William Butler Yeats – The Second Coming

stone cottage thatch irelandI saw an article in a recent Wall Street Journal about Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming. He wrote the poem in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I, when there was darkness and chaos in the world and concern for what the future held.

Apparently his words hold deep resonance for people today as we face uncertainty and global crises. Different lines from this poem are being quoted frequently in news media and on social media. Analysis of Factivia, a media database, shows that lines have been used in news sources more in the first seven months of 2016 than in any other year in the past three decades.

I have long loved this poem for the master word crafting that marked Yeats’ great gift. While it certainly captures the darkness and fear of chaos we face in our own times, for me the last two lines hint at the possibility of something new being born out of it all. It reminds me of the analogy of the caterpillar dissolving into a black ooze before something called imaginal cells reorganize the cells into the butterfly. That things need to “fall apart” in order to be restructured into something new and beautiful, that we are the imaginal cells of the world that can reorder the world.

Here’s the whole poem for you to consider.

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: a waste of desert sand;
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
Wind 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?

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