Reading Camille Paglia reading Yeats

Friday, 29 June, 2012

After reading The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats, Camille Paglia wrote:

“Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ has gained in prophetic power with each decade of the twentieth and now twenty-first century, from the rise of fascism and nuclear warfare to the proliferation of international terrorism. It expresses the melancholy realization that man, yearningly drawn to the divine, will never fully escape his bestial ancestry.

Hovering falcon The poem is modernistically unrhymed, though the first stanza plays with shadowy off-rhymes: ‘gyre’ / ‘falconer’ / ‘everywhere’; ‘hold’ / ‘world’ / ‘drowned’. It is structured instead by dramatic visuals and emblematic choreography. There are two main movements: a huge, expanding circle (the ascending falcon) and an arrowlike, linear track (the beast bound for Bethlehem). Then two smaller ones: a pendulum arc (the rocking cradle) and an exploding pinwheel (the reeling desert birds). Ideas have become design, starkly juxtaposed with the murky turbulence of elemental forces — storm, flood, drought. Hence the poem, with its horror movie finale, is as hybrid as the sphinx, who represents our buried impulses, vestiges of a past that keeps turning into the future.”

Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems

Interestingly, the 19th episode of the sixth season of the HBO television drama series The Sopranos was titled The Second Coming. Parts of the poem’s final lines (“what rough beast… Slouching towards Bethlehem”) are echoed in the final shot as a slouching, dejected Tony Soprano is seen walking down the halls of the mental hospital “Bethlehem”, which was also the name of the world’s first psychiatric hospital. Time to read the poem, then.

The Second Coming

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?

William Butler Yeats (1865 — 1939)

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