Joe Cleary writes: One hundred years ago, in November 1920, Yeats published “The Second Coming” in the American magazine The Dial. In 1921, the poem appeared in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, collected alongside “Solomon and the Witch”, “Easter, 1916”, “Demon and Beast”, “A Prayer for My Daughter” and “A Meditation in Time of War”. Irish readers probably care more for “Easter, 1916”, but “The Second Coming” has for a century transfixed the international imagination. Writers, statesmen, moviemakers and musicians have repeatedly scavenged it for titles. In The Paris Review in 2015, Nick Tabor mused that “‘The Second Coming’ may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English.” Some of Yeats’s finer modern critics have sifted and sounded the work’s subtleties; a century later, it can still seem a contemporary augury.
Yeats has more than one poetic persona; “The Second Coming” belongs to the poet of violent conjunctures when an old order is shattered and something new and necessarily obscure breaks and enters the house of history. Even in his early career, in “The Wanderings of Oisin”, “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” or “The Magi”, his fascination with the clash between receding and emerging worlds is evident. Typically, these works align the reader with the representatives of the old order rather than the new ‑ with Oisin rather St Patrick; Cuchulain rather than his challenging son; the unsatisfied Magi ravenous for vision rather than the epiphany-gratified ones of Christian legend. Still, this oversimplifies matters, for it’s neither one party nor the other but the energies and antinomies released in the agon that brings these poems to life.
However, after World War I the Yeats who trades in the rapture of rupture and the rupture of rapture acquires new power. The shocks of the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Anglo-Irish War, and even the Spanish flu pandemic that brought Yeats’s young and pregnant wife, George Hyde Lees, to the verge of death in 1919 are said to have inspired “The Second Coming”. In the aftermath of the war, the prospect of collapsing dispensations is for Yeats up close and personal; his vison of old regimes resisting or giving way to new becomes less literary and abstract, more intimately terrifying. Hysteria sometimes gets the better of Yeats’s art from this moment onwards, or possibly Yeats just decides to let it loose more often. But in the greatest of his political reflections on his times – “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, “Leda and the Swan”, “Lapis Lazuli”, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”, “Cuchulain Comforted” ‑ he proves, artistically at least, equal to the tremendous challenge of the epoch. In these works, the strange deaths of liberal England and liberal Europe, never so liberal as they seemed, the emergence of an unanticipated new Ireland, and the unfathomable savagery that would define the twentieth century, are contemplated with haughty, often hawkish eye.
Even if partly inspired by Irish events, “The Second Coming” does not appear a particularly Irish poem. Its imagery is biblical, oriental, apocalyptic. No Oisins nor Cuchulains, no Helens nor Ledas here. Instead, Bethlehem and the Blatant Beast, Ozymandias and the Book of Revelations inform its vision. Nevertheless, when one stands back and examines the work whole, it is clear that Yeats’s attunement to the rhetorics of chaos and collapse owes much to his immersion in seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish and English literatures. From a pulverised Gaelic order, Yeats borrowed the cadences of a poetry that clung to a civilisation shattered beyond salvage. From Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, he gleaned that such great calamity is better met with contemptuous hauteur than whimpering. In John Mitchel’s post-Famine writings a vituperative rage against English domination, industrial capitalism and free trade cant lay to hand. The invective against tradition-rupturing revolutionaries and modernisers and the reverence for custom and ceremony were Burkean and, further back, a savage Swiftian vehemence is available too to Yeats when needed. Ranged against Swift and Burke, though, were Blake and Shelley, revolutionary and prophetic poets, connoisseurs of the world-shaking chaos of an earlier age of American and French revolutions. Hegel, Nietzsche and Spengler might have tutored Yeats’s mature philosophy of history, but more local Irish and British archipelagic events and writings schooled his feeling for its violence, rage and cyclical collapse.
Seasoned in the history and literature of Irish disaster and in an English Romantic visionary poetry fevered by revolution and state counter-revolutionary terror, Yeats was better equipped than any other English-language poet of his day to appreciate that the contemporary ravages of war and revolution were nothing new. England might have exported its wars to the Americas, Europe and Asia and largely preserved domestic peace for centuries, but invasion, insurrection, famine, destruction and disastrous defeat had long been Ireland’s lot. Small wonder that Yeats rejected the verse of the English war poets and hesitated over that of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Editing The Oxford Book of Modern Verse in the 1930s, he dismissed the war poets on the basis that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry”. Of Eliot, he wrote that he had produced a great effect on his generation “because he has described men and women that get out of bed or into it from mere habit; in describing this life that has lost heart his own art seems grey, cold, dry”. In his more public-facing art, thriving on fight and flux, Yeats expresses either outraged indignation or a taut sense of detachment when contemplating sworded civilisations, but mechanical adjustment to the given order or faintheartedness in the teeth of disaster he scorned. He determined that his work should never lose heart even if doing so took it to the point of heartlessness.
