Weaver Moon

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
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, January 1919

With my Werewolf-oriented annotations, I don't mean to suggest that Yeats was really writing about the Garou; I'm eccentric, but I'm not crazy. Nor am I suggesting that Werewolf is based on this poem. I am merely pointing out how a wonderful real-world poem such as this can be connected with the game to bring in a little more color. The concept of the apocalypse is not a closed one, contained entirely within the game, but a part of our own culture. By comparing the game to our culture, and vice versa, I believe we can improve our insight into both.

But, of course, it is extremely important to distinguish between the two.

Compare the "gyre" to the Black Spiral.

The Silver Fangs, the tribe who follows the totem Falcon, are the leaders of the Garou, and are prophesied to betray Gaia and join the Wyrm at the climax of the Apocalypse.

"Blood-Dimmed Tide" is the title of a White Wolf sourcebook on the seas of the World of Darkness.

Compare the phrase "the best lack all conviction" to the increasing frequency of harano among the Garou.

Just in case it isn't totally clear by now, I am comparing Yeats' "Second Coming" to the Apocalypse of the Garou.

"Spiritus Mundi" is Latin, meaning "spirit" or "soul of the world." According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature (see annotation below), the phrase refers to "the spirit or soul of the universe, with which all individual souls are connected through the 'Great Memory,' which Yeats held to be a universal subconscious in which the human race preserves its past memories. It is thus a source of symbolic images for the poet" (1881, footnote). Counterparts for the Garou include the Past Life background, and the Umbra and its denizens.

Though I adamantly maintain that the shadowy, reeling birds of this line are meant to be vultures picking over the carnage of the beast's path, I can't help thinking of the Corax, watching over the battlefields of the Apocalypse and feasting on the eyes of the dead.

The Poem and the Beast:
Artistic and Topical Readings of Yeats' "The Second Coming"

Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," written in 1919 and published in 1921 in his collection of poems Michael Robartes and the Dancer, taps into the concept of the gyre and depicts the approach of a new world order. The gyre is one of Yeats' favorite motifs, the idea that history occurs in cycles, specifically cycles "twenty centuries" in length (Yeats, "The Second Coming" ln. 19). In this poem, Yeats predicts that the Christian era will soon give way apocalyptically to an era ruled by a godlike desert beast with the body of a lion and the head of a man (ln. 14). Critics have argued about the exact meaning of this image, but a close reading of the poem, combined with some simple genetic work, shows that Yeats saw the new order as a reign of terror haunted by war. "The Second Coming," in its entirety, is an astounding encapsulation of Yeats' idea of the gyre and his fears about the future of mankind; it is expertly woven with threads of prophetic literary reference and impressive poetic techniques.

To begin, the gyre, a spiral or repeated circling motion, is a symbol and a concept that Yeats used repeatedly in his poetry and prose, and the poetics of "The Second Coming" illustrate the idea of the gyre. The repeated words in the poem enforce the idea of "spiral images" (Drake 131); words and phrases, such as "surely" and "is at hand" in lines 9 and 10, "turning" in line 1, "is loosed" in lines 4 and 5, and the very title, "Second Coming" in lines 10 and 11, are repeated, creating an onomatopoeic effect suggesting the repetitive movement of the gyre (Bornstein 203). Similarly, repetitious or paired images give the same effect, as Yeats seems to cycle through his "falcon" ("The Second Coming" ln. 2) to the "desert birds" (ln. 17), "the best lack[ing] all conviction" (ln. 7) to "the worst/...full of passionate intensity" (ln. 7-8), and his central images, the "rocking cradle" of Christ (ln. 20) to the "rough beast" (ln. 21).

Other kinds of echoes, literary rather than poetic, emerge as well; Yeats connects "The Second Coming" with Shelley's Prometheus Unbound in lines 7 and 8, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity" (Drake 53), and even, Jeffares suggests, the Divine Comedy, by altering the "hawk" of an earlier draft to more closely resemble the "ample circuit" of a "falcon" described in Dante's masterpiece (A Commentary 241). Yeats surely made these allusions to borrow the literary scale of these prophetic masterpieces. But far more important in this respect is his borrowings from the Bible. Most central and obvious are the Second Coming of Christ described in Matthew 24 and the beast of the apocalypse from Revelations, but Purdy also notes "the vision chapters of Daniel (7-12)," "Isaiah's prophecy of the Day of the Lord (14.6-11, 19-22), 'old Ezekiel's cherubim' (10.1ff), and Jeremiah's denunciation of Isreal (2)" (75), not to mention Yeats' location of the beast's birth at Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ two thousand years ago (Jeffares, W. B. Yeats 38). The Bible is, of course, the western world's primary work of prophecy, and Yeats' use of its language gives his own work a tone of prophecy.

The tool of Yeats' prophecy, crystallized in the "widening gyre" traced by the falcon, is a concept Yeats detailed at some length in a note to the poem in the first printing ("The Second Coming" ln. 1). To summarize, Yeats described an idea he claimed came from Michael Robartes that described the mind's evolution as a process of circling toward the wide end of an idealistic cone until, as he put it in the third line of "The Second Coming," "the center cannot hold" (Ellmann, A Commentary 239-40). At that point a revelation occurs, and the mind shifts to a new center, the narrow end of a cone of opposing idealism, inverted and superimposed on the first, with its narrow end at the center of the wide end of the first (240). This model, explained Yeats in his note, could also be used to describe human history; the world's gyre is shifted by a revelation every two thousand years (241). The results are evident in the upheaval caused by Christ's teaching, an upheaval two thousand years before that, and the frightening wars of Yeats' time (241). Based on these notes, it seems that Yeats' opposed gyres are in conflict, but neither is especially bad; each merely marks the coronation of "a new kind of god," as Jeffares puts it (W. B. Yeats 36).

