WB Yeats's The Second Coming was written at a momentous time in 20th-century Europe, an era of uncertainty and upheaval in the wake of the first World War and in the teeth of Ireland's independence struggle. Yeats captured the moment brilliantly in a poem that, with its prophetic tone and foreboding language, has stood the test of time. The poem was written in January 1919 in the midst of the 1918/19 Spanish flu pandemic, the only modern precedent for what we are going through in this first half of 2020.
The poem is not about the Spanish flu, which left less of a mark on history than might have been imagined for an outbreak with such a heavy death toll, killing more Europeans than the cataclysmic four-year war with whose final stages it coincided. Nor does the pandemic seem to have had much of a direct imaginative impact, even if the years that followed were among the most creative for modern literature – Joyce’s Ulysses and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land were products of that era
While Yeats himself escaped the flu virus, his family had two potentially fatal brushes with the pandemic.
The story began early in November 1918 when John Quinn cabled from New York with word that Yeats's 79-year-old father, John Butler Yeats, who had lived there since 1907, had come down with a serious bout of the flu, which quickly developed into pneumonia. Quinn, a prominent Irish American lawyer and art collector, who had developed friendships with Yeats, Joyce, AE and many others in Ireland, arranged for a nurse to be hired at a cost of $35 a week to care for the truculent elder Yeats who doggedly refused to go to hospital. His care was supervised by John Yeats's friend, the French-Canadian poet, Jeanne Robert Foster (1879-1970).
JB Yeats was a difficult patient and Quinn, who was himself recovering from major cancer surgery, was exasperated by his errant behaviour. This included conducting a running battle with his nurse, a Miss Finch-Jones, whom he described to Quinn as “the most despicable woman I ever met”. He remained gravely ill for a week and Quinn kept his family in Dublin apprised of his condition. He eventually recovered and continued to live for the remaining three years of his life in a boarding house on West 29th Street. He is buried beside Foster at a cemetery in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Quinn did not long outlive him, dying of cancer in 1924.
Not long after news of his father’s illness reached WB Yeats in Dublin, the Spanish flu came even closer to home when his heavily pregnant, 27-year-old wife, George, was struck down. At that time, the couple, who had married in 1917, were renting Maud Gonne’s house at 73 St Stephen’s Green. It was an alarming time for the Yeats family as the Spanish flu took a surprisingly heavy toll on younger people between 15 and 40, who accounted for almost half of the total deaths recorded.
George Yeats’s condition was serious enough to warrant round-the-clock nursing and WB moved out of the house to create space for her proper medical care. Yeats thought for a time that his wife was about to die, but by mid-December she had pulled through and gave birth to their daughter, Anne, two months later.
To add to the drama, Maud Gonne made a dramatic appearance in flu-ridden Dublin. Following an intercession by the redoubtable John Quinn, Gonne had been released on health grounds from a five-month spell at Holloway Prison, but banned from visiting Ireland. Ignoring this restriction, she travelled from England at the end of November disguised as a Red Cross nurse. Gonne arrived in Dublin unannounced early one morning determined to reclaim her home. Because George was still seriously stricken with the flu, Yeats refused to let her in. This gave rise to a stormy scene between them and an exchange of angry letters.
When news of the incident leaked out, Cumann na mBan accused Yeats of trying unpatriotically to keep Gonne out of Ireland so that he could have use of her home. Their quarrel was patched up, but according to Gonne’s biographer, it brought about a subtle shift in their relations and that, while they remained on good terms, “their passionate friendship was ended”.
Could it be that the apocalyptic language of The Second Coming – the “rough beast”, “the blood-dimmed tide” and “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” – was somehow influenced by the backdrop of a flu pandemic that had come uncomfortably close to Yeats?
Be that as it may, there are those who worry that the severity of our present crisis could make “things fall apart” and that, as in 1930 to 1945, “the centre cannot hold”. On the other hand, there are no military options, populist recipes or strongman solutions that can overcome this virus. That is why we can harbour the reasonable hope that the global challenge we face today will encourage communities and nations to “Come Together” as we seek “Shelter from the Storm” of Covid-19.
Aren’t those song titles from a half-century ago? I’m showing my age again!