In the absence of a thorough examination of the impact on “The Second Coming” of Yeats’s historical thought, it is arguable that the meaning the poet intended has not only been consistently overlooked, but that in general the poem has been taken to mean the opposite of what he intended. This essay offers a reassessment of the thought and imagery, of the response Yeats wished to evoke, and of the antithetical rhetoric of his dialectical view of history.
The text provides a striking example of the synthetic technique which produced some of Yeats’s finest poems, one which condenses into imagery as much of the poet’s thought as is possible but which also creates interpretative problems of which he was fully aware and which he attributed to the compressed, logical rigor of the ideas: “It is hard for a writer, who has spent much labor upon his style, to remember that thought, which seems to him natural and logical like that style, may be unintelligible to others” ( Variorum 853) . However, Yeats did not believe his philosophy to be either obscure or idiosyncratic; in fact he found confirmation of it in the work of Boehme, Heraclitus, Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Vico and in Neoplatonism and the Upanishads. More surprisingly, he considered the intellectual equivalent of his own imaginative richness of suggestion to be the “packed logic,” the “difficult scornful lucidity,” of Alfred North Whitehead, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and subsequently of Philosophy at Harvard, and Bertrand Russell’s collaborator on the Principia Mathematica (Letters 714). Russell’s “plebeian loquacity” infuriated Yeats who admire d “something aristocratic” in White head’s mind, a combination of terse clarity and suggestive complexity in thought and expression which he labored assiduously to attain, nowhere more so than in this poem.
Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” at the time he was collecting, from his wife’s automatic writing, the material from which he created the philosophical system later set out in A Vision, the “very profound, very exciting mystical philosophy” which was to change radically the nature of his verse, and make him feel that for the first time he understood human life: “I live with a strange sense of revelation. . . .You will be astonished at the change in my work, at its intricate passion” (Letters 643-44). In reality this philosophy was neither completely new nor entirely mystical in origin, but rather a crystallization of what Yeats had read, thought, experienced and written over many years, the result of the process whereby he had “pieced his thoughts into philosophy” (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Variorum 429).
Despite Yeats’s own conviction that this had produced a striking change in his writing, many critics have demurred. There has often been a reluctance to take Yeats’s thinking seriously and, partly as a consequence of this, a refusal to accept that he successfully expressed his beliefs in his poetry, especially a skepticism regarding- what Graham Martin has called his “cryptic symbolism” (230). In fact the symbolism in “The Second Coming” is anything but cryptic, except in the limited sense that it embodies some of the most profound elements o his philosophy in a concentrated and complex form which he recognized might prove not immediately intelligible to the reader, but which is entirely logical and consistent. Moreover, it mines a deep and rich vein–literary, philosophical, historical, political and mythical–which has little, if anything, to do with the occult.
In the course of this discussion of “The Second Coming” I shall point to some remarkable resonances between the work of these two writers [Yeats and Nietzsche] in both language and meaning, while the critical emphasis will of course be on Yeats, not Nietzsche. Moreover, the question of literary influence is far too complex to be addressed here, and I am not in any way suggesting that either Yeats’s language or meaning is directly derived from his reading of Nietzsche.
From the outset the poet invites, indeed demands, reference to his philosophic system, the central symbol of which contains two interpenetrating gyres or cones, perpetually in conflict and alternately victorious.(4) Whatever mystical origins Yeats may have claimed for this idea, it is a recognizably dialectical, and not necessarily an occult, concept. Despite the importance of this symbolism in Yeats’s thought, it is rarely introduced into his poetry as explicitly as it is here; its use is thus a direct pointer to what he intended to be the poem’s specific philosophical and historical context:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer, (“The Second Coming” lines 1-2)
and throughout the poem bird imagery contributes to a coherent pattern, though not explicitly.
Successive drafts of the poem indicate that Yeats had in mind the First World War (“bloody frivolity”) , the Bolshevik Revolution (the most striking instance of the destruction of an aristocratic society by egalitarian forces), the threat of anarchy and widespread violence in Ireland, all of which seemed to confirm Nietzsche’s predictions, and the prophecies of Macgregor Mathers in the late 1890s, of immense wars accompanied by and followed by anarchy (Stallworthy 18-19).
Violence, which for Yeats was symptomatic of the end of one era and the birth of another, becomes widespread as the inverted cone reaches its point of greatest expansion: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” as the mass society promulgates its disruptive ideologies, a line that creates a singular effect from the inherent ambiguity of the word “mere” and its surprising juxtaposition with “anarchy.” Here it has a primary meaning as a superlative in the sense of “sheer anarchy,” suggestive of vastly destructive forces, and a secondary meaning as a scornful understatement, as in the phrase “a mere bagatelle.” In an early draft Yeats had written “vile anarchy,” which is more emphatic but which lacks the ambiguity and internal tension of the final version. The change was completely successful and provides for the first stanza a controlled center which does hold, and which allows the subsequent images of violence to intensify.