Some critics propagate this point of view. According to Donald Davie, "the poem says...that when the superhuman invades the human realm all that the human can say of it is that it is non-human: there can be no discriminating at such a time between subhuman and superhuman, between bestial and divine" (79). Under this point of view, the new world order that Yeats predicts in this poem is not by definition better or worse than the old Christian order; it is simply unfamiliar. As Stock describes it, "the only thing we [or the speaker] know of it for certain is that it will appear monstrous and terrifying to those whose traditions it supersedes" (187). So the monstrosity of the new order is merely a result of the viewer's being accustomed to the old order, having a similar effect as that of the Christian era's order on Tacitus, who, "more puzzled than hostile," ruled "that Christians were enemies of the human race" (186). The beast's order is monstrous for the same reasons that the Christ child's rocking cradle is a "nightmare" from the beast's own perspective (Yeats, "The Second Coming" ln. 20).

Under this point of view, the "rough beast" of the poem takes on an identity very consistent with its physical description; it is "sphinx-like" (Ellman, Identity of Yeats 50). If it physically resembles a sphinx, "with lion body and the head of a man," it ought also to be like a sphinx in other ways (Yeats, "The Second Coming" 14). And if it is not a thing of evil, but a monster because it is foreign, then its foreignness is well expressed by its resemblance to a sphinx, since the sphinx, from Oedipus, is a riddler (Adams 143). So the monster, it would seem, is nothing more than an enigma, monstrous because it is unfamiliar.

But the creature described is not quite so tame. The beast's eyes are "pitiless as the sun" (Yeats, "The Second Coming" ln. 15), and it is followed not by the (literally) noble falcon, but by "shadows" (already a dark and suggestive word choice) of "desert birds," certainly vultures, for no other bird makes such a prominent habit of reeling, as these birds are doing (17). And no self-respecting vulture would soar around a titanic beast simply because of its symbolic significance; vultures go where there is carrion. This beast is not only pitiless, but it leaves a wake of carnage. It is no passive but alien riddler; Yeats made it monstrous because it is a monster.

If the poem itself is not enough to show Yeats' attitude toward the beast, some genetic background is enlightening. Yeats wrote in the introduction to The Resurrection that he "'began to imagine, as always at [his] left side just out of range of the sight, a brazen winged beast that [he] associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction'" (Jeffares, A Commentary 243). In a footnote, Yeats explained that this same "'brazen winged beast'...was 'afterwards described in [his] poem "The Second Coming"'" (243). The only reference to any sort of riddler here is in the fact that the monster laughs in the midst of its "'ecstatic destruction'" (243)!

Many critics remark that this poem is deeply concerned with the grim drama of modern war, including World War I as well as the Russian Revolution and the Black-and-Tan War in Ireland, and Yeats himself described his poem as a reaction to "'the growing murderousness of the world'" to which these wars were alerting him (Jeffares, A Commentary 242); this concern with war marks "The Second Coming" as a modernist work (Abrams 119). One of Yeats' early manuscripts of "The Second Coming" actually makes direct reference to the Germans in Russia (Yeats, Michael Robartes 151). And, years after the poem was written and published, Yeats said in a letter that "The Second Coming" predicted "what is happening in Europe," World War II (Ellman, Yeats: the Man 278). Yeats' attitude toward this monster is clearly not ambivalence. Finally, it could be argued that the beast, the very "embodiment of the irrational destructiveness of all wars," is not an aspect of the new order, but merely a feature of the tumultuous transition, part of the revelation. But this argument is completely nullified by the final line, which makes clear that this terrible, bestial god of war does not merely usher in the new age, but "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born" into Christ's place; this beast is nothing less than the new world order Yeats prophesies in "The Second Coming" (Yeats, "The Second Coming" ln. 22).

"The Second Coming" is not about ambivalence. It is not about looking forward to a new age, with new philosophies and new wonders. Purdy says that "Yeats resists coming to conclusions even when, given alternatives, choosing seems inevitable, and even when seeming to choose" (74). It seems he has left a riddle with "The Second Coming," and a conclusion that critics do not agree on, but the eventual answer seems clear. Yeats saw Europe, his world, wracked by inhumane warfare. And he feared that the beast was coming to claim its kingdom, right on time.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th ed. San Diego: Harcourt, 1993.
Adams, Hazard.
The Book of Yeats's Poems. Tallahassee: Florida St. U., 1990.
Bornstein, George.
Critical Essays on W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. Boston: Hall, 1986. 190-207.
Davie, Donald. "Michael Robartes and the Dancer."
An Honoured Guest: New Essays on W. B. Yeats. Eds. Denis Donoghue and J. R. Mulryne. New York: St. Martin's, 1966.
Drake, Nicholas.
The Poetry of W. B. Yeats. London: Penguin, 1991.
Ellmann, Richard.
The Identity of Yeats. New York: Oxford, 1954.
Yeats: the Man and the Masks. New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Jeffares, A. Norman.
A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford: Stanford U., 1968.
W. B. Yeats. New York: Humanities, 1971.
Purdy, Dwight H.
Biblical Echo and Allusion in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats: Poetics and the Art of God. Lewisburg: Bucknell U., 1994.
Stock, A. G.
W. B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought. London: Cambridge, 1961.
Yeats, William Butler.
Michael Robartes and the Dancer Manuscript Materials. Eds. Thomas Parkinson and Anne Brannen. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.
---. "The Second Coming."
Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M. H. Abrams, et al. 6th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 1993. 1880-81.

by McRey "Mac" Moyer

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