Thursday, March 12, 2015

"The Second Coming" by Wm. Butler Yeats (1919)

Every artist interprets events differently. In the First World War two poets went to battle. They both wrote poems which would stand the test of time. Both poems grew out of the same horrors, and yet both perceived their experiences in such different ways. Here we will examine just two; which have both become emblematic of that conflict; the War to End All Wars.

The first one is by W.B. Yeats. He wrote the classic poem “The Second Coming” while still in France in 1919. The horrors of what he has seen and experienced are compared to the end of time as envisioned in the Bible. It is a stark and dreary assessment of what man hopes for as a result of war; yet he is resigned to a fate which he hopes will bring him rebirth.

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: a waste of desert sand;
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
Wind 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?

This second poem is much simpler in construction, as well as message. Joyce Kilmer served with the NY Regiment in the same war. He, too came away with a sense of rebirth and a belief in a better world. But the difference in the two poems and their outlooks is astonishing. You all know this one. It’s from 1st grade.


I think that I shall never see
a poem lovely as a tree.
 A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
 A tree that may in summer wear
a nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
who intimately lives with rain.
 Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

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