''The Second Coming'': Yeats's Greatest History Poem
19 November 2020
Thank you to the National Library and the Yeats Society for inviting me to take part in this celebration of the centenary of ‘The Second Coming’, one of W.B. Yeats’s most renowned poems. I am delighted to see the Library and the Society cooperating in this way in paying tribute to the national treasure that is the work of W.B. Yeats.
The poem was written in January 1919 and published 100 years ago this month. With its wealth of memorable lines, it is one of the most oft-quoted poems of the 20th century. Critic Harold Bloom has suggested that it was increasingly seen as “Yeats’s central poem.”
The Yeats and Joyce scholar, Richard Ellmann, once wrote that had Yeats died in 1917 instead of marrying, he would have been remembered as “a remarkable minor poet” with a great lyric gift, but who “did not have much to say with it.”
Ellmann wrote about the positive effects on Yeats of his marriage in 1917 to Georgie Hyde-Lees, and especially of his wife’s gift for automatic writing which, in the form of the shards of wisdom conveyed through her from the spirit world, furnished Yeats with “metaphors for poetry.”
‘The Second Coming’ is shaped unmistakably by the framework provided by A Vision, a mesmerisingly-difficult book in which Yeats dragged together the voluminous product of his wife’s automatic writing. Her visionary output was phenomenal, the product of hundreds of hours of what must have been exhausting trance-like sessions.
I do not, in this talk, plan to get into the intricacies of the psychic liaison between the newly-married couple or to deeply into what Yeats gleaned from the spirit world through his wife’s intercession. It is enough to know that Yeats absorbed from his wife’s ‘instructors’ the idea of history unfolding in 2000-year cycles. By 1919, when the poem was composed, the Christian epoch was by that reckoning into its final century.
As the poem’s enduring appeal demonstrates, its appreciation does not depend on a knowledge of its esoteric origins. ‘The Second Coming’ is clearly one of those poems of the last two decades of Yeats’s life in which he wrote with depth of vision and authority of expression.
I like to categorise a number of Yeats’s major 20th century works as his ‘history poems’. I am thinking of ‘No Second Troy’, ‘September 1913’, ‘Easter 1916’, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, and yes, ‘The Second Coming’. There are differences between them of course. For whereas the other poems on my list are all rooted in specific Irish settings, ‘The Second Coming’ has a wider, more general reference. It is a prophetic poem with a mythic edge .
Notwithstanding its mystical provenance, for me ‘The Second Coming’ is a poem of its time. Furthermore, ever since its publication, it has shown a remarkable capacity to relate to the preoccupations of other times including our own.
A few months ago, I tweeted some lines from the poem which attracted a huge and enthusiastic response, with many of my Twitter followers seeing it as creatively addressing the world’s many predicaments in 2020.
Let’s explore its historical hinterland. With a World War, an armistice, a revolutionary surge and an influenza pandemic, I doubt that there was a more dramatic three months, outside of wartime, in 20th century history than those between November 1918 and January 1919, from which ‘The Second Coming’ emerged.
Yeats had paid surprisingly little attention to World War I, a conflict that had taken the lives of 8.5 million combatants. On top of that, there were civilian deaths, which could in places match military ones. Romania, for example, lost 335,000 soldiers and 275,000 civilians to war-related deaths.
The ‘Spanish Flu’ could not have come at a worse time for the world. It rampaged through Europe in the closing months of the war. By the time the pandemic had run its course, it had killed more people than the four-year war that had just ended, an estimated 12 million worldwide.
While Yeats himself escaped the flu virus, his family had two potentially-fatal brushes with the pandemic. In late 1918, his New York-based, 79-year-old father, John Butler Yeats, became gravely ill with the flu but eventually pulled through with the help of New York lawyer and patron of Joyce and Yeats, John Quinn.
Not long after news of his father’s illness reached W.B. Yeats in Dublin, the Spanish flu came even closer to home when his heavily-pregnant, 27-year-old wife, George, was struck down. It was an alarming time for the Yeats family as the Spanish flu took a surprisingly heavy toll on younger people between 15 and 40 who accounted for almost half of the total deaths recorded.
Yeats thought for a time that his wife was about to die, but by mid-December she was on the mend, and gave birth to their daughter, Ann, two months later. I am not saying that the pandemic shaped the poem, but it must have deepened Yeats’s sense of foreboding about the state of the world around him.
The war’s aftermath became a major revolutionary moment. In Berlin, on January 6th, revolutionary Spartacists occupied a number of public buildings and proclaimed a German Soviet Republic. This uprising was short-lived and was put down ruthlessly resulting in the deaths of 1200 insurgents.
A man of conservative mind like Yeats, who feared that change would more likely be for the worse than the better, had reason to be uneasy about the state of the world around him as he sat down to write this great poem.
The old certainties of the Belle Epoque were wilting and waning before his eyes. New States were being born, rising from the ruins of defeated Empires – Hungary, Poland, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the Czechoslovak Republic. The map of Europe that his contemporaries had known for so long was being dramatically redrawn.
And in Ireland, the march towards independence was gaining pace. The composition of ‘The Second Coming’ coincided with the meeting of the First Dáil and the Declaration of Independence on January 21st.
