Print this post Print this post

Yeats’ Pagan Second Coming

1,646 words

Luc Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1879

Luc Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1879

Translations: German, Spanish

William Butler Yeats penned his most famous poem, “The Second Coming,” in 1919, in the days of the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, when things truly were “falling apart,” European civilization chief among them. The title refers, of course, to the Second Coming of Christ. But as I read it, the poem rejects the idea that the literal Second Coming of Christ is at hand. Instead, it affirms two non-Christian senses of Second Coming. First, there is the metaphorical sense of the end of the present world and the revelation of something radically new. Second, there is the sense of the Second Coming not of Christ, but of the paganism displaced by Christianity. Yeats heralds a pagan Second Coming.

The poem reads:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center 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 the 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.
A 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?

If one reads this poem as an allegory of modern nihilism, quite a lot falls into place. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre.” Picture here a falcon flying in an ever-widening spiral trajectory. At the center of the gyre is the falconer, the falcon’s master. As the gyre widens, there comes a point at which “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.”

Presumably, what the falcon cannot hear is the falconer calling the bird back to his arm. No longer able to hear the falconer’s voice, the falcon continues to push outwards.

But without the pull toward the center, the falcon’s flight path will lose its spiral structure, which is constituted by the connection between the falcon and the falconer, and the falcon will have to determine his flight path on his own, a path that will no doubt zig and zag with the currents of the air and the falcon’s passing desires, but will not display any intelligible structure–except, maybe, some decayed echoes of its original spiral.

The falcon is modern man. The motive force of the falcon’s flight is human desire, pride, spiritedness, and Faustian striving. The spiral structure of the flight is the intelligible measure–the moderation and moralization of human desire and action–imposed by the moral center of our civilization, represented by the falconer, the falcon’s master, our master, which I interpret in Nietzschean terms as the highest values of our culture. The tether that holds us to the center and allows it to impose measure on our flight is the “voice of God,” i.e., the claim of the values of our civilization upon us; the ability of our civilization’s values to move us.

We, the falcon, have, however, spiraled out too far to hear our master’s voice calling us back to the center, so we spiral onward, our motion growing progressively more eccentric (un-centered), our desires and actions progressively less measured . . .

Thus, “Things fall apart. The center cannot hold.” When the moral center of civilization no longer has a hold, things fall apart. This falling apart has at least two senses. It refers to disintegration but also to things falling away from one another because they are also falling away from their common center. It refers to the breakdown of community and civilization, the breakdown of the government of human desire by morality and law, hence . . .

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Anarchy, meaning the lack of arche: the Greek for origin, principle, and cause; metaphorically, the lack of center. But what is “mere” about anarchy? Anarchy is not “mere” because it is innocuous and unthreatening. In this context, “mere anarchy” means anarchy in an unqualified sense, anarchy plain and simple. Thus:

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.

Why would nihilism make the best lack all conviction and fill the worst with passionate intensity? I think that here Yeats is offering us his version of Nietzsche’s distinction between active and passive nihilism. The passive nihilist–because he identifies on some level with the core values of his culture–experiences the devaluation of these values as an enervating loss of meaning, as the defeat of life, as the loss of all convictions. By contrast, the active nihilist–because he experiences the core values of his culture as constraints and impediments to the free play of his imagination and desires–experiences the devaluation of these values as liberating, as the freedom to posit values of his own, thus nihilism fills him with a passionate creative–or destructive–intensity.

This characterization of active and passive nihilism captures the struggle between conservatives and the Left. Conservatives are the “best” who lack all conviction. They are the best, because they are attached to the core values of the West. They lack all conviction, because they no longer believe in them. Thus they lose every time when faced by the passionate intensity of the Left, who experience nihilism as invigorating.

The second stanza of Yeats’s poem indicates precisely which core values have been devalued. The apocalyptic anxiety of the first stanza leads one to think that perhaps the Apocalypse, the Second Coming, is at hand:

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

But this is followed by the exclamation, “The Second Coming!” which I interpret as equivalent to “The Second Coming? Ha! Quite the opposite.” And the opposite is then revealed, not by the Christian God, but by the pagan Spiritus Mundi (world spirit):

Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the 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.
A 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, it hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Two images are conjoined here. First, the shape with the body of a lion, the head of a man, and a blank, pitiless stare is an Egyptian sphinx–perhaps the Great Sphinx at Giza, perhaps one of the many small sphinxes scattered over Egypt. Second, there is the nativity, the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. The connection between Bethlehem and Egypt is the so-called “flight into Egypt.” After the birth of Jesus, the holy family fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s massacre of newborn boys.

