as pitiless as the sun…

by William Butler Yeats

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 Second Coming” is one of my favorites of Yeats’ poems. Even before I read a few of the endless theories about Yeats’ interest in the occult and paganism, historical cycles, what he calls the “dissolution of civilization” – in the first lines of the poem (“Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconers/Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”) I’m immediately drawn into a frenzied space and time. In the repetition of the word “falcon” in “falconer” some parallel relationship is implied; but the connective words “cannot hear” signify the impending and dangerous imbalance between the two, between man and his civilized world, which I think is a theme that runs throughout the poem. The poem itself has a sort of spiraling energy with the shape of the “lion body and the head of the man” taking form out of an expanse of desert, and the “shadows of the indignant desert birds” that “reel” about the beast’s “slow thighs.”

I read many speculations about whether the “Second Coming” implies a reversion or an apocalypse, or if the cycles in the poem are oscillations between Christianity and paganism. I think the poem leaves the possibilities much more open-ended – perhaps the Second Coming will be a new way of thinking all together, one not mapped out on the same temporal (historical) vectors. One can only hope.


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