The Irish backdrop to ‘The Second Coming’ can be traced back to 1916 when Yeats described himself as deeply moved by the Rising, but also “very despondent about the future.” As things developed, he saw Ireland drifting into a dangerous condition with “wild bloods” in the ascendant. He feared that Ireland would fall into a “Marxian revolution” which would lead “to inevitable murder.”
It is not clear if ‘The Second Coming’ was written before or after January 21st. That was the day when Ireland’s War of Independence began with an ambush at Soloheadbeg in County Tipperary in which two members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were killed.
My point is that there were a lot of things happening in the world around him when Yeats composed his poem. His worries about the state of the world come across throughout the poem. The world is seen as spiralling out of control to the stage where “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” It is easy to understand his fear that “the centre cannot hold”, that “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed” and that “mere anarchy” was on the rise. After all there were real fears that Soviet regimes might emerge in different parts of a turmoil-ridden continent, echoing what has happened in Russia in 1917.
The poem’s most powerful lines come at the end of the first verse:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
This is the mature Yeats at his best – a master oracle, sallying forth with seemingly unbounded faith in the validity of his insights.
The poem’s second stanza owes more to the historical schema set forth in A Vjsion, with a “rough beast, its hour come round at last” slouching “towards Bethlehem to be born.” This prophetic image is compelling, as it the language in which it is couched – “the indignant desert birds”, “twenty centuries of stony sleep”, and ”vexed to nightmare”.
Like all great poems, it leaves us with much to interpret. The combination of the “rough beast ” and Bethlehem bequeaths us an intriguing mystery as we try to puzzle out the poem’s ultimate conclusion. This lack of specificity has done wonders for the poem’s adaptability. Had Yeats made his meaning clearer, the poem would have been anchored in the moment and lacked the ability to appeal to late generations of readers.
Writing on the centenary of Yeats’s birth in 1965, a literary critic Edward Engleberg observed that Yeats had “once seemed remote, old-fashioned, reactionary … his warnings in poems like The Second Coming’ or ‘The Gyres’ offensive and hysterical. We have had to witness too much to think such things today.” That has continued to be the case as successive generations have found value in Yeats’s work.
Yeats himself came to recognize the poem’s success as a prophetic venture. Writing to his friend, Ethel Mannin, in 1936 he expressed his “horror at the cruelty of governments” be they “Communist, Fascist, nationalist, clerical, anti-clerical”. He insisted that he had not been silent, but had used “the only vehicle I possess – verse. If you have my poems by you, look up a poem called The Second Coming’. It was written sixteen or seventeen years ago and foretold what is happening.” He concluded that “it takes fifty years for a poet’s weapons to influence the issue.”
The disastrous events of the 1930s made Yeats’s vision take on new momentum. As W.H Auden wrote in his elegy ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’,
“the words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living”.
Auden went on to write:
Follow poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night.,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
‘The Second Coming’ was certainly one of those Yeats poems in which he deployed his unconstraining voice to full effect and, I would argue, helped us find a frame for coping with the barbaric history of the 20th century.
For me, ‘The Second Coming’ illustrates an important point about Yeats. I refer to his astuteness as observer of the world around him and his ability to wind his way around public affairs without losing his way as an artist. This comes out time and again in his ‘history’ poems’.
In ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’, he proclaims his desire to sing “to sweeten Ireland’s wrong” while insisting that his rhymes also tell “of things discovered in the deep”. ‘September 1913’, despite the fact that it is a poem of complaint, even bitterly so in places, contains a fine evocation of the grandeur of the nationalist tradition.
“Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play
Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide
All that delirium of the brave.
It is important to recall that ‘Easter 1916’ was written just a few months after the Rising, but that it contains insights that were not commonplace at that time. I refer to his assertion that the Rising had changed Ireland utterly. That was not a given in the months after the Rising when the Home Rule agenda of the Irish Parliamentary Party might well have made a comeback.
Then in the final stanza comes the following:
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.”
This an early example (perhaps the earliest) of revisionist thinking about the Rising. Yeats’s question resonated across the decades that followed, and remains a subject for debate among historians of that period. Whatever answer you might offer to Yeats’s question, it is impossible to avoid noticing how perceptive he was at a time when Ireland’s politics were fluid and the country’s future direction remained uncertain.
‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ powerful lines that capture the brutality of the war of independence:
“Now the days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep; a drunken soldiery
Can leave a mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood and go scot-free”.
And finally, in ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, he wrote these wonderful lines:
‘We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love”.
Throughout his history poems, we find the same combination of keen observation and meditative power, expressed in language that well and truly matches the ambition of his analysis and the scale of what was happening in Ireland.
‘The Second Coming’ certainly falls into that category. It packs a mighty punch with the menacing tone of its opening verse and the mysteries of its closing passage. The 20th century would have been a far happier place had ‘The Second Coming’ not become a go-to poem for efforts to understand its complexities, but that was not to be. Its language is an example Yeats at his best. It is clear as a bell, one that has rung loudly across the century since its publication in November 1920.
Thank you for your attention.
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