The Second Coming Turns 100

A Discussion of W.B. Yeats’ Classic Poem of Polarization with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Paul Muldoon (Princeton University)

November 12, 2020

How does a century-old poem written in Ireland as European civil wars erupted in the aftermath of  World War I still resonate as if written for our own partisan era? That is the central question The Purple Principle asks in both Episode 14 and 15, as the classic poem, “The Second Coming”, by William Butler Yeats, turns one hundred years young. 

In Episode 14, our special guest on this topic is another great Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, author of 15 collections of poetry, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Professor of Poetry at Princeton University

Prof. Muldoon speaks about the poem’s remarkable insight and longevity, the influences at work on Yeats as he wrote it, and the impact Yeats still exerts on poetry today. In addition, he discusses his own personal experience with the poem, both as a student in Ireland in the 1960s, and more recently, as the cycles of history Yeats predicted seem to come back around.  

This episode of The Purple Principle also features Paul Muldoon’s own reading of “The Second Coming” interspersed within the interview and in its entirety at the conclusion. 

The center cannot hold.. The best lack all conviction; while the worst are full of passionate intensity… 

Lines published one hundred years ago this month (November 1920) by the American literary magazine, Dial, that still speak to us today, here in the U.S., as we polarize over COVID, election results, and other issues. Tune in to learn more about the remarkable relevance and endurance of “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats with special guest, the renowned Irish poet, Paul Muldoon. 

Source Notes

Paul Muldoon. 

Paul Muldoon (2019). Frolic and Detour. 

Paul Muldoon (2016). Selected Poems: 1968-2014. 

Robert Kennedy (1968), “Things Fall Apart; the Center Cannot Hold” The New York Times. 

Margaret Thatcher (1975), Speech to West Midlands Conservatives.

Remarks by President Obama in Address to the People of Europe (2016). 

Emily Ludolph (12/5/18). “W. B. Yeats’ Live-in “Spirit Medium”. JSTOR Daily. 

Brian Dooley. Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America. Pluto Press: London, 1998.

Stephen Regan. “W.B. Yeats: Irish Nationalism and Post-Colonial Theory.” Nordic Irish Studies, vol. 5, 2006, pp. 87–99. 

“Mysticism, Celtic Myth & The Occult.” University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

W.B. Yeats (1901). “Magic.” Ideas of Good and Evil. 

“W.B. Yeats.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 

Dawn Duncan, Austin Gerth, Elizabeth Pilon, Erika Strandjord. “Maud Gonn.” Yeats: When You Are Old.

“Maud Gonne.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

Chinua Achebe (1958). Things Fall Apart. 

Joan Didion (1968). Slouching Towards Bethlehem. 

David Fitzpatrick. “Yeats in the Senate.” Studia Hibernica, no. 12, 1972, pp. 7–26.

Stephen Burt (1/27/11). “The Weasel’s Tooth: On W.B. Yeats.” The Nation. 

Patrick Dowdall (11/12/19). “‘What Ish My Nation?’ W.B. Yeats and the Formation of Nationalist Consciousness.” Vogelinview. 

W.B. Yeats (Nov. 1920). “The Second Coming.” The Dial 68, 466. 

Bríona Nic Dhiarmada | Department of Irish Language and Literature | University of Notre Dame 

Transcript

Paul Muldoon: 

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Robert Pease (host):

That’s our very special guest today, Paul Muldoon, the prize-winning poet, reading from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats, which turns 100 years young this month.1

Paul Muldoon: 

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.”

Robert Pease (host):

For our first post-election episode, we thought we’d take a little break from our own passionate intensity and look at a cultural topic, like the centennial of this great poem.

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

But that turns out to be not too much of a break, because “The Second Coming” still resonates powerfully today with things falling apart around COVID, the 2020 U.S. election, and many other issues.

