irish poets and academics John MacAuliffe, Martina Evans, Alan Gillis and Colette Bryce. To mark his passing they read from his work, with the final poem of the evening being 'Fear', whose opening two lines I have always rather liked:

I fear the vast dimensions of eternity.

I fear the gap between the platform and the train.

What Carson is saying is that the human mind, being either incapable or unwilling to face up to the infinity and emptiness of time and space and our own insignificance in it as mere pawns of fate, chooses instead to focus on those smaller, more immediate risks which we think we can control. For me there is also an element of this in Yeats' much quoted (and much more quoted since June 2016) poem. The reason for the concept of a second coming (or its equivalent in other religions) is precisely to put some sort of end point on our current situation. But the poet is also saying that when the apocalypse comes - and it will come because it always has before - it won't be in one big bang, but rather in a series of mundane problems of the type we face every day anyway: the falcon will not hear the falconer for example. In other words, we may not recognise it when we see it; indeed, we may have already failed to recognise it.

The panellists wisely steered away from Yeats' peculiar love life, his spiritualism and his anti-democratic political views and focused on his craftsmanship. Whilst arising from the context of the end of the Great War, the struggle for Irish independence, the Bolshevik revolution etc, the poem is timeless and relevant to any age that fears and foresees an impending calamity; which, of course, has been the case for all civilisations throughout history and will continue to be so until man finally annihilates himself completely.

I won't attempt to summarise the wide-ranging discussion but it covered areas as diverse as the Riddles of the Sphinx (I didn't previously know that there were two), Brueghel's painting of Icarus (reproduced in this blog post about Auden's poem), and the band Uriah Heep (unlikely ever to be mentioned further in this blog unless I get round to writing a post about how I spent my 8,000th day alive), to the effect of becoming a father on middle-aged men (if you ask me the first ten years are the most difficult, and the subsequent ten years are the most difficult as well).

Uriah Heep

Let's finish with another Irish poet, again writing about a specific event, but with universal applicability:

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven's weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

                      - Seamus Heaney


  1. Funnily enough, my I wrote my MA thesis on 'The Second Coming'. I would like to have attended your discussion!

    1. Ha, fancy-Dan boasting and along comes a typo, just to put myself firmly in place!

  2. Then you have been very kind not to point out the errors in my analysis. I'm sure you'd have enjoyed the discussion even more than me.