We’re living in very troubled times. Nobody wants to give serious consideration to the suggestion that human beings’ relatively short time on this planet is coming to an end, but there is at least a growing feeling of unease about how we’re managing an increasingly global economy, more and more conflictive political and social relationships, and the accelerating depletion of the world’s resources. It sometimes feels like we’re on the edge of something truly calamitous, or at least that we’re coming to the end of a particular epoch in human history. What more can governmental control of capitalism do to stop it getting out of control? How much longer can the rich keep the poor from their gates? What will we do when Nature strikes back in earnest? The new search for “strong leaders” reflects near panic. Thomas Pynchon has one of his characters ask “What is the tag end of an age, if not that tilt towards the more devious, the less forceful?”
My favourite poem, The Second Coming, seem to talk to all this. It’s so beautifully written, so powerful, violent, frightening, mesmerising. It’s a very famous poem, loved by millions, and yet it’s terribly obscure, almost impossible to understand. Someone said of it “It is safe to say that very few people who love this poem could paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction”. I choose not to give much importance to a Christian interpretation, but I’m not among those able to “paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction”. So here it is, and I hope you enjoy it, however many times you’ve read it before.
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?
William Butler Yeats, 1919. Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)