Written 100 years ago, Yeats’s poem has been absorbed into the cultural bloodstream from Chinua Achebe to The Sopranos, Joan Didion to Gordon Gecko. Why is it such a touchstone in times of chaos?
In April 1936, three years before his death, WB Yeats received a letter from the writer and activist Ethel Mannin. The 70-year-old Yeats was a Nobel prize-winning poet of immense stature and influence, not to mention Mannin’s former lover, and she asked him to join a campaign to free a German pacifist incarcerated by the Nazis. Yeats responded instead with a reading recommendation: “If you have my poems by you, look up a poem called ‘The Second Coming’,” he wrote. “It was written some sixteen or seventeen years ago & foretold what is happening. I have written of the same thing again & again since. This will seem little to you with your strong practical sense for it takes fifty years for a poet’s weapons to influence the issue.”
Yeats was justified in taking the long view. Written in 1919 and published in 1920, “The Second Coming” has become perhaps the most plundered poem in the English language. At 164 words, it is short and memorable enough to be famous in toto but it has also been disassembled into its constituent parts by books, albums, movies, TV shows, comic books, computer games, political speeches and newspaper editorials. While many poems in Yeats’s corpus have contributed indelible lines to the storehouse of the cultural imagination (“no country for old men”; “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”), “The Second Coming” consists of almost nothing but such lines. Someone reading it for the first time in 2020 might resemble the apocryphal theatregoer who complained that Hamlet was nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together. Whether or not it is Yeats’s greatest poem, it is by far his most useful. As Auden wrote in “In Memory of WB Yeats” (1939), “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.”
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 the 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?