Yeats, the Second Coming and today

by Greg Stone

In 1919 William Butler Yeats wrote:

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?

Yeats was responding to a specific conflict in Ireland when he wrote this, but his words could not be more prophetic today. From my perspective, the "centre cannot hold" and is not holding right now. Terrorism is anarchy - and our response the "blood-dimmed tide." Innocence has been drowned, the best do lack all conviction, and the worst) are full of "passionate intensity."

Surely some revelation is at hand? But what?

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Have we turned loose forces we cannot control - forces both at home and abroad? Can we whistle the falcon down, or has he gone to hunt as he likes? (You might think of the falcon in terms of the Russian's old buddies that we know today as the Northern Alliance - or in terms of an attorney general who sounds more and more like Dr. Strangelove every day.)

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

"Mere anarchy?" Well, there wasn't anything that was "mere" about the terrorists attack on the World Trade Center - but it was anarchy. A criminal act that we choose to interpret as an act of war. It was not the act of a foreign nation ( like the attack on Pearl Harbor) but of a dissatisfied group that has no nation. And what of the anthrax attacks? Are they from a group? A nation? An individual? Who's responsible? How little does it take to cause incredible pain and suffering? Take your pick. The days of big budget terrorism are numbered - a little work in the wrong lab and a few bucks for postage and you can kill people and shut down Congress. For even less you can scare the hell out of New Bedford high school - our own teenagers toy with the monstrous notion of wanton killing. What have we let out of the bottle, fed by fear, hate, and loathing?

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

"Blood-dimmed tide" it is, and all wrapped up in red, white, and blue - arising out of the ashes and tears of September 11. Where did the events start that brought us to September 11? Was it on July 3, 1979 when President Carter
signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet
regime in Afghanistan? We taunted the Soviets into their own Vietnam, arming and training the same Islamic militants who are haunting us today. In the context of each moment our actions are understandable, event rational, but over the sweep of time the consequences can be terrible and the drowning of innocence is only the beginning.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
.

Well, it's hard to say who the "best" are these days, though among current leaders Colin Powell seems to fit this category and Donald Rumsfeld has some surprisingly honest moments. As to the "worst" - certainly Osama bin Laden and some of his Taliban buddies qualify for being filled with "passionate intensity" of the worst kind. In my book so do folks like Ashcroft and Bush. Both come across as crusaders and if you've read your history - Bush obviously hasn't - we can not take pride what was done in those crusades.

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
.

And what is this shape? Or who? Hussein? bin Laden? Arafat? And are those "shadows of the indignant desert birds" our planes and helicopters? I see birds of prey at best, but more likely vultures feeding on carrion - the tattered remnants of a once hopeful, now battered people.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

And what a chilling question, for in this season of "peace on earth, good will toward men," what is being born in Bethlehem today is not the Christ child, but some horrible beast and are not we the midwives, assisting at its awful birth? Or do we really believe God favors killing and has elected us to decide who should live and who should die?

Comments - email to: gstone@giveyoujoy.net

Last updated December 3, 2001

 

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While thinking about what I wanted to write, bits and pieces of "The Second Coming" crept into my mind. In researching it on the Web I found an interesting site that showed I was hardly the first to see this poem in this context.

A Unitarian pastor in Atlanta made it the focus of a sermon which can be found here.