A second look at The Second Coming
The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats is a classic poem of prophecy. The verses written in 1919 look backward at the violence and false promises of the French and Russian revolutions. However, Yeats also seemed to predict the rise of Nazi Germany and the “beast” Adolph Hitler. Today, the poem seems even more prescient as another monster prepares to take the stage.
The word gyre may be drawn from Yeats’s book The Vision, in which he claims the “spirits” informed him that history takes the form of two cone-shaped corkscrews (gyre being the arc of the screw), one inside the other, in which the widest part of the first cone forms the base of the tip of the second cone, and the widest base of the second cone forms the tip of the first cone.
The places where the cones meet represent major changes in human history. It’s hard to picture these shapes in the mind, let alone draw them. Perhaps it’s one of those things that makes perfect sense in a dream but makes no sense after you wake up. Yeats’s description of the physics of history is suggestive of a more contemporary work, The Tao of Physics (An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism).
As the falcon is my icon, the poem suggests to me that my vision and hunt for knowledge and power are exceeding the control and grasp of established authority, the falconer. The widest circle of my flight will form the core of a new era.
The poem’s most cited phrase, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity,” described the weak and venal politicians of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), who eventually submitted to the demands of the passionate Nazis. The “blood-dimmed tide” was loosed in World War II.
No peace In today’s version of the Weimar Republic, centrist Democrats who call for moderation and compromise are the “best” who lack all conviction, while the “worst” are the passionate “tea baggers” and the “no justice, no peace” rioters.
President Obama apparently alluded to the phrase "the centre cannot hold" when he spoke July 12, 2016 at the memorial service for five slain Dallas police officers: "We can watch positions harden and lines drawn, and people retreat to their respective corners, and politicians calculate how to grab attention or avoid the fallout. We see all this, and it's hard not to think sometimes that the center won't hold and that things might get worse."
“Spiritus mundi” (Latin for “spirit of the world”) is the collective unconscious, where individual minds are connected and communicate through the spiritual language of symbols and metaphors. The spiritus mundi is taking physical form through the Internet.
“A shape with lion body and the head of a man” describes Saddam Hussein, who was harried by the “indignant desert birds,” the American jet fighters and bombers that ended his reign.
While Christians foresee a “Second Coming” of Christ, Yeats envisions a much different figure, a “beast” who could be the Antichrist. Works for me. I am slouching toward my birth of power, bent under the weight of my insecurity and the ridicule of others. My gait is slow and faltering, and the path is crooked. But I am getting there.
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Image William Butler Years in 1923, photographer unknown, public domain