Robert Pease (host): 

Join us on this episode of The Purple Principle with special guest Paul Muldoon, as we ask: How does a century-old Irish poem continue to resonate today? I’m Robert Pease.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

And I’m Emily Crocetti. And references to “The Second Coming” are numerous, frequent, and significant, such as the 1968 Robert Kennedy op-ed on the Vietnam War, entitled, “Things Fall Apart”.2

Robert Pease (host): 

Or somewhat ironically, Margaret Thatcher, the UK Prime Minister in 1975, referencing the passion of her political opponents.3

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

And President Barack Obama citing the poem in a 2016 speech in Germany on the rise of the far right.4 But “The Second Coming” is not simply a favorite reference of political leaders.  It’s also been performed by a wide variety of musicians and writers, such as the Canadian-American singer songwriter, Joni Mitchell; Irish actor, Cyril Cusak; American indie music trio Sleater Kinney; British-Irish folk rock band, The Waterboys; and British Actor, Dominic West. 

[Archival audio collage]

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

William Butler Yeats, who longed for Ireland’s mythical past, was known to attend the occasional séance or two.5 Was he a true visionary? Is that why he still speaks to us today? 

Robert Pease (host):  

Or did he have some help from history moving in familiar patterns?  We spoke with Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and professor at Princeton University to help explain the continuing relevance of “The Second Coming” at 100 years old.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):

But first, a few lines of “The Second Coming”, which Paul Muldoon recites between interview segments throughout. We’ve also included his full reading at the end of the episode.

Paul Muldoon: 

“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.”

Paul Muldoon: 

One of the things about a great poem is that there is a sense that it has always existed. It’s what I refer to as the eternity of the poem. There’s a sense that it was always meant to be like this. And of course, Yeats’ theory, which for many of us actually may seem a little madcap, that’s represented in this poem, of the cyclical nature of history, his notion of the gyres, a word that’s related to the word gyroscope and gyrating, the cycles and circles of history, things coming round again, and that may have seemed fanciful at one point. Whereas at the moment, actually it does indeed seem that there is a cyclical aspect to things. But it does seem to be true, for example, that we learn nothing from history. And that some of the issues that were relevant there, when Yeats wrote the poem, are again relevant.

Robert Pease (host):  

On a personal level, do you recall when you first read the poem and your impressions then, and are they similar to your impressions as you reread it today?

Paul Muldoon: 

As a teenager at high school or grammar school, as we called it, I certainly became much more deeply involved with Yeats and would have read “The Second Coming” as a child in Ireland in the 1960s. And certainly there was an element of Irish politics ghosting this poem and indeed, in the late 1960s, of course, when I went to Belfast as a student, civil unrest as they call it was again a feature of the landscape, just as it had been in the U.S. and indeed the Irish civil rights movement had been influenced by the U.S. civil rights movement.6 And of course it was a time of political upheaval right through Europe. So there was a sense that this poem was speaking to us and our history. 

Robert Pease (host): 

So Paul, it seems that around the time he writes this poem, Yeats has multiple identities. He’s a nationalist working to promote Irish culture through playwriting,7 but obviously he’s also interested his whole life in mythology and mysticism.8 Is it too simple to say his political persona is in the first stanza, “the center cannot hold”, and his more restless, mythical one in the second, the “rough beast” stanza? 

Paul Muldoon:

Well, that certainly seems to apply, I mean, the notion of “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. “Blood dimmed tide is loosed” – certainly would refer to the state of the nations. And in that sense, actually, it’s a poem about a lack of resolution in a strange way. But Yeats was able to include so many ideas in his poems. Most of them are actually rather nutty. He believed in the fairies for example, which, you know, most of us from Ireland may have some passing regard for the notion of fairy land. But we’ve pretty much moved beyond it.9

But somehow he manages to make great poetry despite the oddness, craziness of his ideas. Having said that, you know, I think Yeats was engaged here with grave matter, with grave material and was concerned about the state of the world a hundred years ago.

Robert Pease (host): 

So another important influence here is Maud Gonne.10 Sometimes called his muse or lover and also the leading lady in many of his plays. She was more revolutionary than he was. Was it his ambivalence that allowed him to make observations about those who, in Yeats’ words, were so passionate?

