Every few months, I have a new poem that I’m obsessed with. It started in highschool. For a long time, it was Dickinson, then Plath, then Erica Jong. I’ll cycle through then back and forth. For the last six months or so, it’s been 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?
I giggled about it originally because “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” so perfectly encapsulates this political season. The poem itself is so apocalyptic, religious without mentioning religion. It circles around religion, articulating religious imagery in this secular/irreligious text. Jesus is clearly in there, born in Bethlehem, it’s always Jesus’ second coming, but Jesus isn’t named. The lion in the bible is both the devil as a roaring lion and the lord–it’s contradictory, inconsistent, divergent … or maybe it’s both at the same time. A lion now is both royalty and cowardice.
The lion has “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” The sun is distant and uncaring, but also life/warmth giving. The sun doesn’t care about us, but it benefits us all the same. The “rough beast slouch[ing] toward Bethlehem” isn’t a monster (necessarily). Beast is a more neutral term. The lion is walking towards a birth, but the desert birds follow after death. The beast is both life and death, neither good nor evil. It’s lazy, uncaring, slow. You have both the dread and the hope, ending with the question: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Is that rhetorical or opening up a dialogue?
The second coming could be religious, a social upheaval, a revolution, a societal change, a personal change. For me, it’s that personal change, a change so great it resets your whole frame of reference. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned” It’s the religious/mental/cerebral/abstract ritual killed by the unstoppable, overwhelming visceral reality. The physical is violently making itself known in my life. Innocence drowning sounds like a negative death, but isn’t innocence meant to be a stage towards experience, towards more knowledge, more growth, more power? The Jesus figure is a beast, not a man. Born as a child means a decade or more of child like helplessness; animals don’t have that duration. Drown my innocence in the baptism of blood. Give me more knowledge.
The poem is also so quiet, seen but not heard. Everything is action, not talk. There is so much movement, cycling day to night, movement through centuries, movement towards Bethlehem. The beast is DOING not waiting. The beast is the actor, not passively acted upon.
Edited to add lines… for some reason, the system doesn’t recognize my hard returns, so it’s WALL OF TEXT, and that is annoying.