No Comment — March 18, 2008, 6:18 am

Yeats’s ‘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: 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, The Second Coming first published in The Dial (Nov. 1920)


No poem has been quoted and applied to the American dilemma in Iraq with quite the frequency of this one. And most of the citations show a crude and self-serving understanding of Yeats. On the other hand, one is spot-on. It was authored by the New York Times’s Adam Cohen:

“The Second Coming” is a powerful brief against punditry. The Christian era was about the ability to predict the future: the New Testament clearly foretold the second coming of Christ. In the post-Christian era of which Yeats was writing there was no Bible to map out what the next “coming” would be. The world would have to look toward Bethlehem to see what “rough beast” arrived.

This skepticism about predicting the future has more relevance to the Iraq war than any of the poem’s much-quoted first eight lines. The story of the Iraq war is one of confident predictions that never came to pass: “We will find weapons of mass destruction”; “we will be greeted as liberators”; “the insurgency is in its last throes.”

The confident predictors who have been wrong in the past do not hesitate to keep offering up plans. That is true of President Bush, certainly: he talks about what his “troop surge” will do as if he had never been wrong before. It is also true of the pundits. The co-author of “Things Fall Apart,” the Brookings guide to going forward in Iraq, is Kenneth Pollack, who is — incredibly — best known for his 2002 book “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.”

It is bizarre to see shards of “The Second Coming” appended to the Brookings report, or to any of the other plans and prognostications about the war in Iraq. Yeats, who grew up feeling “sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin,” did not just welcome whatever new order his rough beast was ushering in. He believed the only way it could plausibly be spoken of was in the form of a question.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

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