Poet's Pick April 12
William Butler Yeats:
"The Second Coming"

Selected by Alpay Ulku
National Poetry Month 2013

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Alpay Ulku's Poetry Month Pick, April 12, 2013

"The Second Coming"
by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

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?

 

* Alpay Ulku: "The Second Coming" and The New World Order
Orwell's picture of the future isn't bright, " a boot stamping on the human face — forever." Mr. William Butler Yeats dispenses with such stodgy formalities: he tosses the lot of us into a blender, and presses the Liquefy button.

    "The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned."

What exactly is the "ceremony of innocence?" Is anarchy the opposite of ceremony? Is violence and separation the antithesis of innocence? The lines themselves crackle apart as we read them, describing the bonds that fray and snap, the falcon breaking away from the falconer. Values eroded from the edges until the core itself collapses.

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

The falcon's not a cuddly bird. It doesn't sing or have a pretty plumage. It's a wild, deadly predator. But it soars, it has keen eyesight, it is loyal (to its falconer), it is noble. It takes its prey in a duel of life and death.  Preferable by far to the vultures ("indignant desert birds") that are the harbingers of death, decay, impurity. Calculating, unclean, scurrilous squabbling creatures. These are the new kids on the block, replacing the has-been falcon. And everything is inside out: the vultures circle their master in a tightening spire, shadows now but moving closer, while the falcon loses discipline, direction.  (Is the falconer faith and the falcon organized religion?)

    "The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity."

Another antithesis: the chaotic "nightmare" energy of the poem versus the extended image at its center, the "shape with lion body and head of a man" that takes its sweet time "slouching towards Bethlehem to be born," as patient as death itself, because history is on its side, and it will surely win: Yeats thought that history moved not in a circle or a straight line, but in a spiral pattern ("gyres"). Thus the chilling irony of the title.

Though the poem uses Christian allusions, Yeats believed in a "Spiritus Mundi" (the spirit world), a kind of Jungian Oversoul which poets and prophets could tap into from time to time. And he thought he'd seen a vision of a New World Order that has been waiting "twenty centuries of stony sleep," and will last as long.

In fact, "The Second Coming" was probably born of the blood and mud and pus of the First World War — think mustard gas, trenches, lice. Think officers mounted on horses, with swords drawn or banners held high, charging machine gun nests. The Modern Era had arrived, and war was no longer a gentleman's game. There was no such thing as playing fair.

And afterward, the fall of the monarchies. The rise of the nation-states.

What's next?

Now that the nation-states are declining, what will arise in their place? Intercontinental trading blocks? A corporate feudal era, with 23rd century serfs implanted with nanochips and proprietary DNA? Or simply, endless bloody chaos ("mere anarchy")?

What is happening to people now? The bonds between families, friends, communities. Between people at work, people driving on the freeway, people walking down the street? Between people and the things that gave them meaning. Everyone is arming themselves to the teeth, getting armored up. Reality is stranger than both fiction and reality TV. The massacre of children and teachers in Sandy Hook. A running gun battle between a Maserati and a black SUV with tinted windows, ending in a fireball in the middle of the Vegas Strip. Feral dogs roaming a crumbling high rise in the once great city of Detroit.

What keeps the poem alive today are those questions about where we're heading, all of us, and the sense of foreboding, and the sense that things are spinning further and further out of control, and that the future's dark indeed.

Here's hoping he's wrong.


About Alpay Ulku:
Alpay Ulku's first collection is Meteorology (BOA Editions), which was selected as a "Notable Debut" by the Academy of American Poets book club. His poems have appeared in literary journals such as Agni, Boulevard, Crazyhorse, Epoch, The Fiddlehead, The Gettysburg Review, The Malahat Review, The Northwest Review, Ploughshares, and Witness, among others.


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