Paul Muldoon:

Well, passionate is a word that he uses quite often in his poems, and his great passion of course, or one of them, was indeed for Maud Gonne, the pedestalized figure, the unattainable goddess. She represented that for him. She brushed him off again and again, finally marrying John McBride, she became Maud Gonne McBride. He did become energized though, by the Irish political scene and he became an advocate for Irish nationalism, partly through the influence of Maud Gonne, but there were many other influences at work there also.

Paul Muldoon:

“…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.”

Emily Crocetti (reporter): 

That was the prize winning poet Paul Muldoon speaking about, and then reading from, “The Second Coming” s, a 16 line poem by W. B. Yeat that resonates as powerfully today as it has for a hundred years.

Robert Pease (host):  

For example, the great Nigerian Novelist, Chinua Achebe, entitled his 1958 anti-colonial novel Things Fall Apart, a phrase from “The Second Coming”.11 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

And the respected American journalist Joan Didion named her reportage on 1960s counterculture with another reference, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.12 But Yeats wrote this poem in Ireland, way back during the tumultuous end of World War I, when tensions still were high throughout Europe. 

Robert Pease (host):   

The Russian Civil War had erupted and animosities were building in Ireland, not just toward British rule, but toward an eventual Civil War of its own. I spoke with Paul Muldoon about the influences at work on Yeats as he wrote the poem, as well as his influence on poetry today.  

Paul Muldoon:

“The darkness drops again; but now I know   

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.”   

Paul Muldoon:

There are those who would say, of course, that one of the reasons why this poem has had such enduring qualities is that in fact it’s less than specific about the politics of the moment. Mind you, there are those who say that one must be specific and that he could easily have retained his references to Russia and Germany in the poem. And it would still have worked. That’s a mystery. It’s really impossible now to figure that out. We’re so used to this particular version of it. But Yeats, he’s always had a sense of the big picture. The picture that is 2,000 years or 4,000 or 6,000 years broad or wide. He is, I think probably quite educatedly, going for images that will resonate for a long time. 

Robert Pease (host):

There’s also, to the very amateur ear, an interesting mix of language, very simple phrases. “The center cannot hold” but much more ambitious language. Is that typical of a Yeats poem, or is it more unique to this particular one?

Paul Muldoon:

Yeats’ vocabulary is fascinating. I mean, he can go from one moment to the very matter of fact, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”, which is a line, when you think about it, that for many people in 1919 would have seemed un- or a-poetical. Whereas, the notion of a gyre, which of course is something that he pretty much invented himself. Yeats was extremely inventive and he was able to forge a vocabulary that had very far-flung elements. He’s very interested in the imagery of the forge, the smithy, the forging of metals. It’s one of his favorite areas of metaphor and symbol. So he does put these elements together and melts them down and fuses them, that is an important element of his poetic practice.

Robert Pease (host):

So then turning to your own life experience, Paul, you’ve lived and traveled in many places. When has “The Second Coming” come to mind, as you have moved around? Has it been in your mind recently in the U.S.? Did it come to mind during Brexit or other times?

Paul Muldoon:

Well, you know, it is a poem that comes to mind when we see the appearance, even what might seem to be merely an apparition, of the dictator, the tyrant, the autocrat. And I suppose it’s a poem that does come to mind when we recognize how, alas, in our society, many of the best do indeed seem to lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. As we see now in November 2020, there’s plenty of evidence for both lack of conviction and passionate intensity. Yeats was not only interested in politics, but he wasn’t himself a politician, which is something that we tend to forget. Yeats was a member of the Irish Senate, and he often spoke memorably in the Senate, and he was involved in putting through all kinds of interesting legislation.13 And he generally was a very forward looking type. So he had a sense of the smoke filled room, what happens behind the scenes in politics, as well as what happens on the streets. So to answer your question, yes, I mean, I do think of this poem, and I think many do, in our present circumstances.14

Robert Pease (host):

And then what about Yeats’ influence as a poet? When I was in college, somewhat late last century he was often called the greatest, most influential English language poet of the 20th century. How is he doing in the 21st century?

