There are few poems in the English language as bone-chilling as WB Yeats’ “The Second Coming”. This year marks the century anniversary of a poem that captivated and terrified the modern world. One needn’t be familiar with Yeats’ Irish nationalism, Theosophical inclinations, or his occultism to gain entrance into his imagistic rendering of the collapse of Christian society in Europe in the wake of World War I. It would be much easier to dismiss his surreal vision as a byproduct of the historical catastrophe of the Great War if it were not so prophetically pertinent to the world we inhabit today. Before exploring the dynamics of social contagion and collapse and the eventual coalescence into a new and darker order, here is the text of the poem in full:
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?
William Butler Yeats – 1919
It should be no surprise to my readers that my affinities lie with modernists like TS Eliot and to a growing degree WH Auden. However, Yeats is an inescapable monster capable of shattering beauty, and his poetry should not be ignored. If Eliot is the Christian prophet of modernism, Yeats is the occultist, if not pagan prophet of the same.
There is much to be said about Yeats’ poem, and I hope to revisit this more in the future, but for now I offer a simple reflection: As it was in the period leading up to World War I, so it is today. I explore this premise in great detail in my book The Damned May Enter. We live in a time of tremendous global upheaval where ascendant powers in Eurasia are uniting in their challenge of Western, US-lead global hegemony. At the same time, Western societies are in a state of ever increasing crisis as pressure at the peripheries (political, cultural, and economic) are exposing institutional disintegration at the heart of our socio-political arrangement.
Perhaps Yeats foresaw the end of the modern story, and certainly the end of the Christian story (here I depart from Yeats, but his point is well taken) in “The Second Coming”. But, I do agree that something dark and inexorable lies at the end of modernity. Just as all great eras spend their energies and collapse into chaos, from the shocking end of the Bronze Age societies of the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean, Classical Antiquity, and Medieval society, so also Modernity is entering into its final death spiral. The only difference, at the end of the day between Yeats outlook and my own, is that the contagion of chaos that typifies our time is that the Rough Beast is indeed coming, but the story ends in the final victory of the return of Christ but not without a conflagration that might very well look like the prophetic insight Yeats invites his readers to consider.