Mythopoeic Vision of the Apocalypse: Re-interpreting W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’

Mir Mahammad Ali, Bhatter College, Dantan

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Earth, receive an honored guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
—W.H. Auden’s eulogy for William Butler Yeats in his   dirge   ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’.

In an article, entitled “What W.B. Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ Really Says About the Iraq War”, published in The New York Times on February 12, 2007, the columnist Adam Cohen writes:

“The Brookings Institution, the prominent Washington research organization, just released a report on the Iraq war entitled “Things Fall Apart.” When Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, took to the House floor last year to demand that President Bush present a plan for Iraq, he called his speech “The Center Cannot Hold.” Blogs are full of the observation that “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed” in Iraq these days.

These phrases all come from William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”(Cohen, pars. 1-2)

Composed in 1919 and first published in The Dial a year later, and then in an anthology named Michael Robartes and the Dancer in the year 1921, Yeats’s apocalyptic visionary poem ‘The Second Coming’ is one of the most conspicuous poems in Yeats’s oeuvre, and by extension, in the whole of the English literature. It would not be an exaggeration to proclaim that the resonance of the poem is still with us. Such audacious attempts of reading the poem through the lens of contemporary events like that of the Iraq War and so on, is predominantly the offshoot of the modern critical way of reading and interpreting a literary work, which also consolidates Yeats’s lasting legacy in the contemporary world.

Writing in the historically turbulent period of the early 20th century when the multifarious cacophonies resulting from the socio-political upheavals on a world-scale phenomena were crying afar, Yeats’s ‘apocalyptic’, almost unobtrusive poem to the literary pundits ‘The Second Coming’ documents, on the one hand, the contemporary decayed, putrid socio-political milieu of human civilization, and on the other, it makes a prophetic premonition of the eschatological doom of a devastating, disintegrating and degenerating civilization, more specifically of a Christian civilization. So, in a way, a palimpsestic, critical reading of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ can be done by adopting a flashback and flash-forward technique of going to the past, present and future events for interpreting and analyzing a literary text, where the poem is supposed to be mingling the past, present and future events to provide a unified and universal literary appeal for all times. Yeats describes such a degenerated, claustrophobic, post-lapsarian fallen stage of human civilization towards the very beginning of the first stanza of poem:

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; (Yeats, stanza 1, line 1-6)

Composed in the immediate aftermath of the WW-I in 1919, with its large scale massacre and genocide all over the European continent, along with the Russian Revolution where “The old order in Russia had just been toppled by a revolution that Yeats-who had a fondness for aristocracy-feared would spread across the continent and the globe” (Cohen), conjoined with the Irish movement for Independence from the British rule which leads to the frequent violent uprisings (like that of the Easter Rising in 1916), Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ serves as a dirge for a disintegrating post-war European culture and civilization. David Holdeman in his seminal book The Cambridge Introduction to W.B. Yeats depicts such a predicament as:

“The Second Coming encapsulates the era’s mood of crisis.” (Holdeman 77)

In order to explicate this ‘mode of crisis’, Holdeman further adds that:

“The combined effects of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the ongoing turmoil in Ireland suggested that Europe was beginning to witness the chaotic onset of just such a reversal. The resulting poem dramatizes an intensely conflicted state of mind, mingling excitement at the prospect of a new era with horror at the violence its coming will entail.” (Holdeman 78)

But unlike most of the modernist writers like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce whose works like ‘The Waste Land’ and Ulysses (both published in the same year in 1922) work as a panacea for the moribund European civilization and hopes for the revival and recuperation of a deteriorating civilization by means of its spiritual reawakening, Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ more envisions of a deterministic and fatalistic eschatological ending of the world.

Yeats’s ‘apocalyptic mystical theories’ can further be elucidated by explicating his private myth of ‘gyre’. Theorized first in his poem “A Vision”, Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ incorporates the concept of ‘gyre’ which is a cyclical rotation of history in a 2000 years interval. This belief propounds that history is always repetitive in a cyclical pattern of two thousand years. Commenting on the geometrical figure of ‘gyre’, David A. Ross in his book Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work expounds that:

“The underlying “mathematical figure” of “The Second Coming,” as Yeats states in a lengthy note to the poem, is the cone or gyre interlocked with its opposite, the vertex of the one centered upon the base of the other.” (Ross 219)

Gyre(Figure 1: Gyre)[1]

Linking the mathematical figure of ‘gyre’ to the cyclical pattern of history, David further explains that this geometric figure actually represents the ‘ideas of cyclical creation and destruction’. Based on this comment, the myth can be interpreted as to represent a symbolic pattern of the advent of a peaceful age for two thousand years and then the coming of an anarchic age of another two thousand years after its turn. Thus, the beginning of an anarchic age always marks the termination of a cohesive era preceding it. David facilitates the point by putting Yeats’s own commentary on it:

