Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ has had a revival over the past year or so. With reactions to Brexit and Trump, the poem was quoted more in 2016 than in the total of the previous 30 years. (Wall Street Journal and Factiva).
Now here we are in 2017. So far, Brexit has unleashed a rise in hate crimes, economic uncertainty and feelings of general incomprehension in the UK as ‘things fall apart’ and as we watch as ‘the centre cannot hold.’ In Trump’s America, a ‘blood-dimmed tide’ is both present and inevitable as mass shootings are condoned and conflicts overseas are rekindled with heated rhetoric.
But what is to come of all of this? I revisit the poem:
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?
Written in 1919, soon after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, this work reacts to the horrors and violence of such conflicts. More importantly, it expresses apprehension over what is to come. Over the years, many have seen this poem as an accurate premonition of a second coming in the form of an anti-Christ – Adolph Hitler. As has been pointed out by many in the press, the present day holds startling parallels to pre-War Germany, with the rise of nationalistic propaganda and untruths capable of seducing millions.
Yet, I feel the need to put this into perspective. Others have alluded to this poem over the years. Joan Didion’s collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Night Ride Home’ are among the many works to keep this poem alive. These works were written long before Brexit and Trump and each with their own political concerns and fears at their time. Seen collectively like this, I do wonder if the recent malaise – the far-right, the hate crimes, the nationalistic fervour – are all part of a tide that will inevitably ebb back to something perhaps different, but manageable, less worrying.
Yet, the recent surge in quoting from ‘The Second Coming’ is still significant in itself. Most of these allusions can be found in the press, where the educated, the so-called ‘urban elite,’ dwell. As recent investigative reporting and British and American government enquiries are starting to show, it was the elite class of billionaires who indirectly funded both Brexit and Trump’s presidential campaigns. Both employed social media, which spread into mainstream media, to disseminate their propaganda and untruths. The response to this has come, during these campaigns and even more now, from the true masses – the urban and educated. We are the ones seeking to understand what is going on, turning to Yeats en masse. In our bewilderment and fear, we ask if what we have witnessed is a sign of the ‘rough beast, its hour come round at last.’