‘The Second Coming’ is WB Yeats’s most quoted poem – and almost certainly the most widely quoted poem of the last hundred years. Its prediction of the savage birth of the modern era recently celebrated its one hundredth birthday following the poem’s first publication in 1920. Ever since, its slouching rough beast has cast a shadow across the century.
Even now literary scholarship struggles to deal with such a phenomenon. In the midst of a pandemic, attention has focussed more on when Yeats wrote the poem, January 1919, amid the first stirrings of the Irish War of Independence and (as outlined in Elizabeth Outka’s Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature (2019)) the raging Spanish flu epidemic, his wife dangerously sick and eight months pregnant with a child the spirits had promised would be a (male) avatar of a new age. When unexpectedly a daughter arrived, the spirits (indignantly questioned in sessions of automatic writing piloted by Yeats’s wife George) hastily avowed her to be the reincarnation of a distant ancestor named Anne Yeats. Named Anne after that ancestor, the child was no avatar, but became one of Ireland’s most underrated artists. Historically speaking, predicting a Second Coming is a risky business: somehow you nearly always get it wrong, at least in terms of timing. Sadly, as advent prophecies go, the spirits’ avatar promise has proved less accurate than the poem’s grim forecast of a century’s violent birth.
A less-regarded tendency of modern scholarship highlights the poem’s actual advent, its birthday publication November 1920 in The Dial, an American literary monthly requisitioned earlier that year by James Sibley Watson and Scofield Thayer as a forum for radical new poetry. Printing friends like e.e. cummings, Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound, the magazine would see the first American appearance of TS Eliot’s apocalyptic The Waste Land, and the poet Marianne Moore in the editor’s chair. (These high points were short-lived: by the decade’s end the magazine was shuttered and Thayer institutionalized, afflicted by the kind of paranoid schizophrenia Yeats’s poem seems to anticipate, his astonishing art collection left to the Met.) By publishing there Yeats was keeping company with the vanguard of American modernism, affirming him no longer a minor Victorian lyric poet or unsuccessful Irish playwright, but undeniably a contemporary voice. Though no others from the group of poems he offered to The Dial made a similar leap into super stardom, poems like ‘Towards Break of Day’, ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer’ and ‘Demon and Beast’ reveal similar dream-like preoccupations with elemental creatures: dragons, stags, and sphinxes.
Political readings are tempting, too, especially given Yeats’s later drift into authoritarian politics. Certainly the poem cuts athwart a Whiggish view of history as progress, yet with all references to the Russian Revolution and the Irish Troubles purged from the drafts, its vision, however troubling, is impossible to align with any particular creed, from Marxism or fascism to ecocriticism: the climbing hooks of critics slide off. ‘The Second Coming’ works because of what it leaves out, going beyond the particular circumstances of its composition, political context, and publication. It is the poem above all that makes axiomatic the idea that literature can outdistance its origins, that readers are the ones who create meaning: as WH Auden put it in his ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’, ‘The words of a dead man | Are modified in the guts of the living’. ‘The Second Coming’, as used and re-used over and over again in the intervening hundred years, is a poem so modified in the guts of the living it tells the history of the century. Resonant phrases are borrowed as book titles (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, Mere Anarchy by Woody Allen), added to songs by Lou Reed and Joni Mitchell, and quoted by figures as diverse as Slavoj Žižek and George W. Bush. In fact the poem is invoked by a succession of American presidents (or their speechwriters) from John F Kennedy to the incoming Joe Biden. (Finding 22 lines of taut verse outside his tweet-addled experience, the White House’s outgoing occupant has instead the distinction that from 2016 his ubiquity has helped cause an exponential rise in the poem’s world-wide use).
This is a poem which through the endless crises of world wars and late capitalism, through potential nuclear or environmental cataclysm, keeps on telling the story of the century. Rather than laboriously note each use, it makes sense to ask why it so often rhymes with the times. ‘Literature is news that stays news’ said Ezra Pound: that’s its job. The question is, why has this piece stayed news? Partly it is our fault. As Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse (2020) acutely observes:
We are alive at a time of worst case scenarios […]. Look: there are fascists in the streets, and in the palaces. Look: the weather has gone uncanny, volatile, malevolent.