Paul Muldoon:

Yeats’ influence continues to be quite huge. When one looks back to those who seem to have been able to do it with a certain aplomb, Yeats is definitely up there. And one of the reasons why he’s up there, I believe, has to do with his unwillingness to rest on his laurels, such as they were. Had he stopped writing in 1900 or 1910, he would probably still be remembered as a pretty good late Victorian, maybe into the Edwardian era poet. But of course, he shifted gears, and he upped his game, or his game was upped for him by circumstances in Ireland. In his famous “Elegy for Yeats”, W.H. Auden refers to “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”. And I think there’s some truth in that. Yeats was forced really to find a way to come to terms with what was happening on the streets. And he was forced to find a way to also come to terms with what was happening among the other poets, who would become known as the modernists. So one of the reasons why he has endured, I think has to do with his restlessness. One will always recognize Yeats’ voice coming through in a poem. But there’s a great consistency there, as there is the major poets. But there’s also his constant attempt to change and be equal to the moment.

Paul Muldoon:

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” 

Robert Pease (host): 

That was our featured guest today, the renowned poet Paul Muldoon, reading a few lines of “The Second Coming”, and in this interview, helping us understand how a century old poem by Irishman William Butler Yeats still conveys our fears today in these not very United States.

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

Yeats himself was ambivalent and inconsistent in his own political  beliefs, at times highly cynical of democratic ideals, which he feared could result in mob rule.15

Robert Pease (host): 

But Yeats also knew quite a bit about human passion, the cycles of history, and the power of symbols, all of which come together in “The Second Coming”. It was published 100 years ago this month in the American literary magazine, Dial.16 

Emily Crocetti (reporter):  

In our next episode, the second of two parts on – no pun intended – “The Second Coming”, we’ll speak with the award winning filmmaker Briona Nic Dhiarmada.17 Her eight-part series, “1916: The Irish Rebellion”, chronicles Ireland’s struggle for independence in the early 1900s. 

Robert Pease (host): 

A struggle William Butler Yeats was directly involved in for most of his life.  

Briona Nic Dhiarmada:

You have all this upheaval going on when Yeats began to write, and again, that very month that he began to write at this poem, became known as the War of Independence started, the Black and Tan War. No one knew what was going to happen. Where was this going to end? So you have, on a personal level, you have the pandemic of the flu, you have the flux of Irish politics. What was going to happen? It was just after, of course, 1918, the end of the First World War, an absolute horrorscape, you had millions of young men dead in trenches, dead in ditches. You had upheaval all over the world, particularly in the British empire that was beginning to come apart at the seams, you had the Bolshevik revolution. So I think all of those things were playing on his mind when he wrote this poem.

Robert Pease (host):   

Please stay tuned for that, share us on social media, and visit our website, purpleprinciple.com for more information on this and other episodes. This is Robert Pease for the Purple Principle team: Emily Crocetti, staff reporter; Kevin A. Kline, audio engineer; research and fact checking by Emily Holloway and Johnnie Dowling; marketing and outreach by Janice Murphy. Our original music with a touch of the Irish today was composed and created by Ryan Adair Rooney. This will play us out beneath a complete reading of “The Second Coming” by Paul Muldoon.  

Paul Muldoon:

“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?”

1994
2017

In 1986, 34 Democratic and 29 Republican Senators signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, creating a citizenship path for illegal immigrants while making it a Federal crime to employ illegal workers. The House also voted in favor, 238 to 173. The bill was signed into law on November 6, 1986. 

congress.gov

In 1972, 17 Republican Senators joined 35 Democratic Senators to override the Nixon Administration veto of the Clean Water Act, a landmark piece of environmental legislation. The House override vote was 247 to 23, including 96 Republicans and 151 Democrats in the majority.

govtrack.us

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