Have you ever had a scrap of poetry come to mind and been totally blank on where it came from?  That happened to me recently when, in the middle of working on a poem about decay (it started out as a fall poem and went down into dissolution from there) the phrase “the center will not hold” came to mind.  Thank goodness for Google which can turn that into “the centre cannot hold.” and then give me the whole poem it came from, William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”  I didn’t remember Yeats had a poem with that title.  I didn’t remember the rest of the poem when I read it, until I got to the last line, “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”  Then I knew I had read it, but when, where, or how long ago is a mystery.  It was not in school.  I have not had a class in poetry since seventh grade, when we were required to memorize a poem every week.  There were Wordsworth’s daffodils, and “Flanders Field” and some I haven’t seen since, like Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib”:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold
and his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold.

The object was to memorize, not to understand.

Yeats’s poem is a different matter.  It begins with lovely language about a desperate time.

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.

There seems to be some dispute as to whether this refers specifically to Irish issues or to the conditions everywhere after World War I.  I think it would fit today, this year, this decade also very well.

Then the poem turns, as the title warned us it would.  “Second Coming”?  Who expects that today?  The Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other such apocalyptic groups still talk of a return of the Savior.  None of them, however, use Yeats’ language.  “A lion body and the head of a man” is Biblical enough, but “slow things” “shadows of indignant desert birds”?

The final scene comes with a shock to one who knows a little Biblical reference and expects a Biblical kind of hope. Yeats is against the religious history altogether.  “twenty centuries of stony sleep/were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.” The church’s history is a nightmare.   Can we get a little comfort in a period of “anarchy” and “blood-doused tide”? Yeats offers none.  There is an end coming, but there is no hope:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Interacting with this powerful piece of writing. I am now so far from the poem I was writing, the one that brought the phrase to mind and sent me to Google, that I cannot find my way back.

The only thing I am sure of about this poem is that I totally failed to understand it when I read it in years past.

 

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