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 convictions, 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?
- W B Yeats
The poem always gives me cold chills down my spine... I remember reading it on the bus, with one hand on the stand to steady myself, and the other holding a yellowing book, squinting in the insane heat to somehow read the words, and it just struck me that here was one of the most beautiful, terrifying bits of literature i've read.
What I'm going to do is attempt a critique, an impressionistic critique, because a) i honestly believe that's the most valid form of criticism in poetry, and b) it's more convenient.
First of all, Yeats lived and wrote most of his poetry in the first half of the twentieth century, which i think is important because the world was either at war, or trapped between the two wars. He died in 1939, which in some ways is a blessing, he missed the worst parts of WW2. Some people say that a work of art is independent of the writer, (Barthes' 'suspended meaning'), but what is really cool about this poem is - it serves as a prelude, a harbinger of WW2, the war itself is the second coming in a limited sense.
Anyways here goes - the first two lines have both philosophy and religion in them. 'Turning and turning in a widening gyre' could well represent Yeats' somewhat cynical philosophy that humanity moves in circles, learning nothing from past experiences till it hits the eye of storm and everything is purged. But what is particularly disturbing is that 'the falcon cannot hear the falconer' - that is, man has forgotten God.
But what's really cool is that there seems to be a deeper meaning in there. Why, of all things, does Yeats choose to use the image of a falconer and a falcon - the falcon is a bird of prey, and the falconer sends the bird to destroy - God, the cruel destroyer? I think that's the implication, and it could have something to do with the lines in the Old Testament was it? where God tells man to tame the Earth - and Yeats holds this process of taming the Earth up to light.
So the first two lines set the mood for the poem - "Things fall apart", which later became the title of Chinua Achebe's disturbing novel about how the coming of the white missionaries destroyed the already somewhat degenerate lives of the African tribes. "the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world''... the way those lines just flow like honey! And a little later - the best lack all convictions while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Talking, probably about the Allied forces that didn't really move until they needed to, and the Nazis on the other side. But I don't suppose we'll ever understand the power of the words 'the worst are full of passionate intensity' unless we lived through times like that.
But still, I don't think the poem takes off til the second stanza. 'Surely some revelation is at hand, surely the second coming is at hand' is so unexpected, it leaps up and bites you in the face - I don't think i need to talk much about the second coming of the son of God, i'm sure people are familiar with that... And then, here's the delicate touch - the poet is able to convey the instantness, the spontaneity of his thought... How sometimes some words or phrases just suddenly conjure up an inexplicable image in your head that lasts a fleeting second - as soon as he thinks of the words 'the second coming', an image troubles his sight, before the darkness falls again. And that fleeting thought - he conveys it with the most brilliantly painted strokes -
"A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun" could there be a better, simpler, simile?
"Is moving its slow thighs," effortlessly conveying a sense of size, immense magnitude
"while all about it/ Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds." you can almost hear those birds screeching when you read that line
And still, I think the best lines are to come. After the mention of the rocking cradle, and the first sacrifice that Christ made, comes - "And what rough beast, it's hour come at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
I really don't think I should say anything about that line. Would just taint it.
But here's the thing. The poem is only about one moment, one thought... but how does he encompass an entire philosophy, a whole barrage of things for the reader to think about - and how does he do it all so succintly, with such economy of phrase? I don't know, I really don't - he's written so many beautiful poems - 'Leda and the swan', 'Sailing to Byzantium', and some which i personally thought were pretty rubbish, 'Prayer for my Daughter', an epitome of patriarchal male chauvenistic values... but for me, the Second Coming stands out - i may not be qualified to say anything about poetry, or about literature in general, but fucking hell, can this guy write poetry or what?!