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Ten Poems: Yeats’ “Second Coming” 24 August 2006

Posted by ABD in Arts, History, Poetry, Politics.

This is the third post of a ten-part series. The first two introduced Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”.

William Butler Yeats was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth-century, and a number of his poems have been celebrated for their literary value. For its social relevance, however, the one you should really know is “Second Coming”. Perhaps more imaginatively than any other poem in the English language, it expresses the horror of a world falling apart.

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 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?


Written in the aftermath of WWI, “Second Coming” has resonated with subsequent generations of readers. In fact, it has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps no other work has been alluded to by so many others (Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the most prominent example, but I found a score of others).

It is just as (if not more) relevant today.

For some time now, it seems that things have been getting out of hand. Violence and disorder are the rage, but something deeper seems to be at work here. Whether this is a political, spiritual or philosophical malaise, the course of world events is spiraling out of control:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

If there was a center once, it can no longer hold—with disastrous consequences:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

Let’s spend a moment longer on this thought. Taking the long view, Muslims can identify a steady decline in the Muslim condition since the paradigmatic generation of Prophet Muhammad (on him be peace) and his Companions. We privelege a certain moment in time (certainly not a uniquely Muslim characteristic), one consequence of which is a tragic view of subsequent history.

The best of my people are my generation, then those after them, then those after them…

– Prophet Muhammad (on him be peace)

This is in some sense the opposite of the progressive view advanced by modernists, where things only get better with every generation as we advance toward the end goal of humanity. Here we have rather the suggestion that the pinnacle of human achievement is already behind us.

One possible way to understand this position is to recognize that, given the contingency of human history, a comprehensive model for individual, spiritual and political excellence will inevitably unravel over time. Insofar as the Prophet’s life was paradigmatic of an Islamic way of life, there was a complete congruence of ethics and circumstances. As soon as the circumstances begin to change, however, it becomes more and more difficult to separate religious guidelines from cultural considerations. Similarly, unstated premises of Prophetic statements become increasingly opaque. Of course, Islamic legal scholars classically developed sophisticated tools to interepret the Prophetic precedent and apply it by analogy to new circumstances.

But with more fundamental structural changes in the transition from traditional to modern societies, the challenges have only piled up. The deification of science and proliferation of technology have enabled a shift from man’s acceptance of nature to its conquest. The critique of hierarchical relationships (church over worshipper, ruler over subjects, man over woman) has undone the principle of hierarcy itself. The secularization of dominant societies means that all societies, dominant and dominated, have been stripped of religion. The traditional foundations of society have been on the move for some time now. (Whether the new, liberal foundations can take root remains an open question).

As Abdul-Hakim Murad’s “Bombing without Moonlight” has also suggested, war has fewer guidelines and fewer constraints when it erupts in these circumstances (however caused). Our capabilities outstrip our judgments, and the ethical is suspended when it is needed most:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

As the last few years have made increasingly clear, it’s not just a question of my freedom fighters or your terrorists. Whosever narrative you choose, we have all been sullied. (If there are any innocents left, they are being successively picked off.) Moreoever, it is increasingly apparent that no one knows what’s going on, and how to get ourselves out of this mess.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It would take more to explain why both traditional religous leaders and traditional liberals are tongue-tied. But the inversion of political wisdom cannot be denied.

If readers readily nod at the first stanza (and vigorously so at its final pair of lines), they often scratch their heads at the second. A fuller discussion would require reference to Yeats’ own beliefs about time and history (which included 2000 year cycles of decline and renewal), but it can at least be said that this is a messianic poem with an anti-Christian conclusion. The Second Coming doesn’t bring the Messiah but rather a beast from the desert, with a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”

The poem is rich with (sometimes conflicting) religious, historical and literary allusions, and the multiple possibilities generated by these different threads only add to the air of uncertainty. What we’re left with is a prediction without a promise.

The question for us is: how do we get traction to brake or stop this slide toward Bethlehem? What is available to us—politically, economically, spiritually—to do something? The frightening possibility is nothing.



1. VARANGALI - 24 August 2006

While Yeats’ political poems are powerful and moving, I like even better his brooding personal ruminations. For example, from “Sailing to Byzantium”:

“Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling”

2. Irving - 25 August 2006

A very good exposition on a really prophetic and marvelous poem of Yeats. Yet your words are close to hopeless at the human condition we find ourselves in at the beginning of this century. Actually, less people have died in wars than in any time in world history. And the number gets fewer each year.

And there are good and brave people working on both a political and spiritual level to evolve the race toward its real purpose.

The broader vision is increasingly hopeful.

3. ABD - 26 August 2006

irving, thank you for raising this point, because it allows me to make a couple of important clarifications about my intentions with this poetry series.

first, these are introductions to particular poems for a specific audience (i.e., western and western-minded muslims) and should not be taken as literary commentaries. in other words, i may use a given poem to provoke a topic of relevance to the audience even if that is not what the poem is originally or primarily about.

second, these introductions are meant to open up discussions and not close them. by reflecting seriously on the themes of individual poems, we are forced to confront certain existential possibilities. this does not mean, however, that i actually think that any particular introduction is the final word on the subject or representative of my larger views. in this particular case, a messianic poem has done its job if it forces us to consider the prospect of chaos, nihilism or civilizational collapse. other reflections will, God willing, be more hopeful.

on a separate note, i am curious about your reference towards the evolution of the human race. of course, i understand that you mean a spiritual and not a biological evolution, but i am still struck by the idea that humanity as a whole will morally improve over time (really? what warrants such faith?).

4. under|progress - 8 September 2006

[This blog post has been featured in The Carnival of Islam in the West I]

5. e - 23 May 2007

can anyone tell me the form of this poem?

6. talib - 27 May 2007

in reference to Irving’s comment on increasingly fewer people dying in wars year by year: is this true?

7. Fahima Shuja - 29 November 2007

Whoa. Let me congratulate you for this intellectual piece of analysis. Can I have any other analysis if you have done about other poems or literary pieces?

8. ABD - 29 November 2007

glad you liked it, fahima. this was one of a ten-part series (although i haven’t gotten to ten yet). just type in “ten poems” in the search bar on the top right to see the others.

9. carole - 28 March 2008

what is the second coming poem by yeats actually means

10. kelsey - 16 April 2008

superb!! this is what came to my mind when i read it!

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