Yeats enjoyed the description of the Christian phenomenon as a “fabulous, formless darkness” which blotted out “every beautiful thing,” and “the darkness drops again” because the antithetical phases “are but, at the best, phases of a momentary illumination like that of a lightning flash” (A Vision 278, 284). They may even be embodied in some great man; when Yeats and his friends talked of Parnell’s pride and impassivity (shared by the sphinx symbol), “the proceeding epoch with its democratic bonhomie seemed to grin through a horse collar.” Parnell was the symbol that “made apparent, or made possible .. . that epoch’s contrary: contrary, not negation, not refutation…. I am Blake’s disciple, not Hegel’s; ‘contraries are positive. A negation is not a contrary” (Variorum 835).
Moreover, it is in the nature of the dialectic that one era must end, and the next begin, in violence and Yeats’s attitude to violence in his later years is unquestionably ambiguous. In terms of individual suffering he abhorred it; as an intrinsic element of historical necessity he accepted it, at times even welcomed it. Assuming the mask of Michael Robartes and employing a bird symbolism that illuminates the “shadows of the indignant desert birds,” he wrote: “Dear predatory birds, prepare for war. . . . Test art, morality, custom, thought, by Thermopylae. . . . Love war because of its horror, that belief may be changed, civilisation renewed” (A Vision 52-53). This reads like Nietzsche at his most provocative and raises the question of whether it should be interpreted literally or symbolically. Although in both Yeats and Nietzsche references to joyful or ecstatic destruction, or indeed to an apparent glorification of war, are deliberately ambiguous, they often suggest the destruction of outdated and outworn beliefs, a “transvaluation of values.” Such references are legion in Nietzsche’s work. A “definite joy even in destruction ” is one of the prime conditions of a “Dionysian life-task” and a prerequisite of creativity: “Change of values. . . .Always doth he destroy who hath to be a creator,” including self-destruction: “Ready must thou be to burn thyself in thine own flame; how couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes]” (Ecce Homo 113. Zarathustra 74, 79). If anything, Yeats’s invocation to love war because its horror can have a regenerative effect is even more provocative than Nietzsche’s pronouncements, one of the more notorious of which reads: “Your enemy shall ye seek; your war shall ye wage, and for the sake of your thoughts] And if your thoughts succumb, your uprightness shall still shout triumph thereby] Ye shall love peace as a means to new wars–and the short peace more than the long” (Zarathustra 62). I think that in such an instance there is little doubt that what Nietzsche was alluding to was a philosophical “enemy” and a personal, intellectual “war.” Yet this does indicate how a philosophy which purports to be inspirational can become imprisoned in its own logical systematization. Those like Yeats who advocate a transvaluation of values do not create new values but substitute opposites in place of those they wish to destroy and Nietzsche was certainly aware of this:
The time has come when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years: we are losing the centre of gravity by virtue of which we have lived; we are lost for a while. Abruptly we plunge into the opposite valuations, with all the energy that such an extreme overvaluation of man has generated in man (Will to Power 20, section 30).
Apart from the fact that this could be read as a gloss on “The Second Coming,” consider how Yeats categorized his own transvaluation of values:
After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war (A Vision 52).
The substitutions are deliberate and great care has been taken in arranging the contrasting concepts. Compare this:
A primary dispensation looking beyond itself towards a transcendent power is dogmatic, levelling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace its means and end; an antithetical dispensation obeys imminent power, is expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical (A Vision 263).
To Yeats these were statements of fact, but more significantly they were statements of preference. Accordingly we have these symbolic contraries: a rocking cradle and a monolithic sphinx, the Second Coming and the vast image with an impassive gaze, Bethlehem and beast, since the “new civilisation was
about to be born from all that our age had rejected” (Explorations 393), and the rough beast is bound for Bethlehem because “each age unwinds the thread another age had wound” (A Vision 270).(5)
The predictable response to these contraries is likely to be disgust because the emotive impact of the language is determined by the values of the dying era, values nevertheless which Yeats frequently repudiated, sometimes, as in “The Gyres,” with “tragic joy”:
When a civilisation ends … the whole turns bottom upwards, Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values.” . . .Yet we who have hated the age are joyous and happy. The new discipline wherever enforced or thought will recall forgotten beautiful faces. Whenever we or our forefathers have been most Christian-not the Christ of Byzantine mosaic but the soft, domesticated Christ of the painter’s brush . . . we have been haunted by those faces dark with mystery, cast up by that other power that has ever more and more wrestled with ours, each living the other’s death, dying the other’s life (Explorations 433-34).
