globalgroupingWe begin our blog on circles with “The Second Coming,” a well-known poem by William Butler Yeats. My first encounter with the Yeats poem was in a beloved 11th grade English class taught by Ms. Guccione who used the John Ciardi book How Does a Poem Mean to teach the poetry section. The poem was written in 1919, at the end of World War I and the Russian Revolution, when many saw humanity’s future as uncertain. Immediately the poem spins us into a whirlpool with the opening words, “Turning and turning,” and by the end of the line we are in a “widening gyre” (a vortex or maelstrom) where a falcon cycles so far out that it can no longer hear or heed its master. The prediction is dire with collapse and loss of gravity.

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?

Some of Yeats’s poems contain references to a mystical system of intersecting cone shapes he devised in which the world undulated through 2000 year cycles — each cycle overthrowing the old order only to be spun out again in new uncertain order. With its many biblical references and apocalyptic visions that speak for generations across continents, Yeats’s poem has influenced writers such as Joan Didion who referenced its last line for her book Slouching Toward Bethlehem, to rock musicians, to the writers of the popular tv series “The Sopranos” who derived plot lines and themes from the poem. Here’s a link to a rebus posted by Fu Jen University which uses book covers that have been influenced by this poem:

“The Second Coming” was the last poem in the Ciardi book, bringing Ms. Guccione’s poetry lesson full circle and leaving us with an apocalyptic message that played into our own visions of what was to come for our generation. I was 15 when I wrote “Judeo-Christians losing hold” next to the word “falconer” in the first stanza, and under the words “Slouches toward Bethlehem,” I wrote: “second coming, a mixed blessing.”

How would you characterize the second coming that Yeats’s describes?

AnnaLee Wilson