I posted William Butler Yeats’ best known poem, The Second Coming five years ago. Its time has come round again. Yeats (1865-1939), one of our greatest English language poets, had an abiding interest in the mythology and folklore of his native Ireland.
He was also a member of The Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to western esotericism. The Golden Dawn developed a series of visualizations and meditations designed to awaken subtle areas of consciousness. Yeats presented The Second Coming as a breakthrough of visionary experience, framed within his personal theory of “gyres,” or cycles of time, analogous to the eastern idea of “yugas,” or ages.
Written in 1919 and published in 1921 The Second Coming was naturally read at the time as a reaction to the horrors of World War I. But the archetypal imagery Yeats brought up from the depths cuts deeper than specific personal or historical issues. It speaks as clearly to our own times, as if the forces that break and end eras and empires and civilizations are not exhausted in a decade or two. And though we can all identify our own Rough Beasts du jour, that doesn’t answer the key question of where the forces that drive such men to loose the blood-dimmed tide may come from…
The Second Coming
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?