Saturday, November 21, 2015
THE SECOND COMING
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
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: a waste of desert sand;
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
Wind 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?
The Second Coming was written in 1919 in the aftermath
of the first World War. The above version of the poem is
as it was published in the edition of Michael Robartes and
the Dancer dated 1920 (there are numerous other
versions of the poem).
When I first read this famous poem many, many years ago, I did not fully understand it. Of course, it pointed to a time of chaos and destruction, but such an era seemed quite remote in the l950's. Now, however, the message contained in the poem seems more clear.
Yeats was an occultist and a visionary. The central image of the poem--the threatening beast--is taken from an inner vision he experienced. Yeats felt that history runs in cycles, and that the time is near for a reversal from a Christian and more rational as well as a more tolerant age to one of cruelty and chaos.
The opening uses the image of the falcon who fails to return to the arm of the falconer to represent how things are out of balance in today's world with the result that "The center does not hold." Indeed, the world appears to be falling apart at all levels.
The next lines seem to describe our own time, one of anarchy (no controlling authority or belief) and chaos (evident everywhere in the world today). We live an era of bloodshed and destruction (the blood dimmed tide), and all sense of innocence is lost in the violence taking place everywhere. Many people of developed mind have lost all hope for the future (the best lack all conviction) and the worst of humanity are controlled by adherence to extreme views, which they embrace with a "passionate intensity" so strong they are willing to die or kill others for their beliefs.
Yeats now refers to a "Second Coming," but this is not the second coming of Christ to earth as many have predicted. Instead, it is the direct opposite, as captured in the image of the beast which follows. Yeats says this image derives from "anima mundi" (the world soul, where all images and thoughts abide and which the developed mystic can draw forth in a prophetic state.)
Yeats locates his image in "a waste of desert sand," clearly a reference to the Middle East, with its vast deserts. At the time of my earlier reading, the Middle East was seldom given much attention, and it certainly was not seen as a likely birthplace of universal horror. Today the reference is clear. The Middle East is the center of the current rebirth of universal terror. This creature, with a gaze as "blank and pitiless as the sun," is slowly moving toward Bethlehem to be born in this terrible "second coming."
The description of his gaze clearly describes the faces of the terrorists of today, who kill wantonly, but who look on their deeds with eyes "as blank and pitiless of the sun," as if they were no longer human.
The reference to "twenty centuries of stony sleep" is not clear to me, unless it means that the sleeping world lacked all awareness of the nightmare about to erupt some 2,000 years after the birth of Christ.
The following line is a puzzle to me, since I don't think the beast would have been placed in a "rocking cradle." Perhaps the beast (the embodiment of horror) is to be born in human form, one who will orchestrate the universal destruction to come. Perhaps it simply means that twenty centuries of the Christian era finally led to the "nightmare" of the age of terror which humanity was oblivious to in the preceding centuries.
At one time, I read closely in Yeats' book called "A Vision." In this book he goes into great detail about the cycles of history, and I gathered that the next great shift from one era to the next would be coming in about the year 2025. Thus for many years I have been more or less expecting this world changing event to occur and now it appears to be happening.
However, I hold out a vision of hope in the midst of the despair. I have also long felt that massive spiritual awakening (especially through kundalini) would occur at this time when the outer structures of society were collapsing, bringing a major transition as a product of the crisis. I still think this universal transformation can occur, and carry us into the next stage of human evolution.