The modernist Irish poet William Butler Yeats opens his poem “The Second Coming” with this stanza:
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.
Yeats closes his poem with these two lines, which ask a crucial question, one that I believe is worth thinking about as we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord and look forward to the New Year:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats wrote his apocalyptic poem in 1919, the horrors of World War I and the bloodshed of Ireland’s Easter Rising still fresh in his mind.
Although the Europe he knew was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with its Christian heritage, Yeats continued to use Christian symbols in writing his highly symbolic, and at times mythic, poetry.
Yeats grew up in Ireland as part of the Protestant elite in Ireland, which heavily oppressed the predominantly Catholic Irish. As an adult, he supported Irish nationalism, but uncomfortable with violence he wrote in his poem "Easter 1916" of the “terrible beauty” that was born in the aftermath of the Easter Rising.
His rejection of the middle class values of his times led him to dig deep into the occult.
Defining himself as an agnostic, he was attracted to the ideas of the Russian occultist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the principal founder of a false religion called Theosophy whose ideas influenced today's New Age beliefs.
Through his digging, Yeats became one of the architects of the anti-Christian, anti-Middle Class, and New Age ideas that many in our society today have embraced.
In A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode, David Perkins writes that Yeats described a number of the writers he had known as tragic but noble and courageous, despite their having been self-destructive in their use of drink, drugs, and sex.
Yeats saw these poets as limited but sympathetic because of “the intensity of the rejection of middle class existence.”
Yeats, Perkins writes, came to believe that their “self-destructiveness … whatever brought about their personal tragedies had limited their art.”
One of his criticisms of his fellow writers was that even though they had rejected middle class values they had not found anything else to replace them.
In his strange spirituality Yeats, however, thought he had. Perkins writes: “Only the mystic and the saint, Yeats later believed, could reject nature and the world and still be full.”
The failure of his fellow writers, it seems, only taught Yeats to pay closer attention to his poetic craft. He could not see that their rejection of Christian morality, and his own, was at the heart of their difficulties.
There was nothing to replace. Instead, what was needed was full commitment to Christianity. At this, Yeats and the elite of his time failed miserably.
The mystic and saint Yeats admired was a creation of his own mind, his own will, not the will of God.
“The Second Coming,” a poem about the world by a worldly man who longed to be mystic and saint, says much about the world, but not in the way Yeats intended.
The falcon, human beings, including Yeats, cannot hear the falconer, God. The things of the world do fall apart and do not hold together – when God, the true God, is not at the center.
Anarchy has been loosed by elites such as Yeats, and the world they have created, drowning in blood, murders innocence even today.
Can we really call those who lack conviction the best among us?
The best lacking conviction for Yeats includes intellectuals, artists, poets, politicians, businessmen, and the wealthy. Together, they have birthed and nurtured, with the complicity of so many, the wasteland observed by Yeats’s more astute contemporary T.S. Eliot.
There is much to admire about Yeats: His use of conversational speech to write his poems, his attention to the craft of writing a poem.
But his content, while reflective of the ideas held by many among the elite in his time, and in our own, is often the thought of a deeply confused man.
As we celebrate the Nativity, let us also reflect on Our Lord’s passion, how he carried on the cross the weight of our sins, the weight of the sinful world Yeats cannot see that he has helped birth, a world we too have helped birth through our sins.
Let us reflect on how the rough, slouching beast is defeated, that our sins have been forgiven, and that with prayer and fasting, the weapons the Lord has given us, we will defeat the legions of slouching demons who torment, tempt, and distract us.
Let us not get caught up in the widening gyre. Let us not stumble. Waiting and watching, let instead endure in our prayer and fasting to the end. In enduring, let us give birth to a Christian life well-lived with passionate intensity.
Originally Published in The Christian Review, December 24, 2018