“In A Vision, Yeats expresses the idea more simply: “After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war”.” (Ross 219)

Yeats by incorporating the ‘gyre’ imagery in this poem, further hypothesizes his apocalyptic vision which goes as- after the completion of 2000 years of Christ’s nativity, the pre-lapserian bliss and virtue of the human civilization would be effaced from the world and an expected ‘blood-dimmed’ ‘anarchy’ would prevail all over the world immediately afterwards. At this crucial juncture, David’s comments would suffice the point and substantiates the argument:

“At the present moment the life gyre [i.e., the objective or primary impulse] is sweeping outward, unlike that before the birth of Christ which was narrowing, and has almost reached its greatest expansion.” (Ross 219)

Such a deliberate mythmaking, which is an embodiment of Yeats’s vision of the apocalypse, gets further heightened in the course of the poem. Yeats’s conviction of the possibility of an eschatological ending of the world for the reasons that the created human-beings no longer reciprocate the calling of their Creator (as symbolized in the ‘falcon’ imagery ‘The falcon cannot hear the falconer ;’) or the ‘ceremony of innocence is drowned’, and the hysterical, hedonistic, blasphemous multitudes no longer believes in the existence of God, is further solidified in the second stanza where Yeats anticipates of the ‘revelation’ of a ‘second-coming’ of somebody. Endowed with the profound knowledge of world mythology, this apocalyptic vision of Yeats has its resonance to the essence of Bhagavad Gita itself where Lord Krishna (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in Hindu mythology) reveals to Arjuna the apocalyptic vision of a blasphemous, morally degenerated human civilization for generation after generation:

“Yada yada hi dharmasya glanirbhavati bharata

Abhythanamadharmasya tadatmanam srijamyaham”

“Paritranaya sadhunang vinashay cha dushkritam

Dharmasangsthapanarthay sambhabami yuge yuge”

[Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, Verse: 7-8]

The English rendering of these verses are:

“Whenever there is decay of righteousness, O Bharata,

And there is exaltation of unrighteousness, then I Myself come forth;”

“For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evil-doers,

For the sake of firmly establishing righteousness, I am born from age to age.”

[Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, Verse: 7-8]

As a result of this, Yeats, in the very first few lines of the second stanza of the poem foresees the prospective forthcoming of the reincarnation of somebody or something, with the hope of putting an end to this degenerating civilization. As Yeats says:

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! (Yeats, Stanza 2 Line 1-3)

In the last chapter of The New Testament of the Bible, entitled The Book of Revelation (also named The Apocalypse), the Gospel of John prophesizes the reincarnation of Jesus Christ as a savior of the people in the days of apocalypse. This event, in traditional Christian mythology, is called the ‘Second Coming’. As Bible mentions of it when Jesus comforts his disciples by saying:

“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.1 In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.[2] And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”[3] (Gospel of John, Ch-14, V-1-3, KJV Bible)

It may apparently seem by looking at the words like the ‘revelation’ and the ‘Second Coming’ in the second stanza of the poem or as suggested in the title of the poem that Yeats is here hypothesizing about the Christian eschatological ending of the world and the reincarnation of Jesus Christ as a savior of the people, based on the Biblical myth of the ‘second coming’; but a critical understanding of the poem illuminates a different light on it all together. In this poem, Yeats’s prophetic vision is not of the Christian one, but rather more of a pagan one. In his book Yeats’s Poetic Codes (OUP), Nicholas Grene’s comments on it will substantiate the point:

“The world stands poised at the point of a second coming, a return of the antithetical phase after the primary phase of the Christian era. And it is to suggest this, perhaps, that Yeats gave the poem the title he did in the form he did.” (Grene 27)

Brought up in a dominant Christian family, Yeats had been imbibed with some of the Biblical teachings since his childhood. But since he became fourteen years of age, this faith upon traditional Christianity had been shaken as an result of the socio-political upheavals, along with the rising industrialization, conjoined with the increasing evidence of Darwinian philosophy of evolution which undermines the Biblical teachings. But this does not necessarily mean that he became less spiritual, for the reason that his shifting conviction towards a pagan Celtic belief system provided greater sustenance for him. Taking Irish occultism as the subject-matter of his poetry, he drew more and more inferences from the Irish Celtic mythology. As a result, based on these experimentations, Yeats subverted the traditional Christian myth of the ‘second coming’ or the reincarnation of Jesus Christ as the savior of the people in the Apocalypse. Rather Yeats foresaw a total submerge of the human civilization through the destructive properties of the advent of a terrible ‘Sphinx like creature’ which would bring about destruction to the world. As Grene comments that:

“The apparition in the poem is not a Titan nor yet is it brazen or winged. It is closer in form to the Sphinx, the Egyptian male Sphinx, as Richard Ellmann was the First to point out.” (Grene 104)