Such is the modern condition; every succeeding age is or considers itself uniquely damned. Even then, plenty of powerful expressions of twentieth-century angst have not had such purchase. Paul Valéry’s ‘La Crise de l’Esprit’ (‘Crisis of the Mind’, 1919), like ‘The Second Coming’, laments that ‘the illusion of a European culture has been lost, and knowledge has been proved impotent to save anything whatsoever’ – just right, for instance, to introduce a journal issue Christine Reynier and I co-edited on non-fiction narratives of war and peace. What about ‘The Second Coming’ makes it different?
The obvious answer is that it is a poem. Poems do things differently. As O’Connell also says, ‘Listen. Attune your ear to the general discord’. And this, it seems to me, is what Yeats’s poem makes us do. It forces us, whether we know it or not, to listen to discordant times. To understand how, it might be better not to treat the poem as a compilation of quotable extracts, but instead try again to attune to what is poetic about it, what makes it stick in our collective inner ear.
This is a tricky task – even for such a short poem. This brief attempt focuses on just four talismanic words, pivots about which the poem turns: gyre, mere, surely, hour. There are a hundred and more patterns to be picked out, but attending to these words and their resonances might help map the poem’s contours.
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?
Amid the opening’s obsessive mounting repeats, turning and turning, falcon and falconer, this strange word gyre sticks out: for most of us to recall its correct pronunciation (hard g, to rhyme with wire), never mind its meaning, is a struggle. To thrust into the very first line this old, rare word for a spiral, circular turn, or vortex, opens a disorienting world, where all that is familiar becomes unfamiliar.
The poem’s first readers could not have known the elaborate philosophical system behind Yeats’s choice of word. Essentially it involved two kinds of movements, of polar opposites and cycles, producing a dynamic of two interpenetrating cones or gyres, tracking movements of historical recurrence and change – and a whole lot of confusing drawings. They did though have a chance of half-recalling, as few do now, how the history of the term implies violence.
Some maybe remembered its use in steepling cumulation (‘wave on wave and gyre on gyre’) by Yeats’s mentor WE Henley, from a collection belligerently titled Song of the Sword. Yeats himself may have first encountered the word when it sings a similar song of a sword in Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene, a poem with which he grew up, and edited for publication thirteen years before the appearance of ‘The Second Coming’. In Spenser’s Book II Canto V, a lesson in moderation and ‘temperaunce’ is dished out to an errant knight called Pyrrochles. Guyon bests him in battle because he can’t control his temper, or his sword: he ‘is full of such ire’ he cannot wield it with
his approued skill, to ward,
Or strike, or hurtle rownd in warlike gyre
In other words Pyrrochles is unable to manoeuvre his sword in the tight violent circles (each a gyre) of his training. Instead he ‘rudely rag’d like a cruel tiger’, less man than animal It is hard not to see echoes in ‘The Second Coming’, in which rational man gives way to raging beast: especially as in Spenser gyre suggests a strange combination of violence and control – just right, in other words, for a poem of the same bloodline. Because although ‘Things fall apart’, and like the unreckonable falcon go out of control, this is a poem of controlled violence.
The controlled violence of ‘The Second Coming’ can be heard when turning from gyre, an arcane word, to a more familiar word used arcanely: mere. Mere does not in its modern offhand usage belittle the anarchy it modifies: it is employed here in its older alchemical sense to mean something pure, unadulterated. Mere anarchy is thus fused together like those yoked opposites that punctuate Yeats’s poems of this period (every Irish schoolchild knows ‘Easter 1916’ and its ‘terrible beauty’; Allen Ginsberg prizes ‘the murderous innocence of the sea’ from ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, written just after ‘The Second Coming’). If anarchy should denote complete disorder (to Yeats, who had studied alchemy’s purifications) mere anarchy suggests something distilled, focussed, even directed. As the poem seems to know, maybe mere anarchy is the product of some ordering principle, which makes it that much more malevolent.
