The Second Coming
As the First World War drew to a close, as revolution in Russia and rebellions across Europe threatened to topple the established order, as Dadaists and other cultural radicals worked to turn the world upside down, as the world seemed equal parts revolutionary fervor and widespread slaughter – amidst all of this, Irish poet William Butler Yeats penned what is perhaps his most famous poem, and one whose imagery and language continue to hold sway.
“The falcon cannot hear the falconer”; “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”; “What rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches toward Bethelem to be born”. Four lines out of only twenty-two are widely recognized and repeated even today, and a read of the poem will find still more familiar turns of phrase for many. Yeats clearly hit something significant here, capturing a profound sense of anxiety at a world gone mad, a world that seemed intent upon its own destruction, a world that would clearly never be the same – but with what to follow?
“The Second Coming” is a snapshot of the Great War and its aftermath as the apocalypse, armageddon and – perhaps, but without certainty – the Second Coming of Christ as allegory for a Europe characterized by devastation and anxiety. But not only that moment, as its staying-power attests. Here is something deeper than political and economic crisis, something about the instability of civilization, about modernity and the every-present threat of collapse, about a humanity that has built a world it somehow knows cannot stand, about waiting for the fall, and wondering. It’s a poem for forever.