Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Things fall apart: a short-attention-span blogging plan

First there is this poem, "The Second Coming," by W. B. Yeats:

    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?

And there is this personal postscript:

This posting, with the decision and explanation, exists because of wonderfully sensible advice from "She Who Must Be Obeyed," the woman whose love and support keeps going one day at a time against the odds. So, what follows is the upshot of her wise words about focus, priorities, limitations, and goals.

Forget everything I have promised here about reading and blogging plans involving the American Bloomsbury group, the Holy Bible, Herman Melville and more; moreover, I apologize for the contradictions, confusion, and broken promises. Now, please continue reading.

Personal issues, not worth discussing here, have rendered me incapable of sustained, ambitious blogging projects. Things for me are falling apart, friends, and all of my future blogging must be limited to short-attention-span tidbits and short book reviews.

Now, one of those tidbits, the foregoing poem by Yeats, a poem much on my mind lately, has me wondering: "What does it mean? Is the poem limited to the poet's time or is it prophetic? Are we now living in a time imagined by the poet? What is the beast? What is the Second Coming?" 

So, what do you think? Can you help me with the poem? Let's sort it out together. 


  1. I think you're wise, Tim, to tailor your blog to suit your own needs. As to the poem, I like the way Yeats explores our anxiety about the unknown - about what is coming. Sometimes, the prospect of facing the unknown feels as daunting as preparing for the end of the world.

    1. Margot, change can be terrifying; we know the past and present, but the future cannot be known, and that frightens us. BTW, no one ever should make the mistake of calling me "wise." :)

  2. wonderful poem, although i'm not sure at all that i follow it's meaning... the second half kind of reminds me of "Ozymandias", though, with that reference to expanses of desolation and ruinous remnants of civililization...
    Yeats seems a bit depressed; i hope he felt better after he wrote the poem...

    1. Mudpuddle, I don't know about Yeats and his state of mind, but I do know that I very much like the sounds of the poem when I read it aloud though I'm not at all clear about the precise "meaning." The poem often shows up in anthologies for literature classes, but others by Yeats would be better (easier) for students (e,g. "The Lake aisle of Innisftee," one of my favorites).

    2. Correction: Isle not Aisle. Damned autocorrect!

  3. Certainly his portion of the twentieth century looked pretty grim, at least in certain times and certain places, and it's easy to look at the first portion of the poem through that lens. The thing that is most helpful--I think--for understanding the poem is that Yeats believed that history was composed of gyres of time/events. They sort of overlap (it isn't a neat, tidy, exact process) so that you see the end of one and the beginning of the new at the same time. The best place to live is not at the end of a gyre but smack in the middle (hence Yeats loves Byzantium circa 1000) according to Yeats. Yeats thought that Christendom informed the gyre that was now coming to an end and something new (and rather terrible) was coming to take its place. If that sounds like something pertinent to the events and changes of the 20th and 21st centuries, you might indeed take it as something prophetic.

    1. Yes, Marly, I am familiar with Yeats' one-within-the-other conical gyres as pendulum-like cycles, but I also (within my limited understanding) think his elaborate myth/symbol system was bizarre and not logically organized. As I suggested to Mudpuddle, I might not know what the poem "means" but do like the poem's sounds, rhythms, diction, and -- for lack of a better phrase -- narrative arc. You have, however, helped me better grasp something of what the poem "means."

  4. Well, the Second Coming is usually thought of the return of Jesus. Yeats, rather irreligiously, imagines something quite different. I am not sure if it works, actually, though it sounds wonderful.

    1. Frank, yes, the poem "sounds wonderful" even if the tropes don't sensibly or logically work within the poem. I give Yeats a pass on the thematic logic just because I like the poem's rhythms, diction, sounds, etc. Sometimes that quite enough.