The poem reveals, in other words, an order, a twisted logic behind the apparent disorder of the contemporary world – and of its own working. The poem divulges this without troubling to assemble the familiar pattern of words in rhyming pairs at the end of each line. The opening hints at off-rhymes and half-rhymes (for instance hold and world) have, unusually for Yeats, by the end entirely disintegrated. For a poem like this, maybe, end-rhymes are too neat, too pat for the depiction of such an apocalyptic scene.
Yet there are patterns to be found. Words beginning lines have important roles too. So gyre and mere are matched closer in sound than nearer end-rhyme candidates like falconer. Joining these with hear, everywhere and Are discloses a connecting thread just about holding together the disconnected aphoristic clauses of the poem’s opening. All these words turn (however merely or slightly) towards an r sound. As a consequence, minds gyre and mere contain comparable diphthongs (mere in some pronunciations or accents), altering the shape of each vowel as it is uttered. Together they inaugurate a sequence gyre, mere, surely, hour, where the overtones of each vowel follow an arc upwards and then turn successively lower and darker in grim succession. Something of the poem’s meaning is being enacted in sound (as can be heard in Ted Hughes’s powerful reading of the poem).
Surely marks the moment the reasonable first part – featuring the bitter observations which everyone always quotes – gives way to a second part of quite different tone: Helen Vendler calls it ‘oracular’. Surely does keep up the sonic sequence, forming a similar noise before its second syllable changes direction, but it sounds now like a voice is addressing us, enjoining the reader to share in the speaker’s prophetic vision. When for good measure surely repeats on the next line it sounds a note of desperate anticipation, begging us to recognise the inevitable return. Surely’s doubling is followed by the double cry of ‘the Second Coming’, the poem pausing to notice its irresistible vocalization (‘Hardly are those words out’) before stammering out its vision. Such a pattern of recurrence and difference seems to explain that things don’t just fall apart, they happen again, if in a different, more vocal and more violent way.
These bodily cries come from within. Vendler notices its fourteen lines could make up a sonnet, that traditional vehicle of emotion – but a defective or inverted one, its eight-line opening still crudely attached. If the first part’s rationally worded despair represented the head, the second part embodies the belly, the body of the poem. Which makes sense, as it introduces a terrifying deformed creature, ‘A shape with lion body and the head of a man’, weirdly matched with the poem’s semi-detached parts.
Spenser, a colonial administrator in Ireland, had few rivals (until Yeats) in his descriptions of violence. Notably, what had made The Fairie Queene’s Pyrrochles so angry was the brutal decapitation of his horse, leaving but a ‘truncked beast fast bleeding’. This is an image that seems almost to have leaked into Yeats’s poem, whose hybrid rough beast is always glimpsed in truncated body parts, with ‘blank gaze’ and ‘slow thighs’. Edmund Burke long ago explained how an object is the more terrifying when its limits remain unperceived – here, the animal’s ‘vast’ dimensions, form, and species all remain terrifyingly vague. Its name and origins are shrouded too: the word sphynx is never mentioned, so whether it emerges from the desert sands of Egyptian, or Greek, or Hebrew Old Testament myth to ask us riddling questions or loudly proclaim an apocalypse (Yeats associated it with ‘laughing ecstatic destruction’) is left to our imagination.
The companion birthday poem ‘Demon and Beast’ only helps so much, containing as it does noisy creatures of a more quotidian order (‘that crafty demon and that loud beast / That plague me day and night’), but the poem does close by expressing the excitement, the ‘sweetness’ of religious revelation. This is something ‘The Second Coming’ shares. Only here the beast is the revelation: a dream called up to bodily reality through religious fervour, about which we reel irrationally, irresistibly, like the desert birds. As Hannah Arendt argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
To yield to the mere process of disintegration has become an irresistible temptation, not only because it has assumed the spurious grandeur of ‘historical necessity’, but also because everything outside it has begun to appear lifeless, bloodless, meaningless and unreal.
