While the world spins forward in what seems an ever-widening spiral of chaos, what conservative cannot lament the loss of all that once seemed stable, certain and secure? W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, seems a stark warning not only about the horrors that were to come in the last century, but the horrors we face in the first years of the present century.
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?
Yeats’ poem was written in 1919 when Europe was reeling from the trauma of the First World War, and while similarities to Eliot’s themes echo in the poem, others are right to spot Yeats’ deep involvement in occult philosophies and practice. Ezra Pound had introduced Eliot to the aging Irish poet, and C.S.Lewis, who admired Yeats’ early verse met him twice in 1921 when Yeats was living in Oxford.
While both C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot were influenced by Yeats, both were repulsed by the poet’s occult beliefs. Eliot ridiculed his talk of leprechauns and magical spirits, while Lewis seems bemused by Yeats’ imperious, magus-like performance. He described his visit to Yeats in a letter to his boy hood friend Arthur Greeves as a cross between a visit to a spook house and an amusing encounter with an old ham actor holding court in a shabby, candle lit room.
Both Eliot and Lewis eventually found a “center that would hold” in their conversion to orthodox Christianity, but Yeats’ prophetic vision in his most famous poem is not something Lewis or Eliot would have disavowed.
It is Yeats’ belief that history tumbles through 2,000 year cycles that sparked his famous meditation on the end of an age. The “ever widening gyre” is the tornado of time’s cycle about to expire, leaving nothing but chaos in its wake.
The terrorized observer cries, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Our own times are prophesied as the hounds of war and the dark motivations of twisted religion are stabbed into our world: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” And are not the incompetence, impotence, arrogance and ignorance of our own leaders summed up in Yeats’ line, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”?
Yeats’ dark vision captures the mood of our age when all seems to be disintegrating into chaos. His prophetic foresight is even more remarkable in that he sees the Sphinx-like beast rising from the deserts of the East. Yeats claims this vision of a transmogrified man emerges from the Spiritus Mundi—his version of Jung’s the collective unconscious. Who can remain unalarmed in hearing the latest horrors of the ravenous beast of ISIS? Who does not shudder to learn that ISIS chief executioner, Shakir Wahiyib, is called “the Desert Lion,” that the murderous squads of ISIS call themselves “the Lions of Islam,” and the boys they train to kill “the cubs of Islam”? Is not their “gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun” and do we not tremble at the fearsome prophesy fulfilled in our time?
Pope Leo XIII had a frightening vision of the Dark Lord being given one hundred years to do his worst. Many believe the century of evil began with the apparitions of Fatima in 1917. Without being apocalyptically extreme, it is not insane to see the centenary approaching. It is not madness to see the rising whirlwind of chaos in our time and feel that the center cannot hold. It is not paranoia to fear the swelling tide of bloodthirsty jihadists and it is not irrational to ask with the prophetic poet, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.