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Second Birth

The Second Coming (poem)

"The Second Coming" is a poem by William Butler Yeats first printed in The Dial (November 1920) and afterwards included in his 1921 verse collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The poem uses religious symbolism to illustrate Yeats' anguish over the apparent decline of Europe's ruling class, and his occult belief that Western civilization (if not the whole world) was nearing the terminal point of a 2000-year historical cycle.

The poem was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War. However, the various manuscript revisions of the poem refer to the French and Irish Revolutions as well those of Germany and Russia; as a result, it is unlikely that the poem was solely inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, which some claim Yeats viewed as a threat to the aristocratic class he favored.

Early drafts also included such lines as: "And there's no Burke to cry aloud no Pitt," and "The good are wavering, while the worst prevail."

The sphinx or sphinx-like beast described in the poem had long captivated Yeats' imagination. He wrote the Introduction to his play The Resurrection, "I began to imagine [around 1904], as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast which I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction", noting that the beast was "Afterwards described in my poem 'The Second Coming'". However, there are some differences between the two characters, mainly that the figure in the poem has no wings.

Critic Yvor Winters has observed, "…we must face the fact that Yeats' attitude toward the beast is different from ours: we may find the beast terrifying, but Yeats finds him satisfying – he is Yeats' judgment upon all that we regard as civilized. Yeats approves of this kind of brutality." Manuscript variations can be found in Yeats, William Butler. Michael Robartes and the Dancer Manuscript Materials. Thomas Parkinson and Anne Brannen, eds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

The Poem

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?
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Origins of terms

The word gyre used in the poem's first line is drawn from Yeats's book A Vision, which sets out a theory of history and metaphysics which Yeats claimed to have received from spirits. The theory of history articulated in A Vision centers on a diagram composed of two conical spirals, one situated inside the other, so that the widest part of one cone occupies the same plane as the tip of the other cone, and vice versa. Around these cones he imagined a set of spirals. Yeats claimed that this image (he called the spirals "gyres") captured contrary motions inherent within the process of history, and he divided each gyre into different regions that represented particular kinds of historical periods (and could also represent the psychological phases of an individual's development). Yeats believed that in 1921 the world was on the threshold of an apocalyptic moment, as history reached the end of the outer gyre (to speak roughly) and began moving along the inner gyre.

The lines "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" are a paraphrase of one of the most famous passages from Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, a book which Yeats, by his own admission, regarded from his childhood with religious awe:

In each human heart terror survives
The ravin it has gorged: the loftiest fear
All that they would disdain to think were true:
Hypocrisy and custom make their minds
The fanes of many a worship, now outworn.
They dare not devise good for man's estate,
And yet they know not that they do not dare.

The phrase "stony sleep" is drawn from The Book of Urizen by William Blake (one of the poets Yeats studied most intensely). In Blake's poem, Urizen falls, unable to bear the battle in heaven he has provoked. To ward off the fiery wrath of his vengeful brother Eternals, he frames a rocky womb for himself: "But Urizen laid in a stony sleep / Unorganiz'd, rent from Eternity." During this stony sleep, Urizen goes through seven ages of creation-birth as fallen man, until he emerges. This is the man who becomes the Sphinx of Egypt.

In the early drafts of the poem, Yeats used the phrase "the Second Birth", but substituted the phrase "Second Coming" while revising. His intent in doing so is not clear. The Second Coming described in the Biblical Book of Revelation is here anticipated as gathering dark forces that would fill the population's need for meaning with a ghastly and dangerous sense of purpose. Though Yeats's description has nothing in common with the typically envisioned Christian concept of the Second Coming of Christ, as his description of the figure in the poem is nothing at all like the image of Christ, it fits with his view that something strange and heretofore unthinkable would come to succeed Christianity, just as Christ transformed the world upon his appearance.

The "spiritus mundi" (literally "spirit of the world") is a reference to Yeats' belief that each human mind is linked to a single vast intelligence, and that this intelligence causes certain universal symbols to appear in individual minds. Carl Jung's book The Psychology of the Unconscious, published in 1912, could have had an influence, with its idea of the collective unconscious.

Allusions to the poem

Chinua Achebe titled his most famous novel Things Fall Apart (1958), prefacing the book with the poem's first four lines. Achebe's novel adheres to Yeats' theme by evincing the sudden collapse of African societies in the age of European colonialism.

