Author: StJohn Piano
Published: 2020-01-19
Datafeed Article 128
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164 words - 69 lines - 2 pages

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?

[start of notes]

Source for the text:
My source says that this is its original source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989).

I found some commentary on the poem:
- Title: No Slouch
- Author: Nick Tabor
- Date: April 7, 2015
- Link: www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/04/07/no-slouch/


"The Second Coming" may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth's famous "sound and fury" monologue is a distant second.)


Yeats began writing the poem in January 1919, in the wake of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and political turmoil in his native Ireland. But the first stanza captures more than just political unrest and violence. Its anxiety concerns the social ills of modernity: the rupture of traditional family and societal structures; the loss of collective religious faith, and with it, the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there's nothing to replace them. It's the same form of despair we see in, say, Ivan Karamazov.

Of course, twentieth-century history did turn more horrific after 1919, as the poem forebodes. The narrator suggests something like the Christian notion of a "second coming" is about to occur, but rather than earthly peace, it will bring terror. As for the slouching beast, the best explanation is that it's not a particular political regime, or even fascism itself, but a broader historical force, comprising the technological, the ideological, and the political. A century later, we can see the beast in the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, the regimes of Stalin and Mao, and all manner of systematized atrocity.


Publishers have come to realize they can apply Yeats's lines to pretty much any book that documents confusion and disarray.


Yeats's lines work outside their context because the word pairings are brilliant in and of themselves. "Blank and pitiless as the sun", "stony sleep", "vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle" - they're both jarring and sonorous. Even "slouching towards", probably the most overused phrase of them all, retains its ominousness after all this repetition. We'd expect the rough beast to "plod", like a limping monster in a horror movie or the killer in No Country for Old Men (which itself, of course, takes its title from another of Yeats's lines, in "Sailing to Byzantium"). But plodding is a conscious action; slouching is not. We can't even tell whether the beast has a will of its own. The verb heightens the mystery and dread.

A note on the poem's form:
Source: www.sparknotes.com/poetry/yeats/section5/

"The Second Coming" is written in a very rough iambic pentameter, but the meter is so loose, and the exceptions so frequent, that it actually seems closer to free verse with frequent heavy stresses. The rhymes are likewise haphazard; apart from the two couplets with which the poem opens, there are only coincidental rhymes in the poem, such as "man" and "sun".

More commentary:
- Author: wengchiang
- Date: Dec 22 2017
- Link: literature.stackexchange.com/questions/2055/what-rough-beast-slouches-towards-bethlehem-to-be-born


The poem is alluding to the Book of Revelation. The "rough beast" is the Anti-Christ. The scene is set for the final showdown and the Second Coming.


Written in 1919, the poem is a reaction to the Great War. It conveys the persona's horror at the slaughter that the war unleashed and its socio-political aftermath in language heavy with religious significance.

The poem's opening stanza portrays a society spinning out of kilter. "The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" are metaphors for the rise of radical politics. But we should be in no doubt that this is as much a spiritual crisis as it is a worldly one: "the falconer" and "the centre" are also God. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre" also alludes to the view of a cyclical nature of history expressed elsewhere by the poet.


The hybrid creature may personify humankind's duel natures: reason/instinct, head/heart, order/chaos, reactionary/radical.

"That twenty centuries of stony sleep" alludes to the almost two thousand years since the birth of Christ. The "rough beast", its centuries-long wait now ended, makes its way to the appointed place for the final confrontation.

Some more commentary:
- Author: Matt Thrower
- Date: Nov 30 2017
- Link: literature.stackexchange.com/questions/2055/what-rough-beast-slouches-towards-bethlehem-to-be-born


There is a surprisingly literal interpretation to this poem. Yeats describes a sphinx-like beast arising in the desert. It is entirely possible that this is the "rough beast" to which he refers, and that the metaphorical nature of the creature is there simply to add depth to the poem.

Yeats had a bizarre but fully developed mystical belief system, which he outlined in a relatively obscure book called A Vision. A central tenet of this belief was that history repeats itself in cycles, which he called "gyres". The connection to the first part of the poem is obvious.

In the second part of the poem, Yeats mentions the Spiritus Mundi, which is another part of his belief system. The literal translation is "spirit of the world", which Yeats held to be a collective soul or folk memory, a repository of all cultural history throughout the world. That, of course, makes Christian culture a tiny fragment of the whole.

Yeats saw the Spiritus Mundi in a vision, which he describes in terms that have a very literal parallel in the poem:

"... there rose before me mental images that I could not control: a desert and a black Titan raising himself up by his two hands from the middle of a heap of ancient ruins"

- Yeats, Autobiographies: Reveries Over Childhood and Youth and the Trembling Veil, 1926

So: the poem can be read literally. The "rough beast" is the resurrection of a thousand dead gods in a single image. It is terrifying only because it will wipe out our Christianised, homogenised culture and return us to a primal state.

[end of notes]