Things Fall Apart: Yeats’ Poetry in 2016

William Butler Yeats’ prophetic words are so often cited that the Wall Street Journal recently published an article called “Terror, Brexit and the U.S. Election Have Made 2016 the Year of Yeats.” One of his most famous poems, The Second Coming, continues to reverberate with people across the world for its uncanny description of today’s world.

An Irishman who later won the Nobel Prize, Yeats wrote this poem in the years immediately after World War One to depict the fractured and violent state of affairs. As captured in the first stanza (below), Yeats’ cautionary lament rings true in modern ears — despite having been written nearly one hundred years ago.

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.

The story of the World Wars is a story of factionalism and xenophobia. The world fractured as ideologues used race and creed to catalyze hatred and violence. In the aftermath of the First World War, when none of the problems of the nationalism that had caused the war had been solved, many remarked that the Treaty of Versailles could not stop the next war

Following a graphic portrayal of the destruction of order in the world, Yeats describes a world divided between “the worst” who passionately destroy and “the best” who apathetically allow that destruction. Current events and public discourse seem to operate between these same two poles of apathy and intensity Yeats refers to. Violence and hatred cyclically threaten to tear societies apart entirely. Nations like the United Kingdom have recently rejected integration in favor of isolation. In the United States, this election cycle is punctuated by hate-filled intensity and apathetic reactions as unifying frameworks like religion and culture are breaking down and the “centre cannot hold”.

People have long quoted The Second Coming. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe took a line from it for the title of his celebrated book, Things Fall Apart. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Ed Ballard, looked at the proliferation of journalists and writers who cited The Second Coming in the first half of 2016. They found that:

An analysis of Factiva, a media database, shows that some of Yeats’s most resonant lines have been quoted in news sources more often in the first seven months of 2016 than any other year in the past three decades. References on Twitter have also gradually increased over the past year, according to data from social-analytics firm Sysomos Inc., with spikes after terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, and in the wake of the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU.

When Yeats wrote this poem in the aftermath of WWI, the world was increasingly divided along factional and party lines. Today, we are currently facing another story of factionalism and xenophobia — qualities dangerously characteristic of repeating a horrible chapter in history.

Inclusivity and understanding are the only solutions for a society rotten with apathy and a passion for violence. That is the message in Yeats’ poetry and in the lesson we should continue to carry from past war, phobia and hatred. If it is a lesson we have already learned, why do we need to learn it again?

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