Unreal but bloody, vivid yet unborn, perhaps the beast’s greatest terror is this: that it represents not simply an exterior malevolent force but a longed-for interior revelation born out of quiet desperation. This is a creature spawned by our collective imagination, the spiritus mundi of the poem, a nightmare distorted embodiment of our daytime thoughts, the word made flesh, and given, by us, a horrifyingly rapturous welcome.
This then is our rough beast: we created it. It is also hour rough beast. ‘What rough beast, its hour come round at last […]?’ is given the form of a sphynx’s unanswerable question: how, after all, can we know the future? Yet some answers are evident (‘now I know’ says the speaker). Precisely what this rough beast will be is unclear, but we too must know whose it is and (roughly) when it is: the long-gestated outcome of two millennia worth of hours, that terrible inexorable slow motion of twenty centuries now arriving on slow thighs, ‘at hand’, imminent, on time, ‘at last’ – presented in the poem’s paradoxically ever-present present in continual unhurried arriving, ‘slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born’, not for Christmas but a new advent. This is the way civilizations collapse: slowly – and then all at once.
The timing of all this was on Yeats’s mind. A long note featuring drawings of interlocking gyres (borrowed for the logo of Modernist Studies Ireland) from the poem’s first book publication at his sisters’ Cuala Press, Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), concludes:
All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash, though in a flash that will not strike only in one place, and will for a time be constantly repeated, of the civilization that must slowly take its place. This is too simple a statement, for much detail is possible.
By this account, rational accumulation of knowledge is superseded by successive lightning flashes ‘constantly repeated’: a continuing sequence of sudden millennial revelations. At just this time Yeats was pestering the spirits about a comparable kind of quasi-simultaneous revelation – exactly when and how a poem’s images could transfer to other minds – when a poem was written, when first read (what if it was never read?), or every time it was read by every reader (what if they didn’t understand it?). He never got a direct answer. Still, as even that most cerebral of poets TS Eliot allowed, ‘poetry communicates before it is understood’. Each time a poem is read carefully (especially, Yeats concluded, when read out loud) it is made present and might produce revelation.
To do this a poem must work in sound. As an advent poem actually, ‘The Second Coming’ remains forever anticipatory, in the time just before, the beast paradoxically ever-imminent, its dim revelations ‘constantly repeated’. For Yeats this said something about the nature of historical time, but also about the nature of poetry. Every time the poem is read, its second coming can complete a historical cycle, hour thus completing a pattern, and completing several coinciding cadences: hour picks up drowned, round, slouches, and forms part of the ever-darker turn reel, nightmare, hour, towards, born, which last word turns again to the opening Turning.
When fully articulated, each of our highlighted words gyre, mere, surely, hour, turns to the rough beast’s snarling revelatory r sound. Maybe this makes for too crude a conclusion, but if the rational visible world is disintegrating, articulating sounds on half-conscious levels must, surely, be half-grasped to make sense of the new future. Even if we pay no conscious attention to sound, in other words, by working in sound even a futuristic predictive poem like this doesn’t go out of date. Not by rational assembly, but by organic force each time it is read its continual present plumbs a terrifying pattern deep beneath the disorder. That is one reason literature is news that stays news.
Adrian Paterson is Lecturer in English at NUI Galway and co-founder of Modernist Studies Ireland. Recent work pursues music, the voice, and technology from the eighteenth century to the present day: see ‘True of Voice: Shaw, Florence Farr, and George J. Lee’s The Voice’ in SHAW The Journal of Bernard Shaw Studies 40.2 (2020), ‘Pound Notes: Music and Modernist Poetry’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Literature and Music ed. Delia de Sousa Corea (2020), and ‘Harps and Pepperpots, Songs and Pianos: Irish Poetry 1780-1830’, in Irish Literature in Transition Vol. 3 1780-1830 ed. Claire Connolly (2020). He is co-editor with Tom Walker and Charles Armstrong of the forthcoming The Edinburgh Companion to Yeats and the Arts, and co-editor with Christine Reynier of the open access E-rea special journal issues Modernist Non-fictional Narratives: Rewriting Modernism (2018), and Modernist Non-fictional Narratives in War and Peace (2020).