When my daughter came home from school yesterday, she told me that she had read and discussed “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats in English class. Since it had been several years since I read the poem, I decided to reread it.
I’ve always found deep meaning in the opening lines of the poem: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” I am fairly confident that Yeats had read Plotinus, and I always interpreted this as a reference to Plotinus’ concept of emanation, that the center is the source or the godhead, and that as the emanations from the source circle outward, they become more fragmented and more disconnected from the godhead. Eventually, the emanations at the fringe of the gyre no longer have any connection to the divine source.
As I continued with the poem, I came across a passage that took on new significance for me in light of our social and political climate: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” This about knocked me over. It was almost like Yeats was predicting the situation in the US today. Intelligent young people have become disillusioned with politics and have given up hope, opting to not participate in the process anymore. By contrast, self-centered, intolerant, and angry individuals have become more passionate, more intensely active in the political forum. It has set a frightening stage.
Was Yeats expressing a prophetic vision in this poem? Is the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born? I suppose we’ll find out.