Friday, June 13, 2014

Arty Farty Friday ~ Wm. Butler Yeats ~ The Second Coming

Irish poet William Butler Yeats was born this day,
13 June, in 1865. His natal chart and brief biography are at William painted in words - his father, John Butler Yeats, was an artist in the more traditional sense.

Rather than concentrate on the story of W.B. Yeats, his life and loves, I'll ponder upon one of his poems. This is a poem containing several memorable phrases which tend to pop up here and there, in quotation marks, in the work of other writers, so evocative have they become.

The poem: The Second Coming, written in 1919, published in 1920. The title could imply a Christian theme, but Yeats was a mystic and occultist, not particularly impressed by organised religion, including Christianity. The poem goes deeper.

When Yeats wrote The Second Coming the world in general was in a state of shock in the aftermath of The Great War (1914-1918). His own, Irish world, was in the throes of upheaval as Irish revolutionaries, many of whom he counted as friends and/or lovers, attempted to rid Ireland of centuries of British rule. Those facts indicate the poet's state of mind and emotions as he wrote. This poem, though, can be enjoyed like a painting from which each viewer draws a slightly different meaning, or like some modern song lyrics which, on the surface, seem nonsensical, but from which each listener is able to find their own meaning.

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 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?

The gyre, at the heart of this poem refers to something those keen on astrology's principles understand well - cycles - here further expanded to the form of an ever-widening sprial. The gyre reaches a point wide enough that a symbolic falcon flies beyond control of its keeper and becomes destabilised. Astrology's 2,100-year Ages fit the gyre imagery, I think.

Yeats had lived through the opening of the 20th century - 2,000 years from the birth of Christ - and speculated that a new "coming", or awakening, or major change of some kind, was to be expected, though not an exact repeat of the last one. I understand that Yeats' book A Vision details his beliefs in this direction.

"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold": each generation might see a different reference there. Things going too far....too much excess, too much progress, too much control, too much technology, more and more until..... "mere anarchy" emerges (the word 'mere' is used here in its ancient meaning of pure and unadulterated).

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." We can all relate those words to something familiar today, to apathetic and passive citizens as against the overly intense on both sides of the political divide, for instance.

The second part of the poem proceeds to speculate "what next then?" The poet has a vision of what seems like the Sphinx in the desert, birds wheeling overhead, but representing what? Life as it was lived before Christ - a pagan world? Then darkness fell as Christianity emerged to bring about change? 2,000 years on Yeats expected another "coming", some as yet unknown event or "beast" to emerge and change things yet again, as Christ's coming had changed things last time around.

The "slouching" imagery indicates to me a slow, murky advance with no glorious overtures. I can easily identify that something coming, advancing slowly, while the best of us lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity; something which will, inevitably, change things for us all.

See? Time has given the poem a potential new meaning, something which Yeats could not have envisioned in detail. An original meaning is still there, but exists a little further back on the loop of that ever-widening gyre. As the gyre continues to widen still further, scenes change.


mike said...

Yeats was a brilliant poet and artist, but like most, had an emotionally painful life...perhaps a prerequisite for creativity.

It's understandable that Yeats would envision apocalypse associated with that period and how a new day must be near. That might be the exact purpose of his verse, if we could know from him directly.

He was well-versed in mysticism, so I'm inclined to believe that his intent was to express entrainment of perpetual destiny, while we anticipate a savior or future grace out of our self-enslavement.

Another possibility is his relationship with Maud Gonne. In all to many ways, "Second Coming" could be a metaphor for this tumultuous, emotional bondage he had with this woman. He proposed to her four times over ten years, then proposed a fifth time in 1916. As I stated in my previous paragraph, he had a self-enslavement with this woman who constantly rebuked him, and I think he anticipated a future with her, which only deteriorated further over time.

"His final proposal to Maud Gonne took place in mid-1916. Gonne's history of revolutionary political activism, as well as a series of personal catastrophes in the previous few years of her life, including chloroform addiction and her troubled marriage to MacBride made her a potentially unsuitable wife and biographer R.F. Foster has observed that Yeats's last offer was motivated more by a sense of duty than by a genuine desire to marry her.

Yeats proposed in an indifferent manner, with conditions attached, and he both expected and hoped she would turn him down. According to Foster 'when he duly asked Maud to marry him, and was duly refused, his thoughts shifted with surprising speed to her daughter.' Iseult Gonne was Maud's second child with Lucien Millevoye, and at the time was twenty-one years old. She had lived a sad life to this point; conceived as an attempt to reincarnate her short-lived brother, for the first few years of her life she was presented as her mother's adopted niece. When Maud told her that she was going to marry, Iseult cried and told her mother that she hated MacBride. At fifteen, she proposed to Yeats. A few months after the poet's approach to Maud, he proposed to Iseult, but was rejected.

That September, Yeats proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892–1968), known as George, whom he had met through Olivia Shakespear. Despite warnings from her friends: 'George ... you can't. He must be dead'—Hyde-Lees accepted, and the two were married on 20 October."

Twilight said...

mike ~ Yes, bearing all that in mind, he must have had all manner of emotions churning in him at around the time he wrote this poem. The poem is something like a dream, I guess, where one's hidden anxieties, fears, hopes are portrayed in strange ways.

I thought of words from the poem "widening gyre" "the centre cannot hold" as we were listening to NPR in the car yesterday and someone talking about political opinion in the USA said that the the extremes of left and right seem to be getting further and further apart these days...

ex-Chomp said...

Really interesting and fascinating, full of mysticism indeed.

Twilight said...

ex-Chomp ~ Yes - food for thought. :-)

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