Yeats is not the first artist to conjoin the images of the sphinx and the nativity. For instance, there is a painting by a 19th-century French artist, Luc Olivier Merson, entitled “Rest on the Flight into Eqypt,” which portrays a night “twenty centuries” ago in which Mary and the infant Jesus are asleep, cradled between the paws of a small sphinx.

This painting was so popular in its time that the artist made three versions of it, and one of them, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is so popular that reproductions of it as framed prints, jigsaw puzzles, and Christmas cards can be purchased today.

I do not know if Yeats was thinking about this specific painting. But he was thinking about the flight into Egypt. And the poem seems to indicate a reversal of that flight, and a reversal of the birth of Christ. Could Mary, resting on the flight into Egypt, rocking Jesus cradled between the paws of a sphinx, have vexed the stony beast to nightmare? Could it have finally stirred from its troubled sleep, its womb heavy with the prophet of a new age, and begun the search for an appropriate place to give birth? “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” And what better place than Bethlehem, not to repeat but to reverse the birth of Christ and inaugurate a post-Christian age.

One can ask, however, if the poem ends on a note of horror or of hope. As I read it, there are three distinct stages to Yeats’ narrative. The first is the age when Christian values were the unchallenged core of Western civilization. This was a vital, flourishing civilization, but now it is over. The second stage is nihilism, both active and passive, occasioned by the loss of these core values. This is the present-day for Yeats and ourselves.

The third stage, which is yet to come, will follow the birth of the “rough beast.” Just as the birth of Jesus inaugurated Christian civilization, the rough beast will inaugurate a new pagan civilization. Its core values will be different than Christian values, which, of course, horrifies Christians, who hope to revive their religion. But the new pagan values, unlike Christian ones, will actually be believed, bringing the reign of nihilism to its end and creating a new, vital civilization. For pagans, this is a message of hope.

 

If you enjoyed this piece, and wish to encourage more like it, give a tip through Paypal. You can earmark your tip directly to the author or translator, or you can put it in a general fund. (Be sure to specify which in the "Add special instructions to seller" box at Paypal.)
This entry was posted in North American New Right and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

10 Comments

  1. gloob
    Posted February 28, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    My take:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    A practical note: At the risk of beating this to death, the falcon is not tethered. It is beyond the range of hearing, any tether would be too long for it to carry the weight of were it flying.

    The falcon is the world no longer controllable by the falconer, by reason/order.

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

    The poem was written shortly after WWI, the bloodiest war in history. The Western psyche was gravely affected by the war. All surety about the world and civilization went with the four winds. This is a poem about WWI and what was feared to be the end of the world. This is not a poem about paganism.

    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.

    Just as now, the best (the white, educated Westerner) lack all conviction to stop what is happening. The worst (dindus, muslims, SJWs) are full of passionate intensity to bring about their deluded image of utopia. There is no left vs. right (liberal vs. conservative) in the poem.

    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 the 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.

    A 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?

    This is not a particularly nebulous poem. It’s meaning is clear. Yeats is worried about the end of the world, literally the end of civilized man. Just as is the case with us now, nothing makes any sense to him. His world is falling down around him.

    There is no need to look for reference to pagan this or that. The meaning is clear. And there is no way one can put a positive spin on this poem. Its tone is one of near terror. Note the use of the words: troubles, blank, pitiless, indignant, darkness drops, vexed, nightmare, rough beast, slouches. And the first half of the poem is perhaps even darker.

    A new world is on the verge of birth, represented by a monstrous man/lion creature, a rough beast (often a synonym for devil), its gaze as blank (dead), pitiless and deadly as the desert sun. Vexed to nightmare by the insanity of man (WWI) after 2000 years of stony sleep he will be born and rule an Earth that will certainly not resemble England’s green and pleasant land. This is one very concerned man!

  2. Jaego
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    The Sphinx is the Fascist Warrior, the Man Against Time, whose thousand yard stare takes in all things, both the living and the dead. He has purged himself of all sentimental weakness and his body and spirit are like the Lion. Yet he keeps his human head, and dominates the martial impulse and is not ultimately defined by it. Thus he is capable of violence without hatred and without remorse if his Head has determined the justice of the deed.

  3. Sandy
    Posted February 17, 2015 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    Good old Counter-Currents! Another wonderful essay explaining a bit of our culture. Yeats certainly got the first two stages right and only time will tell if he gets a hat trick.

  4. IBM
    Posted February 16, 2015 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    The connection between conservatism and Nietzsche’s concept of passive nihilism is interesting. I wonder if this connection has been discussed anywhere else. Most conservatives are passionate in their opposition to liberalism, as they define it, but they are hobbled by their unwillingness to be for that which matters most, which is the survival of their race. This unwillingness is enforced by elites from both inside and outside of the white race now. This makes it an enforced passivity, at least when it comes to race.