Yeats was convinced that in two or three generations secular thought would have to accept that “mechanical theory” had no reality. Then it might be possible to recapture the sense that, in the words of the Syrian in The Resurrection, there is something human knowledge cannot explain, something of supreme importance that “lies outside knowledge, outside order”–the irrational, the supernatural, myth. Yeats’s Christ is a living part of a great tapestry, much older than “the child born in the cavern”; it is the embodiment of his belief that “the supernatural and the natural are knit together.” He was sure that this belief would become generally accepted and that it would regenerate European society: “To escape a dangerous fanaticism we must study a new science; at that moment Europeans may find something attractive in a Christ posed against a background not of Judaism but of Druidism, not shut off in dead history, but flowing, concrete, phenomenal. I was born into this faith, have lived in it, and shall die in it” (Essays and Introductions 518) . This is not a plea for irrationality, but a desire to redress the balance between mechanical theory and myth, to reach an acceptance of reality of which myth, the supernatural, that something which “lies outside knowledge, outside order,” are an integral part. Yeats’s critique of Christianity and what he considered its ramifications–humanitarianism, democracy, scientific rationalism-was not an attempt to destroy an old tradition so much as an attempt to revive an even older one, to reassert a morality which Christianity had destroyed, or at least had stood on its head, to recapture a world-view which existed before “the umbilical cord which united Christianity to the ancient world” was cut, in which nobody can say where Christianity begins and Druidism ends.
Nietzsche conceived of Christianity as “hostile to life,” an attempt to deny “the doubt and terror of reality.” He thus invented a “fundamental counter-dogma,” an anti-Christian counter-evaluation of life: “I baptized it, not without some impertinence–for who could be sure of the proper name of the Antichrist?–with the name of a Greek God: I called it Dionysian ” (Ecce Homo 140, 156). In the Greek pantheon Dionysus, like Christ, was a God who died and was reborn; he was also a god of vegetation and animal life who took on different animal forms, one of which was the lion. (Cavendish 147).(8) We have already seen that the Egyptian sphinx–part man, part lion–was a physical manifestation of just such another God, Horus, also represented by the figure of the falcon and revered as the rising sun, born afresh daily, the symbol of renewed life. Such an intricate pattern of ideas, symbols and myths cannot be coincidental nor entirely unconscious. It is a part of that pattern of thought which seemed to the poet as “natural and logical” as his style, and which gives to the sphinx/rough beast symbol the “imaginative richness of suggestion” thatYeats intended it to have.
“The Second Coming” is emblematic of the astonishing effect Yeats claimed his philosophy was having on both the intellectual content and the style of his poetry, and of the “intricate passion” that was beginning to characterize his work at this time. More than any other poem it marks the change to a more idiomatic use of language, a terse complexity of thought and imagery, an energetic muscularity of rhythm, in a word the “masculinity” he sought to achieve. L. A. G. Strong in a letter to Yeats expressed admiration for his ability to conjure up “with one swift, wrought phrase, a landscape, a sky, a weather and a history” (qtd. in Henn 111), and I have discussed what might be called Yeats’s rhetoric of history. The idea of historical recurrence provided him with a consistent, even deterministic, interpretation of past and present and more importantly a prediction for the future. It helped him to come to terms with the violence of the contemporary world as an integral, necessary, even positive manifestation of a period of historical crisis. It also freed him from any suggestion of a revolutionary, or even a reformist, intention since the dialectical movement of history was itself in the process of engendering a civilization of which he could approve. This would be the antithesis of the two-thousand-year Christian era which he believed had culminated politically in a movement founded on Hobbes and popularized by the Encyclopaedists and the French Revolution, and which, having exhausted itself, was useless for centuries to come. However, in his preface to A Vision Yeats anticipated the predictable question and so asked it of himself: did he actually believe in his system, that history fixed from “our central date,” the first day of “our era” (the birth of Christ), can be divided into contrasting periods of equal length] His answer was that he regarded them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawings of Wyndham Lewis, or the ovoids in Brancusi’s sculptures: “They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice” (25). They were thus the building blocks of his mature aesthetic, one which produced in his late poetry what is probably the finest body of work of any poet writing in English in the twentieth century.
