I was never really all that struck by Yeats’ poem The Second Coming when I was an English major in college. We mostly contented ourselves with showing off our knowledge of what a gyre is, and then moved on to Beowulf, or Salman Rushdie. But, ever since Obama got elected and the Republican Party went insane over the sight of a black man in the Oval Office, The Second Coming has become more and more meaningful to me. When Trump got elected, it went way past “meaningful” towards “frightening,” and nothing that has happened in the subsequent year+ that he’s been in office has done anything to make it less so.
As you can imagine, the imagery of this poem has generated enormous amounts of discussion, and I won’t pretend to even begin to get a handle on it. Even the language is difficult to understand at points, and not just for reasons of obscure vocabulary. Here are the two words that people have the most trouble with:
- gyre: a spiral motion. From what I understand, falcons hunt by flying in a widening spiral, or gyre. I haven’t been able to find a video that shows it clearly, but if you have a strong stomach and want to see a falcon kill something: seek, and you shall find.
- mere: the sense of the word here is an old one: pure, absolute. See the Merriam-Webster entry here. The typical meaning is something like “nothing more than”–He is a mere child.
- to vex: to trouble.
The Second Coming
W. B. Yeats, 1919
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?