Monday, June 7, 2010

Slouching towards Bethlehem

The Second Coming

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?

(W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming," Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921)

I really do not have much to say to this amazing poem. The centrifugal force of the first stanza of the doubly turning gyre, the falcon flying from the falconer loosened from its earthly tether, anarchy, blood-dimmed tide that drowns all innocence, are all best encapsulated, I think, in the line: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." The center spins and all spin chaotically away.

This stanza of chaos invokes a cosmic storm; the apocalyptic storm of the Second Coming. It is a chaos that seeks meaning; a chaos that seeks revelation. Even if that revelation is death and destruction, it is foreseen death and destruction in the sight of eternity--the divine plan of the Second Coming. That the Egyptian sphinx is the spirit of the world would indeed be a vexing image. It is a vexing figure: the sphinx who tells riddles is itself a riddle. This makes the world itself a riddle, but it also makes this world a ruin. A ruin has two sides: it is incomplete due to the ravages of time, but it also has endured the ravages of time. The sphinx as the world spirit is an enduring image that counterposes the instability of the first stanza. Both, however, are unsettled as a new beast slouches toward Bethlehem. The new beast born in Jesus' birthplace. A nightmare to be brought up. A violent thing that has taken its time to come to its consummation. Slouching may be slovenly, but it is also unhurried. The rough beast will work at its own pace to bring a violent end to the chaos by chaos.

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