Of the poems in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, “The Second Coming” is “Easter, 1916”’s contrapuntal pairing. Yeats’s apparent ambivalence about the Irish insurrection is a feature of “Easter, 1916” commentary, but the rapture of rupture seems finally the dominant note. The Easter Rising may have put paid to the expected liberal-conservative Ireland of Home Rule even as liberal Europe more broadly foundered on World War I, and it may have capsized his own hopes for cultural before political independence. Yet for all Yeats’s reservations, ruminations and questions, the poem closes somewhere between hymn and homage:
I write it out in verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
In “The Second Coming”, its gaze more distantly fixed, “beauty” simply vanishes, sublime terror prevails. As in “Easter, 1916”, questions fret the vision, now more insistently ‑
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand
and in this instance the poem actually ends not with an affirmation but a question:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
It would be easy to say that Yeats finds a glimmer of promise in the Irish insurrection but only ill-omened disaster in Europe and Russia. However, this would be to discount what many critics have noted: the tremulous if tempered excitement that checks the aghast contemplation of the awakened “rough beast”. The “beast” Yeats summons is so vague that it might be applied to almost anything ‑ Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, total war, revolution, anarchy, the Anti-Christ. Yet readers who sense some nervous eschatological excitement at the prospect of the close of the Christian and liberal humanist eras and the eruption of a post-Christian world are hardly wrong. “The ceremony of innocence”, the “best” who “lack all conviction”, and the “centre” that “cannot hold” are featureless abstractions. The “rough beast” (somewhere between storybook monster, Spenser, and the beast of the Book of Revelations) is more blurry than well-stencilled too, but even with its “slow thighs” and graceless “slouch” it possesses a purposefulness that the convictionless collapsing centre lacks.
Ought Yeats to be appreciated for capturing in twenty-two terrifically-patterned lines the gross and ghastly lineaments of twentieth century terrors to come? Or taken to task for a prurient and irresponsible fascination with whatever violent energies this “rough beast” might release? Is the indistinctness of the rough-drawn “rough beast” a strength or weakness of the vision, a commendable refusal to identify the threat solely with any single source, left or right, anarchic or authoritarian? Or is it one of the functions of poetry to make language and perception sharper, to cut through opacities to render the world with more exacting precision?
Consider how different “The Second Coming” would read were it more specific:
Things fall apart; Washington cannot hold;
Anti-capitalist revolution is loosed upon the world.
Things fall apart; Moscow cannot hold;
mere capitalism is loosed upon the world,
Things fall apart; Christianity cannot hold;
The Anti-Christ is loosed upon the world.
“The Second Coming” depends for its mesmerism upon its deliberate obscurities. What is lost when some unidentified centre cannot hold and what is loosed both remain vague. The Arnoldian-sounding “anarchy” ‑ the only politically charged word in the poem ‑ is clearly intended to be both scarifying and yet possibly renewing, but to what end? For a poet in love with stricter forms, and a conservative politically, uncouth energy is perhaps inevitably to Yeats’s sensibility deformed, monstrous. Yet he was dialectician enough to know that an excess of form might stifle more than save and that society and art require the antithesis of form as well as form.
