- Counter-Currents Publishing - https://www.counter-currents.com -

Yeats’ Pagan Second Coming

1,646 words

Luc Olivier Merson, Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1879 [1]

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

Translations: German [2], Spanish [3]

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 [4].” 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.