In chaotic times like these, when it appears “the center cannot hold,” there is one thing you can depend on: references to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”
Tony Blair made reference to it in a column for The New York Times, immediately spawning derision from his critics. The Economist used it in the headline to a column about the forthcoming Democratic convention. The New York CaribNews topped a column about Orlando with it. I feel like columnist Leonard Pitts uses it at least once a year, though all I could find was a February column about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
More like it’s been coming around for years. As the Paris Review noted last year, “The Second Coming” “may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English.”
Perhaps it got going, the article says, with Chinua Achebe, who titled his 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart,” or Joan Didion, who called a 1968 essay collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” It’s become a rush in recent years: The Paris Review finds at least a dozen books and several other artistic works that pull lines from Yeats’ classic.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Well, it does seem like things are falling apart, especially to those who believe we once lived in a less violent, more innocent world. But it’s worth noting that Yeats wrote his words in 1919, in the wake of the greatest carnage ever to engulf the European continent and during a time of political strife in his native Ireland. Things would get worse — humanity has a knack for violence — but they also got better.
So I take small solace in knowing that, as awful as the last weeks and months have been, this isn’t the charnel house of World War I or even the assassination-marred, riotous year of 1968.
We’re not there — yet.
On the other hand, the Vulcans aren’t due to arrive until 2063.