Monday, November 24, 2008

The Second Coming (Yeats)

THE SECOND COMING (1920) by William Butler Yeats (Irish poet and dramatist)

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?

The parallels between the early 20th century and now are undeniable. Back then we had a fearful and greedy ruling class terrified of the waves of European immigrants with their socialist demands for better wages and working conditions. The wealthy used the state (police and military) and also paid private security firms (Pinkertons) (like Blackwater) to help the business owners harass, beat up, murder the workers, sometimes deporting them (Palmer raids) or throwing them in jail or prison, to prevent working people from organizing to protect themselves as workers. This was the time of the IWW, Big Bill Haywood, the militant trade union movement, and business was in the business of crushing unions. Today we have the elite in both parties crushing unions and supporting the bankers, the wealthy, bailing out every big institution on wall street while many Americans are unemployed, homeless, and broke. Who represents the working people?

In addition to the fervid anti-communism inside the U.S. at that time, World War I saw mass chaos and destruction in Europe which spilled over into the U.S. when we sent our military to fight that war, and when our veterans returned home with little money but often scarred from their experiences. Then there was the Russian revolution. All over Europe conditions continued to be unstable, providing the right environment for fascism to flourish in Spain, Italy, Germany, a militaristic state in Japan, and a tinderbox of a world just waited for the next spark for the next war, even more devastating than World War I.

Yeats wrote this poem in 1919 and shared the view of the upperclasses in Europe who sensed an instability in the world and feared more war, more chaos. Even his references to relying on religion to try to interpret or understand what was going on around them ("Surely some revelation is at hand; surely the Second Coming is at hand") sound like a lot of the salesmen on Sunday morning TV asking the fearful citizens of the U.S. to send money to save their souls, because surely the end is near.

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