Yeats poem not uplifting, but still offers important insight

By Kenneth Kowald

Note: This column is one of my longest. The concluding comments will be on my blog, No Holds Barred, at timesledger.com.

Readers of my column and blog may realize that, sarcasm aside, I am an optimist about life. I have had a good life and am grateful for that.

Often maintaining an optimistic attitude is hard. Like many Americans, regardless of political and other loyalties, I am distressed by the coarseness and sometimes disgusting nature of our public discourse.

I was taught to avoid ad hominem comments in arguments, but more and more, it seems, such slurs and insults appear to be the only aspects of discussion that people remember. We are rapidly becoming a nation of extremists on so many matters that some commentators are using the term “the center cannot hold.”

I read that line many years ago when I first came across the work of William Butler Yeats, the Anglo-Irish poet and playwright who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1924.

In 1919, at the end of the most devastating war at that time, Yeats wrote the poem “The Second Coming.” As the years go by, we forgot that World War I killed and maimed tens of millions of people, left much of Europe in shambles and destroyed governments, countries and, in many ways, the peace agreements that ended the war, which set the stage for the horrors of World War II. In Britain, a whole generation of young men was wiped out.

There is no optimism in “The Second Coming,” but there is much to be gained by us today in the United States from reading and thinking about what Yeats wrote. He did not live to see the “rough beast” which would be World War II. He died in January 1939, a few months before the whole world was set on fire once again.

I hope those who read the prophetic words of Yeats will keep and read them again and again. We can avoid the “rough beast” in our country’s affairs. The center — American spelling — can hold. Indeed, I believe, it must hold.


The Second Coming

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: a waste of desert sand;

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

Wind 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?

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