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
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was one of the most brilliant poets of the 20th century, whose conceptual and stylistic influence extends far beyond the shores of his native Ireland. For decades his poems have been an ever-present fixture in Irish second-level Leaving and Junior Certificate English examination papers, with poems mainly drawn from his early period (1880s and 1890s).
These poems are in the main thematically concerned with Irish myth and legend such as ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’ or a luscious pastoral like ‘The Lake Isle of Inishfree’. What is usually eschewed in any academic discussion of Yeats, at least at second level, is the most unusual and challenging aspect of his life and its influence on his work, namely his immersion and participation in the occult world of his time. ‘The Second Coming’ is a poem born of the poets forays into the depths of this potent and often dangerous reservoir of imagery and emotion, a realm not entered willingly or knowingly by the lion’s share of humanity.
Early in his career in 1892 Yeats wrote: "If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write."
This period, now known as the “fin de siècle” was a time of great growth of interest in occult and esoteric concepts. It was the century’s end and at such times there is often signs of what can be termed “decadence” in the sense of the word as it pertains to deviations from mainstream thinking. It was his interest in the writings of prominent Theosophists of the time such as Madame Blavatsky that led him to form the Hermetic Society in Dublin, and he presided over its first meeting in June 1885. Five years later he would join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London, founded primarily by Freemasons, which included among its members notorious personages such as Aliester Crowley. The society was dedicated to the study and practise of ritualistic magic. Yeats was initiated into the temple of Isis Urania and his magical motto was: “Demon Est Deus Inversus” – the Demon Is the Other Side of God. A more refined definition might be to say that what seems to be contraries or opposites are in fact fused together, are interdependent. It was his fascination with, and belief in things unseen or seemingly obscured from the five senses that would provide a constant stream of poetic stimulation, imagery and metaphor for him to draw on.
This aspect of Yeats’ esoteric philosophy, which was syncretic and relied on the combining of disparate magical and spiritual traditions, would give rise to his practise of occult foreknowledge, popularly termed clairvoyance. Through this clairvoyance it is possible to glimpse the future and bring it into existence; in effect the future is willed into existence. To quote Yeats on this topic: “Whatever we build in the imagination will accomplish itself in the circumstances of our lives.” Speculation on what Yeats meant in regards to his occult pronouncements is not an exact science, however the above statement could be taken to mean the following: the vision of life to which you attach yourself in your imagination, the way you shape the world in your own mind, will determine the world that you discover, and the things that happen to you. You can build it in the imagination and it will be accomplished. This can of course work to an individual’s good or ill, depending on the positive or negative direction and intensity of the psychic charge they infuse their imaginations with.
Psychoanalysts have, in the 20th century, identified the imagination, as residing in the unconscious part of the psyche. In ‘The Second Coming’, second stanza, line 12 mentions “a vast image out of the Spiritus Mundi”. The Spiritus Mundi has been taken to refer to what Carl Jung coined the collective unconscious-the image bank of the world, the storehouse of the primordial archetypes which are humanity’s common inheritance.
The people of the poet’s time are, by their iniquities and the resultant deleterious effect this has on their collective imaginations, creating the conditions to allow for the coming of this “rough beast-slouching towards Bethlehem to be born”. ‘The Second Coming’ is presaging an apocalyptic chain of events in which a new kind of god will emerge, a second coming, the ominous coming of a second Christ, whose terrible vengeance people in the future will deserve, a future people who are the descendants of those who among them “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. The people collectively are responsible for bringing this awful event to pass and Yeats has prefigured this out of the Spiritus Mundi or their collective unconscious.
Much like a playwright, Yeats would often use invented personae or in other words don the mask of a character through which to commit his verse to paper. The mask enables him to explore a personality, which might include some indistinguishable part of himself but can range more freely, much as a dramatist can in creating a character. ‘The Second Coming’ sees Yeats adopting the personae of the prophet.
Plunging the depths of the unconscious
Automatic writing is defined as writing said to be produced by a spiritual, occult, or subconscious agency rather than by the conscious intention of the writer. With his spouse, Georgia Hyde Lees, whom he married in 1917, Yeats would engage in automatic writing sessions which entranced him. Over the course of three years the sessions would yield thousands of pages of symbols and imagery, which Yeats could discern, had a viable system for poetry. The automatic writing of Hyde Lees in part stimulated the impetus for ‘The Second Coming’. Yeats would later say of these sessions; “The sceptical, or tired, or embarrassed reader has often wanted to leave the function of the automatic script entirely there, but as a factory for mysterious images assembled into great poems, its rationale could be recognised.”
‘The Second Coming’ is a prophecy, a harbinger of the destruction and upheaval that was to come. The poem was written in 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the blood sacrifice and carnage that was the First World War. The war, the most brutal in human history up to that time, saw millions of young working-class men led into slaughter on an industrial scale. Yeats had also witnessed first hand the results of violent rebellion and the unleashing of anarchic forces both in Ireland following the 1916 Easter Rising and further afield in revolutionary Russia with the advent of the Bolsheviks and their overthrow of the Tsarist system. The poem also prefigures the cataclysmic social transformations to besiege Europe in the 1920s and 1930s culminating in a war even more horrifying than the one out of which the poem first emerged.
In the poem Yeats, transmutes the base metals of his life into alchemical gold and becomes an archetypal prophet, which for the ancients, back to the origins of poetry in the oral traditions of Homer, the poet and the prophet were one in the same.
“Rationalism is the great sin against Art”(Yeats)