The hip hop group The Roots titled their 1999 album Things Fall Apart taking the name from the above novel.

The poem is referred to several times directly and indirectly in Stephen King's epic novel The Stand. It is also cited several times in Dan Simmon's novel Hyperion.

Joni Mitchell set this poem to lyrics in her song "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" originally on her Night Ride Home CD.

All but a few lines of the poem have been lines of dialogue on the television show The Sopranos, including one episode in which Dr. Melfi tells Tony "The center cannot hold. The falcon cannot hear the falconer".

The phrase "the center cannot hold" is used on the last page of Storm Front, the first book of The Dresden Files.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. used "The Second Coming" as the epigraph to his book The Vital Center. More than a half-century later, he explained that the poem had been "less of a cliché in 1948" than it had become currently. In 1986 Schlesinger, in The Cycles of American History, again referenced this poem with prophetic paraphrase: "Still, let us not be complacent. Should private interest fail today and public purpose thereafter, what rough beast, its hour come round at last, may be slouching toward Washington to be born?"

Joan Didion's 1968 collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, references the poem, as does Nina Coltart's 1993 book "Slouching Toward Bethlehem... and Further Psychoanalytic Explorations", as well as numerous popular songs, movies and novels. Conservative judge Robert H. Bork used the poem as an inspiration for the title of his 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. In response, syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage chose Skipping Towards Gomorrah as the title for his 2003 book (ISBN 0-45-228416-3).

The tenth of Robert B. Parker's novels featuring the detective Spenser is titled The Widening Gyre.

The line "the center cannot hold" is used by Quark in the Deep Space Nine episode "The Begotten".

The anarchist hero of Alan Moore's graphic novel V for Vendetta quotes the first three lines of the poem in the chapter "Verwirrung."

Adam Cohen, of the New York Times on 12 February 2007 commented how the poem has been used more and more as a metaphor for the war in Iraq.

In the series Angel, there was an episode entitled "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" which involved a foretelling of the end times by the character Lorne who states, "Do the words Slouching towards Bethlehem ring a bell? Or how about despair, torment, terror?".

In the sci-fi television series Andromeda, three episodes are titled "The Widening Gyre", "Pitiless as the Sun" and "Its hour come round at last"

San Francisco Bay-area pop group The Loud Family, led by Scott Miller, titled a 1993 EP Slouching Towards Liverpool, employing a reference to the poem to also allude to the hometown of the group's forebears The Beatles.

Author Nick Bantock makes reference to lines from "The Second Coming" at the beginning and end in each book of the Griffin and Sabine series. This is remarked upon in his biographical book, The Artful Dodger.

In "A Peanut Christmas", a collection of Peanuts Christmas comics, the poem is referenced at the bottom of page 108. Peppermint Patty dresses as a sheep for the Christmas pageant and trips on a curb. Marcie turns to her and says," Slouching toward Bethlehem, huh sir."

In the US TV show Heroes (NBC), Mohinder Suresh quotes the entire poem in the closing minute of the first episode of the third season of the TV show, which is itself titled "The Second Coming".

In the TV show Babylon 5 (episode "Revelations"), G'Kar quotes parts of the poem to his aide as evidence they may have more in common with humans then he had previously suspected.

In the September 20th, 2008 edition of The Economist, the lead article, entitled "What next?", alludes to the poem. The article is about the financial crisis and seems to use the poem as a theme. The second line begins with the phrase "In the widening gyre." The two section headings in the body of the article are also taken from the poem. One is "The blood-dimmed tide." The other is "The centre cannot hold." Also, the cover depicts a whirlpool pulling down the corporate logos of Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Washington Mutual, HBOS, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Northern Rock, Indymac, as well as the Lehman Brothers building and the Charging Bull sculpture.

In a deleted scene from Oliver Stone's 1995 Movie Nixon, Richard Helms' character played by Sam Waterston recites "The Second Coming" in it's entirety to President Nixon played by Anthony Hopkins.

In the comedy Back To School, Rodney Dangerfield's character recites the poem, and in his analysis of it, concludes that the rough beast refers to his ex-wife.

In the series 4 episode of the BBC radio comedy Old Harry's Game 'Poets Corner' the professer states that this one of his favourite poems.

The poem is referenced in the Pilot episode of the Sci-Fi series millennium.

References

  • Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven, 2004.

http://www.economist.com/opinion/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=12263158

External links

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