A Century of Doom – Frank McNally on how things fall apart, but not Yeats’s most quoted poem
An Irishman’s Diary
Like all the most successful oracles, WB Yeats’s The Second Coming is magnificently vague in its forecasting, with a margin for error of plus or minus 100 per cent. Photograph: Getty Images
WB Yeats’s The Second Coming is officially 100 years old this month, having first appeared in the Christmas 1920 issue of American literary magazine The Dial. The milestone was marked on this side of the Atlantic last weekend in an online event hosted by the National Library and the Yeats Society of Sligo. Aptly for such an ominous poem, the celebration happened on Friday 13th, but passed without mishap.
The Second Coming has reached its centenary in good shape, although it seems to have been less quoted in news and op-ed headlines this year than, say, in 2016, when the doom-laden metaphors were in record demand. Back then, thanks to Brexit, Trump, and Islamic terrorism, its status as “the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in the English language” reached a 30-year-high, as measured by mentions in a US media database.
But now Brexit seems to be boring its way towards compromise, Trump is being edged (kicking and tweeting) out of the White House, and rough beasts from desert countries are not quite so active as formerly. This might explain why, in the latest edition of the Spectator, that magazine’s US editor got through a whole column on the US election, including several references to “Bethlehem”, without any allusion to Yeats.
The Bethlehem in his case was the city in Pennsylvania, formerly a steel-making powerhouse, but now a post-industrial battleground. As Freddie Gray wrote candidly, it’s “a useful stop for journalists looking for some rust belt Americana not too far from New York”. But if he slouched towards it last week, he resisted the temptation to say so.
Meanwhile, over at the Financial Times, there was doom-laden column by Simon Kuper, countering the optimism caused by Trump’s defeat and the good news on vaccines, under the headline: “Sorry, kids, but the worst is yet to come”. That too was the sort of piece where, in the past, Yeats’s poem might have been invoked. Not this time.
Perhaps, in its second century, The Second Coming is in danger of finally falling out of fashion. Or maybe, after the overuse of 2016, this is just a market correction. Joe Biden’s win is an occasion more suited to Seamus Heaney, after all. And the longer-term prospects for Yeats’s poem, if not for humanity, look promising.
Gray’s column concluded with a quote from Nigel Farage to the effect that “if indeed defeated, Donald Trump would run again in 2024”. If he’s right, we should all buy more shares in Yeats now. As for Kuper’s pessimism, that was mainly about climate change, which will continue even if Biden reverses Trump’s tack.
The column quoted a new book saying that “at current rates of warming, everyone in the northern hemisphere is effectively moving south by 20km a year”. So never mind rough beasts crossing desert sands; it’s the desert itself we may be worrying about soon.
On a cheerier note, Yeats’s poem is certainly in better condition now than another once-popular source of predictive headlines, the opinion poll industry. It helps that, like all the most successful oracles, The Second Coming is magnificently vague in its forecasting, with a margin for error of plus or minus 100 per cent. Despite the unforgettable images, few people know what it means.
Yeats helped ensure its immortality by avoiding all mention of the events that inspired it, which included the rise of Bolshevism and war in Ireland. Mind you, as I think was noted during the centenary event, there was also a personal element to the crisis from which it emerged, and had Yeats somehow worked in a reference to that, it might seem inspired now.
Newly married at the time, he and his wife George Hyde Lees were expecting their first child. Then, in November 1918, she caught the Spanish flu, and Yeats feared she was dying. To complicate matters, they were living in Maud Gonne’s house, she being in prison in England and herself unwell.
But when released to a nursing home, Gonne fled back to Ireland disguised as a Red Cross nurse and, despite warnings from Yeats and the family doctor that her presence would be dangerous to the patient, turned up at the house demanding residence. The couple had to move out eventually.
One hundred years later, another pandemic rages. And individual health aside, these Zoom-laden times are proving hard on arts organisations. To mark the poem’s centenary and raise funds, the Yeats Society has produced a small book, with tributes from Frank McGuinness, Helen Vendler, Dan Mulhall and others. It’s a limited edition of 100 copies but you can still buy one from yeatssociety.com.