The Rear-View Mirror: W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

Here’s a confession: I never really got into W.B. Yeats. It’s not that I dislike him; his poems just didn’t click with me. I read them, I even taught them, and I saw that they were well crafted, but they were on a different wavelength from me. I didn’t have much of a response to them.

Except “The Second Coming”, written in 1919 and first printed in November 2020. To me, the poem feels distinctly different from the other poems I’ve read by Yeats, and it pulled me in the very first time I read it. Perhaps it’s an easy poem for a young man to fall for: to some extent, it fits easily into the kind of dark nihilism that teenagers go for. There’s something almost heavy metal about its imagery: the rough beast whose hour has come, slouching towards Bethlehem. You can imagine a guy whose voice is more growl than anything else halfway swallowing the mic while singing about the “blood-dimmed tide” and the “shape with lion body and the head of a man,/A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…” (The poem was turned into a song, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, by Joni Mitchell, but I still think it lends itself to metal.)

It’s also a poem for all times, and for the ever-present now. Write an essay about present-day politics and it’s almost impossible to resist talking about how “The best lack all all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. “The Second Coming” is a treasure trove for turns of phrases and metaphors that it is difficult to resist swiping for one’s own purposes.

At the same time, it’s worth looking past the heavy metal cover soundbites, the chaos and blood-dimmed tides, the monstrous beasts and nightmares. There is something both more queasy and more ambivalent than my earlier self saw in the poem. Yes, the world it describes is frightening, but it is in no part so because of how unfathomable it is. The rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem – what is it? What nightmare awaits us when we wake from our stony twenty-century sleep? Yeats’ poem does not evoke the dime-a-dozen apocalypses we can enjoy with a bucket of popcorn at the cinema (remember those?) but something more frightening because we can barely imagine it.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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