The Second Coming (poem)
"The Second Coming" is a poem written by Irish poet W. B. Yeats in 1919, first printed in The Dial in November 1920, and afterwards included in his 1921 collection of verses Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The poem uses Christian imagery regarding the Apocalypse and Second Coming to allegorically describe the atmosphere of post-war Europe. It is considered a major work of modernist poetry and has been reprinted in several collections, including The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.
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 poem was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence that followed the Easter Rising, at a time before the British Government decided to send in the Black and Tans to Ireland. Yeats used the phrase "the second birth" instead of "the Second Coming" in his first drafts.
The poem is also connected to the 1918–1919 flu pandemic. In the weeks preceding Yeats's writing of the poem, his pregnant wife Georgie Hyde-Lees caught the virus and was very close to death. The highest death rates of the pandemic were among pregnant women—in some areas, they had up to a 70 percent death rate. While his wife was convalescing, he wrote "The Second Coming".
Phrases and lines from the poem are used in many works, in a variety of media, such as literature, motion pictures, television and music. Examples of works whose titles draw from "The Second Coming" include: Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart (1958); Ray Bradbury's fantasy novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962); Joan Didion's essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968); Robert B. Parker's novel The Widening Gyre (1983); the 1996 non-fiction book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline by Robert Bork; the song "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" (which quotes or paraphrases almost all of the poem) by Joni Mitchell from her 1991 album Night Ride Home; by Lou Reed in his preamble to the song "Sweet Jane" on the 1978 album Live: Take No Prisoners; the episode "Revelations" (9 November 1994) of the science fiction television series Babylon 5; The Roots LP Things Fall Apart, released in 1999; Harry Turtledove's novel American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold; the 2003 game Slouching Towards Bedlam; the Star Trek eBook collection Mere Anarchy (2006–07), Elyn Saks' autobiography The Center Cannot Hold (2007); The Sopranos episode "The Second Coming" (2007); the Altan album The Widening Gyre (2015); the Ben Frost LP The Centre Cannot Hold (2017); When the Center Held, a 2018 memoir by Donald Rumsfeld of the Gerald Ford presidency; and the Sleater-Kinney LP The Center Won't Hold, released in 2019, 100 years after Yeats wrote the poem. Stephen King's novel The Stand references the poem numerous times, with one character explicitly quoting lines from it.
A 2016 analysis by research company Factiva showed that lines from the poem were quoted more often in the first seven months of 2016 than in any of the preceding 30 years. In the context of increased terrorist violence (particularly in France), and political turmoil in the Western world after the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America shortly thereafter, commentators repeatedly invoked its lines: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."
- Lynskey, Dorian (30 May 2020). "'Things fall apart': the apocalyptic appeal of WB Yeats's The Second Coming". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
- Albright, Daniel (1997), Quantum Poetics: Yeats's figures as reflections in Water (PDF), Cambridge University Press, p. 35.
- Childs, Peter (2007). Modernism. The New Critical Idiom (2nd ed.). Routledge. p. 39. ISBN 978-0-41541546-0.
- Haughey, Jim (2002). The First World War in Irish Poetry. Bucknell University Press. p. 161. ISBN 978-1-61148151-8.
- Deane, Seamus (1998). "Boredom and Apocalypse". Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790. Clarendon lectures in English literature. Clarendon Press. p. 179. ISBN 978-0-19818490-4.
- Onion, Rebecca. "The 1918 Flu Pandemic Killed Millions. So Why Does Its Cultural Memory Feel So Faint?". Slate. Slate. Retrieved 10 May 2020.
- "Slouching Towards Bethlehem". Retrieved 30 January 2020.
- Ballard, Ed (23 August 2016). "Terror, Brexit and U.S. Election Have Made 2016 the Year of Yeats". The Wall Street Journal.
- O’Toole, Fintan (28 July 2018). "Fintan O'Toole: 'Yeats Test' criteria reveal we are doomed". The Irish Times. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
- Kakutani, Michiko (13 February 2017). "A World in Disarray Is a Calm Look at a Chaotic Global Order". The New York Times. (Review of Richard N. Haass' book.)
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