Though not Yeats’s finest achievement by any measure, “The Second Coming” remains the most reached for political poem penned by any Irish poet in the last century. Irish poets have fashioned many fine poems since it appeared in The Dial. Too many of Yeats’s successors, however, have tried to walk a circle around him rather than absorb his work at his strongest points and take him on in the way that great poets contest and surpass predecessors. Against so tremendous a force, perhaps the only option for his successors was skirmishing, slow siege and gradual wars of attrition, more ordinary worlds poetically erected over the intervening century to tamp down his turbulent imagination. But if modern Ireland imagined it had outgrown Yeats, for want of some greater successor, he remains the heir-killing Cuchulain of Irish poetry, the unsurpassed old artificer of the national imagination, at least in times of rupture. Certainly, no left-wing Irish poet has appeared in the past hundred years with stylistic and visionary resource sufficient to match Yeats’s. Irish women’s poetry has found significant voice in recent decades but has yet to yield an oeuvre so sustained or generative as his. The ultramodernists retain uncompromised commitments to their obscure arts, but lacking Yeats’s commitment to national expression and capacity for powerful public speech their works acquire an inevitable tinniness, a touch of the literary wilderness. To say as much is not to devalue the achievements of any of these but to stress how dauntingly hard it is to remake a national imagination and to stress how much the creation of forceful new vision depends ‑ as Yeats knew ‑ on an ability to seize and forcefully recast the old. Overcoming Yeats is not about winning more fame, securing more prizes, becoming more celebrated. It is about coming to grips with the collapsing present and the foreboding future in verse even more strenuous and unforgettable than his. Implausible as it might seem, the creation of such a poetry might matter more to the country than the outcomes of several see-sawing general elections.
The Northern poets have been more ambitious than most in taking on a public poetry of serious compass. Their temperaments have been more liberal-minded than Yeats’s, but just when the North was settling into some sort of liberal truce with itself liberalism worldwide started to fall apart. Seamus Heaney’s famous line from The Cure at Troy about the longed-for tidal wave of justice that rises once in a lifetime to make “hope and history rhyme” is now internationally much cited. Those lines might well be a riposte to “The Second Coming”, summoning as they do a different kind of cataclysmic event, an unanticipated historical swerve or surge that brings beneficent and pacific rather than fearful transformation. Still, only by the slackest of all slack rhymes can “hope and history” ever actually hope to rhyme. “Hope” and “history” alliterate but that’s all. Perhaps that discord even in harmony’s consonant hour was Heaney’s point, but those who cite the line seem generally to assume an unwarranted chime, a too easily earned composure.
In “The Second Coming” Yeats peers into a collapsing world and sees monsters. When it was written, Europe’s imperial liberalism had turned in on itself and smeared the continent with battlefields, and England’s was still bloodying Ireland. Released by all that havoc, something frightful wakes savagely to life. Now, in 2020, American imperial liberalism and the astonishingly uneven world order it has regulated has also turned with fury upon itself. Peoples everywhere hold their breath to see what’s next, what runs amok or what undreamed possibilities might have their chance when the centre cannot hold.
Perhaps because the United States became “the centre” of the world for most of the lifetime of Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming” has become adoptively more an American than an Irish poem. Right-wing and liberal democratic Americans alike share an affinity for its vision. For each, any collapse of the American centre is too immense, too dreadful to contemplate; the only imaginable alternative to perpetual American world domination is “mere anarchy”. For the right especially, such collapse is conceivable only in apocalyptic terms and Protestant Evangelicals look especially to the Middle East for anti-Christs and redemptive Second Comings. The US’s recent “recognition” of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital played to that Bible-betrothed constituency far more besotted with wrathful Jehovahs than gentle Jesuses.
Nevertheless, despite his politics, there is much to learn from Yeats in this new conjuncture, not least his capacity, like Joyce’s, not to lose heart and to keep remorselessly to the artist’s task however awful things become. Though some would have it otherwise, great art cannot always have the luxury of coming reflectively after crisis and catastrophe; sometimes it must swallow them hot. The best art neither chases nor broods on historical event but aspires itself to be the event.
If the twenty-first century is not to be a pitiful second coming of the twentieth, we could do with poets even greater than Yeats and a poetry capable of naming the rough beasts of neoliberalism, multinational pillaging, oligarchy, authoritarian pretenders to the US’s bloody throne, racial supremacy, the anti-religion of unending growth. If these rough beasts take their devastating way with the world, will there be time for a reflective art afterwards to catch up? If so, for whom? Part of Yeats’s poetic greatness was that he had a philosophy of history and an immersive command of English and Irish literature besides his exceptional metrical, idiomatic and rhetorical skills. He was not timid. He may have been a late Romantic but he knew better than to think that a great poetry could he fished from the shallows of his own subjectivity.
Even were we to find a poet of Yeats’s quality again, or she to find us, hope and history will still not rhyme. However, without writers and fighters who have not lost heart and who can remain undaunted by disaster and committed to fashioning something better from the wreckage that is our contemporary condition all is almost certainly lost.
Joe Cleary teaches Irish, English and postcolonial literatures at Yale University. His Modernism, Empire, World Literature and The Irish Expatriate Novel and Late Capitalist Globalization will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2021.