  5. rhondda
    Posted February 16, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Considering that Yeats belonged to the Secret Order of the Golden Dawn, Wrote a mystical book called A Vision and that a lot of his poems do not make sense unless your are familiar with Irish Folklore and the Fairy Tradition, I think it is safe to say he is talking about a return of a kind of paganism in this poem. Although professors of English Literature do have some bizarre theories, the Irish were very adept at incorporating Jesus into their belief system. The Celtic church was not originally Roman.

  6. JJJ
    Posted February 16, 2015 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

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

    Now that this is brought to my intention, I think this line could also be read rather optimistically. It seems Yeats could be referring to the image of the falcon ascending or the sphinx- free from conviction, yet a determined beast of prey guided by appetite- the sphinx is described with a gaze as “blank and pitiless as the sun” and with a “lion’s body”. In this image, the best and worst are intermingled into the icon of the future age. The lack of conviction in God is tragic, but will resolve into something great.

    It’s as if Yeats was invoking the image of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, which, interestingly enough, he refers to as the “blonde beast of prey”, or a lion.

  7. inspector general
    Posted February 16, 2015 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Great poem, uneven analysis. First off, the whole “tether” notion not warranted. All gliding birds–cetrainly raptors and buzzards, naturally rise in a spiral in riding thermal uplifts, a fact readily verified every day by millions. Also, falcons were not usually tethered when released for hunting. They were, however, often trained to respond to verbal commands. Hence the relevance to “cannot hear the falconer.”

    Overall, however, the proposed schema of Christian Civilization-Nihilism-new Pagan Revelation is indeed a possible interpretation.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 16, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      OK, but they are tethered when being trained to respond to verbal commands and food rewards.

      • Rever Leo
        Posted February 21, 2015 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

        Falcons are tethered by their jesses when they are being manned. You are imagining their flight as being similar to control line model planes, spinning around the kid holding the handle.

        • Greg Johnson
          Posted February 25, 2015 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

          I will suitably revise this.

    Kindle Subscription
  • EXSURGO Apparel

    Our Titles

    Confessions of a Reluctant Hater (2nd ed.)

    The Hypocrisies of Heaven

    Waking Up from the American Dream

    Green Nazis in Space!

    Truth, Justice, and a Nice White Country

    Heidegger in Chicago

    The End of an Era

    Sexual Utopia in Power

    What is a Rune? & Other Essays

    Son of Trevor Lynch's White Nationalist Guide to the Movies

    The Lightning & the Sun

    The Eldritch Evola

    Western Civilization Bites Back

    New Right vs. Old Right

    Lost Violent Souls

    Journey Late at Night: Poems and Translations

    The Non-Hindu Indians & Indian Unity

    Baader Meinhof ceramic pistol, Charles Kraaft 2013

    Jonathan Bowden as Dirty Harry

    The Lost Philosopher, Second Expanded Edition

    Trevor Lynch's A White Nationalist Guide to the Movies

    And Time Rolls On

    The Homo & the Negro

    Artists of the Right

    North American New Right, Vol. 1

    Forever and Ever

    Some Thoughts on Hitler

    Tikkun Olam and Other Poems

    Under the Nihil

    Summoning the Gods

    Hold Back This Day

    The Columbine Pilgrim

    Confessions of a Reluctant Hater

    Taking Our Own Side

    Toward the White Republic

    Distributed Titles

    Tyr, Vol. 4

    Reuben

    The Node

    Axe

    Carl Schmitt Today

    A Sky Without Eagles

    The Way of Men

    Generation Identity

    Nietzsche's Coming God

    The Conservative

    The New Austerities

    Convergence of Catastrophes

    Demon

    Proofs of a Conspiracy

    Fascism viewed from the Right

    Notes on the Third Reich

    Morning Crafts

    New Culture, New Right

    The Fourth Political Theory

    Can Life Prevail?

    The Metaphysics of War

    Fighting for the Essence

    The Arctic Home in the Vedas

    Asatru: A Native European Spirituality

    The Shock of History

    The Prison Notes

    Sex and Deviance

    Standardbearers

    On the Brink of the Abyss

    Beyond Human Rights

    A Handbook of Traditional Living

    Why We Fight

    The Problem of Democracy

    Archeofuturism

    The Path of Cinnabar

    Tyr

    The Lost Philosopher

    Impeachment of Man

    Gold in the Furnace

    Defiance

    The Passing of a Profit & Other Forgotten Stories

    Revolution from Above