One of the principal differences between a poet and an essayist is that the poet tends to go with his impressions and trust his instincts while the essayist is trying to produce a rational argument. This means that there are times when a poet can capture the truth of a situation much better than anyone else.
This spring of 2009 might be one of those times; but the poem that best captures its spirit was first published in 1919.
A great poem is seldom written in one sitting but is conceived, drafted and polished over a considerable time. Given the power and disturbing nature of William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, he appears to have been writing about impressions formed over several years through the First World War and the revolutions that occurred during and after it.
The problem in reading history is that impressions are always shaded by what we know followed. For us, a year like 1913 or 1938 is forever shadowed by what came afterwards. Look at some old photograph of a happy bride blinking in the sunlight after emerging from a church with her new husband. She has no inkling that he will die far off in battle four years later, while she cowers with her babes as the bombs come crashing down around her home.
For that matter, no Roman slouching around the Forum in January 410 AD looked at his day-planner and noted that Alaric and the Visigoths would be plundering the city around August 24th. Nor did Mark the Tanner of Smithfield Parish in London write for November 7th, 1348: “Appointments: Black Death. Cancel bread delivery and let cat out, die.” We never know what the true nature of our time is, but sometimes a poet can guess accurately.
William Butler Yeats, in the first stanza of his famous poem “The Second Coming” captures the feeling of the start of a 40 year period of murderous ideological warfare and turbulence. During the forty years spanned by 1914 and 1953 (when Stalin died and the Korean War ended) more than 160 million people died in war and episodes of mass murder. In all the troubles of the last 55 years, humanity has yet to revisit the levels of bloodshed and cruelty that characterized this period.
It is a conservative axiom that ideas have consequences. For Yeats, who was a traditionalist, the exciting time of new ideas at the close of the First World War was deeply disturbing. The certainties and order of the Pre-1914 Victorian/Edwardian world had vanished, and were not returning with the end of the First World War. These were the years when the demagogues took over, Communists and Fascists first appeared, and the old certainties of faith and tradition were greatly weakened. Chaos and Old Night loomed ahead. If Yeats couldn’t exactly articulate what was troubling him, he could describe his unease. The first stanza is as follows:
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.
Now, some 90 years after the poem was finished, it again feels like an accurate description of our times.
Ideologically-driven conflicts are once more looming large. The Jihad vs. the West is not the least of these. Post-Modernist ‘progressives’ have got into the driver’s seat in the United States and are trying to ram through massive changes and shabby reforms; urgently remolding the society that anchored the world for the past 100 years; using the current fiscal crisis as the excuse for an unnecessary revolution.
After years of being conditioned to believe that the defence of Western society and values is nothing but racist chauvinism, too many of us lack the conviction to defend our values and heritage, while the worst of our society are certainly full of passionate intensity.
Actually, conviction might be the wrong word here in one sense. It is hard to marshal the logic and structured argument necessary to defend tradition when the rules for contemporary public discourse already handicap any starting position. Instinct doesn’t need logic, and emotion never needs to be too articulate. How can one defend what was, when those who rail against it believe (without needing any evidence but their own conviction) that everything that was, was wrong?
One can’t rationally prove that our centre is falling apart and that things cannot hold, but it does feel that way. The certainties that sustained the Post War World for so many decades are fast slipping away; the stability that we knew is evaporating like a summer fog. The world has long been pegged to the American dollar; which in turn had been based on some solid economic fundamentals – which are now no more.
The details of the Stimulus package, the earmarks, and the torrent of regulations pouring out of the Obama Administration are inundating America at a pace too fast for anyone to track. Yet the hallmarks suggest that the Left-wing of the Democratic Party is trying to instill drastic changes to the very fabric of America, while funding its own institutions to ensure the perpetuation of its own election machine. For a President who pledged clean and open government, the reality of his proposals is a pork barrel of gargantuan proportions.
When ‘reformers’ are in a hurry, any opposition must be hastily vilified, and then brushed aside and ignored; or else stamped on. In a country whose first battle flags often bore the motto “Don’t tread on me”; and whose founding documents and oldest traditions pledge themselves to individual rights, this is a really bad idea. There are clear signs already that ordinary Americans who are far, far outside the usual circles of Patriot Militia nut-bars are already wondering just how far the new Administration might go, and thinking disturbing thoughts.
One might also think that an Administration that senses this is also making preparations of its own. Perhaps in anticipation of unrest induced by the financial crisis, some military units are being re-assigned to civil defence functions. FEMA is rumored to be looking at camp sites to house large numbers of displaced people, though there are many sound reasons why they might (and should) ordinarily do so. The new President seems to be hopeful of creating something like a Roosevelt’s New Deal WPA-style organization for the young; but Americans are traditionally uneasy about government sponsored mass organizations at the best of times and even more so right now. Either way, there is unease in the air.
When it comes to matters such as civil wars and insurrections, history tells us that events can sometimes develop with a startling speed. But one thing is certain: Nothing is as revolutionary as a Middle Class that feels truly threatened.
There are also many parallels that are worth re-examining right now. These include the decline of the Roman Republic (which was an altogether more leisurely process than we allow ourselves nowadays), or the lead-in to the Glorious Revolution of 1689 in England, or the less-than-glorious revolution in France a century later.
For that matter, one could take a look at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Never mind that the Republicans got all the good press during the war and after it, or that Franco’s allies of Hitler and Mussolini get a more dubious reputation than Stalin (who killed more people than Hitler managed). When it comes right down to black hats versus white hats, in Spain in 1936, everybody was in gray. Moreover, the ‘Republicans’ were killing and burning before the Nationalists rose in revolt and plenty of ordinary Spaniards flocked to the Nationalist banner to defend everything that they held dear.
Other problems that the World now faces are also troubling. China is the iron giant with feet of clay and the fiscal crisis is blasting a high pressure hose at those feet as well. Iran will soon have nuclear arms and is fishing for trouble. Climate change is upon us, but it is solar-induced planetary cooling while the apostles of global warming have distracted attention and resources away from some truly urgent environmental problems.
It is getting increasingly difficult to see everything that is going on, and the order that we knew is falling apart. The centre cannot hold. Will mere anarchy be loosed upon the world? The order that we knew is beset on many sides, and when it snaps the blood-dimmed tide will drown the ceremonies of innocence that we took for granted.
Yeat’s poem concludes with more disturbing imagery: “What rough beast, its hour come round at last/slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Again, for a man raised in the comfortable certainties of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the carnage of the First World War would have been bad enough but the end of the war ushered in civil war in Ireland, in Hungary, and most certainly in Russia – where the death toll rapidly climbed into the millions. Yeats must have sensed that something monstrous was on the loose, as was indeed the case.
There are few facts and only loosely connected and very flimsy arguments in this essay. As an exercise in that craft, it is not a particularly good one. But when your instincts are screaming at you that things are about to go terribly wrong, perhaps a poet is better at giving a warning.