Yeats and Modern Angst

Painting: “Nebuchadnezzar” by William Blake


“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?”

Just after World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote the preceding poem called, “The Second Coming.”  I think of it often because it so well captures the angst many feel in our age.  The poem also diagnoses the cause of modern angst: We are not remaining close to God.  Yeats begins with the image of a falcon soaring in ever-widening circles until it goes so far it can no longer hear the falconer; it is lost to its master.  The following lines show the consequence of our independence: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”.  Yeats ends describing a sphinx-like beast shrouded in darkness, who “slouches toward Bethlehem.”  This suggests what is anti-Christ, the culmination and destiny of our godlessness.

“The Second Coming” is not short on frightening imagery, to be sure.  Yet, surprisingly, it comforts me.  First, it reminds me we are not the first or the last generation to feel the world is coming apart at the seams.  Second, I am reminded we can never find security in ourselves or the world we’ve built.  Here, “Things fall apart.”  Only in Christ do “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).  What is more, even when things fall apart, “all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  Most of all, “The Second Coming” reminds me that no matter how much anarchy is loosed on the world, our story has just one ending: the second coming, the revelation of Jesus Christ (Luke 17:30).

The lost and collapsing world, the blood-dimmed tide, the beast, the darkness, the spirit of anti-Christ—all these have their hour.  But all alike must give way and be swallowed up in the glory of Jesus, appearing in all things without cloud and without veil.

Jesus said when godlessness whips around us like a vortex that we should look up, and lift our heads in hope—He is near; His revelation is at hand!


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