Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Second Coming (for the last time)

One of the most famous poems in the Western world is The Second Coming by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.  Everyone has read it, or at least has heard some parts of it read to them, or seen those parts in print.  Most anthologies include it.
The well-known phrases are:  "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" or "The ceremony of innocence is drowned;  the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity".  And finally,  "...what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
These lines are favored by the impressionable young for their magical music as much as their apocalyptic promise.  The pundits of the world, on a slow day, will summon a vision of the Beast slouching toward Washington, approaching either from the Left or the Right, according to their ideological bent.  The poem has become a cliche.
I confess to having liked the poem while confessing also that I never understood it.
The problem, for me, lies in the title and theme.  The original Second Coming refers to a biblical prophecy that foretells the return of Jesus Christ, or the Messiah.
However Jesus did not slouch toward Bethlehem.  Neither did Mary, but it must be clear to all that whoever slouches toward the metaphorical Bethlehem to bear the Beast must be the Pregnant one, not the Beast itself.  Otherwise we are dealing with an event as unusual as the Virgin Birth.
Or it is just a bad metaphor formed from the conflation of Beast and Bethlehem infused with an evil slouch.
Flannery O'Connor overplayed the metaphor when she wrote the following:
"...nothing harder than Christian realism.  I believe there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, and that I have reported on the progress of a few of them, and when I see these stories  (her short stories, ed. note)  described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror."


  1. "Hold of the wrong horror" is a stunning quote, and one I hadn't seen before--thanks!

    Also a big thanks for following my Dust Bowl story.

  2. Thank you for the visit. I appreciate it.
    I have only just started reading your Dust Bowl story. I enjoy it. It has a flavor that stays in my mind. Easy to go back for seconds.

  3. Dear Mr. Hunter,

    And why can we not have an event as singular as the virgin birth. What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born" refers probably more to Rosicruianism than to Christianity and to the pre-existent souls that may come to be born. I think of it in line with the Aboriginal thought that children are brought from the dream-time into the real world through the dreaming of the parents. I think this is what might be referred to as zeitgeist--and that preexistent spirit is coming into corporeal being.

    Or not. I've never found it particularly perplexing. And of course Yeats's second coming is written with the events of 1916 just behind. In reflecting on "the troubles" the poem receives a new and different dimension.

    Or not.



  4. You may be right, Steven Riddle. Mystical poetry does lend itself to different interpretations. I believe that the Christian connection is too strong to ignore. Your comment on "the troubles" is interesting, and quite likely, although Harold Bloom believes that Yeats is referring to the Russian revolution of 1917.
    Proving again that great works of art last because they can never be wholly explained.
    Regards, Lincoln