Monday, September 1, 2014

W.B Yeats: The Second Coming

(go to the end of this blog for the text of the poem) 




    The vision is truly Biblical - Daniel or John might easily have dreamed it. It seems as if Ozymandias has awoken, and is making his ponderous, gargantuan tracks out of the empty desert, yet bringing that vast nothing with him, inside him. His vastness oppresses us, overwhelms us, darkens our human kingdom, both in its portent and in its presence. This is not the Messiah we had waited for, longed for: bringer of light, peace, harmony. This is not Man’s apotheosis, but his very nemesis, absolute epitome of our darkest nature. This is not reborn Adam, but the plumed serpent, Egyptian Quetzlcoatl, the Gnostic demiurge. Human hopes imagine gentle Jesus, but human history gives birth only to beasts of the Apocalypse.

   Yeats blends the romantically lyrical with a chiasmic classicism - so much assonance and alliteration causing the opening couplet to flow, as honeyed dreams of the millennia should flow; then a breach in the lines as the desperate truth about the Truth reveals itself. Again a lyrical couplet - determined to transform vision into light; but again darkness prevails as the opening stanza’s final couplet subsides into mere personal statement, mere opinion - judgement of a mortal not immortal nature: mere prose.

    But the scene is now set: the Beast is ready to emerge from the wilderness of the human psyche, clothed in millennial blood. Yet his appearance stumbles: the scansion breaks down in line 5 (“the”); again in line 6 (“a”); again in line 7 (“A gaze – blank”). It cannot be coincidence: Yeats in his high tower, conducting himself as he recited his drafts, beating time to his inner metronome, would surely not have allowed a broken meter other than intentionally. The Beast is huge, powerful - but still unsure. Imminent, his presence looms, slow and monstrous as a dinosaur, a Leviathan, a Behemoth. Beautiful yet tragic, human history stands poised at the threshold of the abyss. But where, dark visionary, where is the bright star of hope, where are the Magi, where the shepherds? Not in this bleak revelation of St William.
 

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 candle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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