Regarding the portrayal of the human-animal creature mentioned in the second stanza of the poem, Yeats depicts that:

“…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” (Yeats, Stanza 2 Line 5-9)

In his book The Cambridge Introduction to W.B. Yeats David Holdeman posits that:

“This poem’s immense popularity arises partly from the sheer thrill induced by its blasphemous vision of the stony Egyptian sphinx slouching towards Bethlehem to take the place of Christ, a vision that draws readers into its uncanny interior with three dimensional imagery similar to that of ‘‘Easter, 1916’’ and ‘‘On a Political Prisoner.’’” (Holdeman 77)

Such mythopoeia debunks the traditional, dominant Christian myth of the ‘second coming’ where Christ’s reincarnation as a savior of the human being is generally anticipated; but in Yeats’s prophetic vision, it is the approach of a more pagan ferocious human-animal like creature that would bring up the death-knell of existing civilization. Much like the creation of Blake’s ferocious, destructive creature in the eponymous poem “The Tyger”2, Yeats’s ‘beast’ is also expected to serve the same function i.e. the total annihilation of a disruptive civilization. Yeats’s efficacious myth-making of replacing Christ with a destructive beast is further enunciated in the concluding two lines of this poem:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? (Yeats, Stanza 2 Line 13-14)

But a critical reading of the poem suggests that this apparition of a ‘rough beast’ is not a literal one at the face value, rather it is a metaphorical one which symbolizes the subsequent bloody warfare worldwide to be a wild beast which would disrupt human civilization. In an article entitled The widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions to Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming”, published on April 7, 2015 in The Parish Review on the sesquicentennial celebration of Yeats’s birth year, the editor Nick Tabor attempts to redefine the eschatological implication of the poem from the contemporary lens of late 20th and early 21st century phenomena. Critically examining the private mythology of Yeats, Nick Tabor postulates that Yeats’s vision of the apocalypse starting with the advent of a ‘Sphinx’-like ‘Narashimha’3 avatar is in reality actualized by the bloody warfare and violent conflicts worldwide. As Nick writes:

“As for the slouching beast, the best explanation is that it’s not a particular political regime, or even fascism itself, but a broader historical force, comprising the technological, the ideological, and the political. A century later, we can see the beast in the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, the regimes of Stalin and Mao, and all manner of systematized atrocity.” (Tabor, par 7)

Thus, the attempt to read Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ in the context of the historical phenomena of WW-I, WW-II, the Economic Depression of the 30s, Holocaust, the genocide taken up in Israel-Palestinian conflict and other warfare, along with the large-scale massacre in the process of colonization and decolonization, to the topical events like 9/11 and its immediate aftermath of ‘War on Terror’ with U.S. attacking on Afghanistan and Iraq, to the more recent Middle East uprising, is in congruence with the symptomatic manifestation of Yeats’s apocalyptic prediction. Yeats’s craftsmanship of cohering history with myth thus provides a great source for its wide-ranging popularity, inspiring later writers to acquire elements from the poem too. One of the monumental masterpieces in the whole of the English literature Things Fall Apart (1958), the magnum opus of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, is such an example of it. Drawing its title from Yeats’s The Second Coming, Achebe gives a portrayal of the same kind of apocalyptic vision of a disintegrating Igbo culture and civilization, devastated under the British Colonialism.

Notes

[1] See “Yeats’s System”

[2] See the poem “The Tyger” (1794) in William Blake, Collected Poems ed. by W.B. Yeats.

[3] Read Shweta Saxena’s article “A mythical interpretation of Yeats’ The Second Coming.” Pub. In IJEL Vol. 4(1), pp. 17-18, January 2013.

Works Cited:

Cohen, Adam. “What W.B. Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’ Really Says About the Iraq War.” The New York Times 12 Feb. 2007: 12. Print.

Grene, Nicholas. Yeats’s Poetic Codes. Oxford: OUP, 2008. Print.

Holdeman, David. The Cambridge Introduction to W. B. Yeats. Cambridge: CUP, 2006. Print.

Holy Bible. King James Version: Harper Collins India, India 2011. Print.

Hopkins, David. The Routledge Anthology of Poets on Poets. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Radharkrishn, Sarvepalli. The Bhagavadgita. India: HarperCollins, 1994. Print.

Ross, David A. Critical Companion To William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 1st Ed. 2009. Web e-book.

Saxena, Shweta. “A mythical interpretation of Yeats’ The Second Coming.” International Journal of English and Literature 4.1 (2013) : 17-18. Academic Journal. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.

Tabor, Nick. “The widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.” The Paris Review Apr 2015: 7 Apr. 2015: n. pag. Web.7 Apr. 2015.

Yeats, W.B., ed. William Blake, Collected Poems.London: George Routledge & Sons, 1905. Print.

Mir Mahammad Ali  teaches in the Department of English, Bhatter College, Dantan, Paschim Medinipur.

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