I have attempted to divest the language and imagery of “The Second Coming” of the preconceptions that have been grafted onto it, preconceptions that were not Yeats’s, and to explore what he intended to be its suggestive complexity. The following quotation from Richard Ellmann may be taken as indicative of the interpretation o the poem which has gained widespread currency:
In spite of his promise . . . that the next era would be subjective and preferable to the present, the god of that era, who rises from the desert sands . . . is no beneficent Dionysus but a monster. The poet’s vision of horror surmounts his vision of the cycles. . . . Whatever the new dispensation can bring, it inspires only a sense of horrible helplessness to avert what no man can desire. . . .Yeats is not fond of Christianity . . . yet at the end of the poem he envisages something far worse. The final intimation that the new god will be born in Bethlehem, which Christianity associates with passive infancy and the tenderness of maternal love, makes its brutishness particularly frightful (164-65, 259-60).
While this recognizes that Yeats had little veneration for Christianity, it invests the poem’s Christian allusions with a sense of reverence which not only did he not share, but towards which he was deeply antagonistic. Because of a failure, or an unwillingness, to respond to Yeats’s antithetical rhetoric in the way he intended, such an interpretation not only attributes to him value judgments he did not make, they are to all intents and purposes the opposite of those he did make. For Yeats, “all things are from antithesis” (A Vision 268) and his rhetorical juxtapositions produce a dialectical tension as in the text he confronts: the center with a centrifugal force it cannot control; a blood-dimmed tide and the ceremony of innocence; the best and the worst, a lack of conviction and a passionate intensity; a stony sleep vexed to nightmare and a rocking cradle; a slouching, rough beast and Bethlehem. These are reinforced elsewhere by terror and beauty, horror and renewal, love and war, massacre and salvation, an altar and a turbulent child. Compared with such dynamic antitheses, the idea of a “beneficent Dionysus” would have been to both Yeats and Nietzsche a simple, and meaningless, contradiction in terms.
For Nietzsche the dionysian attitude was a passionate affirmation of life, of all aspects of life, including tragedy and pessimism, the doubt and terror of reality, pain and suffering. It led him to what he believed was his supreme philosophical insight, Eternal Recurrence, which was not so much Yeats’s cyclical view of history as the recognition that this life is our eternal life, the willingness to affirm and relive each of life’s experiences, however painful, again and again throughout eternity”amor fati,” the apotheosis of the present moment. In a sense this was Nietzsche’s attempt to reclaim and reaffirm his own life, one which he believed had been unusually filled with pain and suffering. Yeats’s idea of historical recurrence was a fusion of the personal and the world-historical. On the one hand it justified his rejection of the values and beliefs of the age, an age he characterized as looking beyond humanity to a transcendent power, as democratic, leveling, egalitarian, anarchic, heterogeneous, feminine, humane–“tender” qualities symbolized here by a rocking cradle, Bethlehem and The Second Coming. On the other hand it made it possible for him to reclaim for a future age those values he cherished, a future that would obey imminent power, would be aristocratic, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh and surgical–“hard, astringent” qualities symbolized by a monolithic sphinx and a rough beast.
Thus the confrontation between the Second Coming and the rough beast occurs in Yeats’s work in numerous forms, many of them Nietzschean in tone. Also writing out of a profound contempt for his age and what he considered to be its predominant values, Nietzsche almost willfully invited his contemporaries to misunderstand his rhetoric, his “philosophizing with a hammer”: “Caesar Borgia as Pope] Do you understand me?” (Complete Works 16: 228). Not surprisingly most of them didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a provocative assertion of a consistent theme in Nietzsche’s work, the clash throughout human history of “Renaissance” and “Reformation” values–the confrontation between a “higher” order of values that are “hard” and “noble,” that “say yea to life,” that “assured a future,” and “the opposing values of degeneration,” which he characterized as the morality of decadence: “Have you understood me] Dionysus versus Christ” (Ecce Homo 24, 136, 145). What he was doing in fact was inviting his readers to be daring enough to understand him, and the same challenging themes and idioms are to be found in Yeats. In A Vision there is the same confrontation between Christianity and paganism, and between Christian and Renaissance values, which Yeats, like Nietzsche, loved to embody in representative mythological or historical figures; for example, the tender passivity of a Saint Catherine of Genoa and the hardness, the astringency of a Donatello or a Michelangelo (291).
Ultimately, however, despite their often contemptuous rhetoric, neither completely rejected Christian values. Nietzsche did believe that European culture in the second half of the nineteenth century needed a transfusion of those “hard,” “noble” qualities he admired, a radical injection of will:
Nowadays the taste and virtue of the age weaken and attenuate the will; . . . consequently, in the ideal of the philosopher, strength of will, sternness and capacity for prolonged resolution, must specially be included in the conception of “greatness”: with as good a right as the opposite doctrine, with its ideal of a silly, renouncing, humble, selfless humanity, was suited to an opposite age–such as the sixteenth century, which suffered from its accumulated energy of will, and from the wildest torrents and floods of selfishness (Beyond Good and Evil 137).