Today's poem builds on some previous themes, but takes us in a different direction. Many thanks to John Turner for suggesting The Second Coming by Yeats. It took the literary world by storm in 1919, and it might shake a few readers today.
The Second Coming is a prophetic poem, and Yeats himself in 1936 wrote to a friend, regarding the rapid changes in European culture, that this poem "written some 16 or 17 years ago, foretold what is happening." It is about that strange theme introduced in the New Testament in vague and mysterious ways, what S Paul called mysterium iniquitatis, "the mystery of iniquity." The Apostolic writers called it by different names: the Antichrist, or the Man of Lawlessness, the Beast. I am almost certain that Yeats had this passage of Scripture in mind when he composed this poem:
Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed... (2 Thessalonians 2)
It is a strange passage, and it has intrigued readers ever since. The image, at least as Yeats interprets it, seems to be that there is some form of evil that will emerge in history, and it will appear as a Saviour of some kind, but is really demonic (the "beast slouches... toward Bethlehem to be born"). Remember that he is writing this poem whilst Europe is rebuilding itself after the Great War. More than just rebuilding, he sees that Europe is rebuilding itself in a very different way, and in a new direction. In this poem he is saying... "Yes, we are building something, but what is it? And are we sure this is what we should be building?" He wants to scare his readers, and he succeeds.
The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats
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?