Saturday, August 4, 2012

I read The Second Coming

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
A recent visit to W B Yeats's grave has inspired me to record this reading of his poem The Second Coming.  In this poem written in the aftermath of the First World War, history’s pattern seems to be breaking up: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.  Yeats foretells a new cosmic revelation, a destructive god arriving in a ghastly parody of Christ’s coming again to the Earth.


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?

There are several versions of this poem. This is the one I did at school for A-level.  

A few years ago the National Library in Dublin displayed some of Yeats’s manuscripts, and The Second Coming was one of them. You could see where in the poem's last line, Yeats originally had “Marches”, crossed out, with “Slouches” written in its place.  One word changes everything.

Was Yeats a detestable reactionary? Perhaps. Does the text refer to the Russian Revolution of 1917, and is this poem Yeats taking the side of the counter-revolutionaries? Maybe. Does any of this matter? No. 

A note about the beast.  This is an allusion to the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible: "And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority."   I have more extensive quotes if you need them.

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