Coming to Stay – WB Yeats’s most famous poem turns 100
An Irishman’s Diary
Not only has “The Second Coming” inspired a thousand headlines, it launched a miniature library of book titles. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Written 100 years ago this month, WB Yeats’s “The Second Coming” has been probably the most quoted poem of the past century. That nobody knows what it’s about was no impediment to success. On the contrary, vagueness is key to its popularity.
The poem’s central event, insofar as it has one, is the predicted appearance, imminently, “somewhere in sands of the desert”, of a “rough beast”. The beast is already fully-formed, with a man’s head and lion’s body. It even slouches, with “slow thighs”. And yet, crucially, it is still pre-natal, pending arrival in Bethlehem.
So irresistible has “The Second Coming” proved as a source for quotation that it should be the focus for an annual literary equivalent of one of journalism’s new year staples: the story of the first-born babies.
This would instead report the earliest arrivals in print of rough beasts, or any of the poem’s other images. Among the maternity wards to feature in 2019 would have been the aptly named American news website the Daily Beast, which was delivered of a bouncing Yeatsian metaphor on January 4th. The context was Donald Trump, whose leonine hair and “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” have given “The Second Coming” yet another lease of life. But the story wasn’t about him, directly. In fact, it wasn’t so much about rough beasts as rough language. Hence the headline (which I quote including the asterisk): “Nixon Vets Could Tell Rashida Tlaib: This is No Motherf*ucking Way to Impeach”.
Tlaib is a newly-elected US congresswoman, who had said of Trump to a cheering crowd: “We’re going to go in and impeach the motherfucker”.
Her language pushed Yeats’s poem out of the headline, where it would normally be. This time, “The Second Coming” provided the article’s conclusion.
The DB writer lamented the “paroxysms of vulgarity” to which both Trump and his opponents were resorting, in comparison with the calm process that ended Nixon’s presidency. So he reached for another of Yeats’s famous lines to sum up: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.
January 1919 was a busy news month too, although Yeats had more to worry about then than coarse language. He was troubled by developments in Russia and the drift towards war in Ireland. In Paris, meanwhile, politicians were redrawing world maps, some deserts included, with ominous implication.
In the poem’s earlier versions, he made the mistake of mentioning specific events, and lamenting there was no “Burke” or “Pitt” (ardent critics of the French Revolution) to raise the alarm. Then he wisely edited those out in favour of the poem’s mood of unspecified millennial dread.
Because of the biblical references, many readers assume “The Second Coming” to have a Christian meaning. But against those, it should be noted that in the first published versions, the rough beast was emerging after “thirty centuries” of stony sleep, not “twenty”. And we know that despite its Christian overtones, the poem is also rooted in the esoteric systems Yeats had studied for decades with various occult and astrological societies. He later wrote a detailed, book-length account of those, A Vision (1925), which some devoted critics have read to save the rest of us doing so. Harold Bloom concluded it was “nothing if not wisdom literature”, but added drily: “it is sometimes very unwise”.
A Vision does not appear to have anything definite to tell us about the poem. And even the poem, after its moment of revelation, retreats into uncertainty. “[B]ut now I know,” writes Yeats, as he sees the dormant millennia “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”. His next line – “And what rough beast...” – is a continuation of the sentence, which seems to imply he knows the identity of the beast too. Then what started as a statement ends with a question mark, and leaves us hanging.
Whatever the image Yeats saw, its main significance may have been to open the floodgates on his genius for unforgettable phrases. The poem has more per square centimetre than any other. Not only has it inspired a thousand headlines, it launched a miniature library of book titles.
A website called deuceofclubs.com, has cleverly reproduced the entire text in book covers, with some poetic license for linking words. Like Yeats’s imagination, the subject matter ranges from Ireland to outer space.
A book about the Troubles, for example, is called The Centre Cannot Hold, while “Mere Anarchy” was a six-part special series of Star Trek some years ago, with all-Yeatsian subtitles, including: “The Darkness Drops Again.”