This Necessary Terror
Assumptions on Yeats’s “The Second Coming”
William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” evokes a certain kind of terror whenever it is read, one that seems predicated on trembling surety, on bone-deep knowing. It is a poem that is familiar, that feels as if it’s been written and read before (and will be written and read as we move forward) — owing, perhaps, to imagery that constructs the terrifying gamut of things to come, if history’s recurring motifs are anything to go by.
The text features a prominent figure that we recognize on different levels, from its appearance in religious texts to its appearance in our historical contexts — a “rough beast” time and again reborn. Given our recognition of it — and, more than that, the collective consciousness that has contributed to its crafting — what could it say about us, then, that the cycle — the gyres turning — hasn’t collapsed on itself? Why hasn’t the radical tension that resurrects this beast risen from somewhere else something to counter it? Or, in the first place, why have we continued to “[vex it] to nightmare”?
In the paper “The ‘Rough Beast’ and Historical Necessity: A New Consideration of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’,” Russell E. Murphy posits that what Yeats had written about in the poem has emerged in different parts of the world as strongman dictators, “all of them potential avatars for that ‘rough beast’ whose own impending appearance in a desperate and chaotic world Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ had not so much prophesied as anticipated in that note of questioning dread” (101). Written in 1981, the realities that have constructed such a position on the poem still hold today. There is still an emergence of the things we fear and constructed the beast out of, “heinous atrocities and intolerable cruelties and oppression”. The emergence itself is still something to anticipate, Yeats’s concluding question, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (21–22) being ours, still, almost a century after the poem’s first publication in 1920. An assumption as to why is in the passage that Murphy includes, from Frank Tuohy,
The identity of the “rough beast” is part of a question which the poet leaves unanswered. Anarchy brings forth its antithesis, which may be exceedingly nasty, but for the poet, who looks at history aesthetically rather than morally, may also be exciting and stimulating and not necessarily unwelcome. (102, emphasis mine)
The “rough beast” holds its appeal. The conditions that had to be met for it to rise may have resulted in the violence and the falling apart and the anarchy of the first stanza of the poem, but to some degree, it is appealing that something new will come out of it, that the rough beast coming signals the construction of new structures. It signals to the artist the urgency with which their art, their poetry and their songs, their resistance must manifest. With this assumption, it might be safe to assume that spiraling towards a center that “cannot hold” is an active way to coax this beast (or whatever it represents to us, in the here and now) towards our proverbial Bethlehem.
The appeal itself, like beast who holds it, is something we recognize as a collective people. The second stanza of the poem presents the “second coming” as a revelation from spiritus mundi — something that was to be looked forward to. Murphy phrases it as an encouragement, “how rough and how a beast, for certainly as much as we are asked to anticipate an age of evil and war, we are also encouraged to anticipate an age of freedom and kindred and art.” (106) This encouragement presents something else entirely that may shift our initial terror from fear of a governing power that discerns right from wrong (which is never necessarily something ancient nor divine, although it would be convenient, given the traditions from which the poem draws its images) into apprehension that comes with doing away with guidelines of that “right and wrong”: that is, to accept that we are to be beyond good and evil. It is then appealing to us that there are no absolutes on which we may be judged or held against, because there is something larger we’re aspiring to, something that will not be held back by our accountability to those absolutes.
Coming off this idea, however, and looking back has already happened historically that contributes and goes back to the emergence of the beast, isn’t this appeal (or even our anticipation of it) a terrifying conclusion to draw? Doesn’t this justify the atrocities of the past, and therefore set precedence for of the future? Think of Adolf Hitler, for example, used even by as a possible contender for Yeats’s beast. On the grounds of aspiring to something new, of aspiring to be an impulse or enough to overtake whatever present darkness he had perceived, he might have been operating on the same assumptions that are being posited now. And this brings us back to the terror evoked by the poem that becomes more potent given the conclusions we’ve arrived at. What could it say about us, about humanity in general? What does this reading say about where we are going? Are we the beasts? After all, Murphy decides that the individual must be “wholly human” coming off Carl Jung and his supposed similarity with Yeats when [Jung] says,
As any change must begin somewhere, it is the single individual who will experience it and carry it through. The change must indeed begin with an individual; it might be any one of us. (110)
Murphy then adds,
Whether that individual be seen as the Communist on Cotswold Hill, or the rough beast of “The Second Coming” or the man of Phase Two or de Chardin’s Omega, the individual must be seen as wholly human; otherwise — and only otherwise — there would be no common human value to either our hopes or our fears. (110)
What human value are we contributing to future hopes and fears?
The first stanza of the Yeats’s poem ends with “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” (7–8) It is a line that forces the reader to a point of reckoning; this appears to us to be a condition set and met for the next stanza to make sense in its having to take place. It reads as if the lack of conviction as it is played off by passionate intensity is the last thing to exhaust. Perhaps, to answer one of the questions posed earlier, that of why we are continuously vexing to nightmare this rough beast, it is necessary to consider this line. The silence of the best of us has forced a terrifying (and terrifyingly heavy) destiny on humanity, to have to take upon ourselves this figure. In a society where we have been pushed to breaking points in order to speak up then systematically silenced, generational response has been to cave — until our Messiah figures rise and we are expected to treat them as provocative saviors when the things they represent are fundamentally detrimental. Inevitably, retrospection paints them as rough beasts instead and we start over. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer;” (1–2). More than being something to fear, this poem evokes a certain hopelessness — because, even if something is coming, it will not redeem us, not completely, not if there’s need for it to come again.
Talking about Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, terror is evoked, considered to be predicated on inevitability. This terror still applies even after countless readings, although it is more nuanced now, more fully fleshed out. This terror is one that assumes the necessity of our capacity for evil and oppression in order to move forward, and it assumes that this necessity is appealing, that it “signals no loss whatsoever” (110). This terror stems from the notion that we are the rough beasts, or—to take it at least by some degree further from ourselves—the rough beast is an individual that will rise from our collective.
“The Second Coming” then becomes something more than just an apocalyptic poem in the abstract, but instead becomes a warning of sorts, or pushed further, a self-fulfilling prophecy embedded into history’s cyclic patterns to be aware of. And yet, the assumptions on the rough beast are perhaps more telling of the context and traditions that have brought us here, than they are of what Yeats (or even Murphy) could have meant. Perhaps these assumptions are more telling of personal worst fears projected, as an attempt to take the discussion away from the more traditional allusions to the rough beast, such as that of the Christian Bible’s Revelations, or the Egyptian Sphinx. Still, regardless of these presuppositions regarding the reading of Yeats’s poem, perhaps it is even more pertinent to consider that these kinds of poems are still representative of our present situations, because that’s even more telling of who we have (and will) become.
Murphy, R. E. (1981). The ‘Rough Beast’ and Historical Necessity: A New Consideration of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’. Studies in the Literary Imagination, 14(1), 101.