‘He’s writing about Donald Trump, right?’
The student quoted by the American author and academic Jay Parini no doubt echoes countless other students participating in literature classes being held throughout the world. The student in Parini’s class also joins more than one commentator who has noticed a recent surge in the popularity of W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ coinciding with the advent of the Trump administration and what so many of us feel is a new era of global turmoil, uncertainty and dislocation, if not outright criminal insanity.
What’s more, all this takes place at the centenary of the poem, which Yeats began writing in January 1919.
So yes, he’s writing about Trump, and much more besides. A poem very much in the public domain in terms of currency impact as well as the strict legal sense, this, in full, is ‘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: 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?
A big part of the pleasure of teaching poetry—and also, in my experience, art history—is the immediacy of engagement with an individual work in the classroom. So often, the collective engagement—with students spontaneously adding all kinds of individual responses and insights often sparking off their classmates—is unique and feels in the moment like more than the sum of its parts. And so often the response is based on what is happening in people’s daily lives and is being written in the headlines. Few poets lend themselves more to such an intense, immediate classroom engagement than Yeats, and few of Yeats’s poems are as stimulating as ‘The Second Coming’.
Not least among those who feel the prophetic power of the poem is Barack Obama, who often quoted Yeats during his presidency. This reference appears in a speech delivered by President Obama in Germany in April 2016 just as Donald Trump was emerging as the presumptive nominee in the Republican primaries almost a year after formally announcing his candidature at Trump Tower with a speech that notoriously set a tone of divisiveness and grievance. Here is Obama on the temper of the times:
And you see increasing intolerance in our politics. And loud voices get the most attention. This reminds me of the poem by the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats, where the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.
It is not just Trump in recent times that has reminded politicians of Yeats’s apocalyptic vision. In 2010 in response to the downfall of Kevin Rudd and his replacement as Prime Minister by Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull quoted from ‘The Second Coming’ in an op-ed piece that ran in the Sydney Morning Herald. Turnbull reproduces the entire first stanza, prefaced by this:
But Rudd was never an orator who dared to grasp the thunderbolt. As the words babbled out, for the first time I felt I had a sense of him, of the man whose true feelings were utterly disconnected from the banalities of his speech. A verse of William Butler Yeats came to my mind and, for just a moment I imagined, into his.
Ironically, as everyone knows, Turnbull, who twice deposed the leader of his party (Nelson, Abbott), was himself assassinated politically as Prime Minister in a not dissimilar fashion to Kevin Rudd.
For Turnbull, then, Yeats’s poem turned out to be a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. I am not aware that Turnbull has quoted the poem with reference to his own political downfall—perhaps we will find out in his memoirs if he acknowledges the irony there. Others, meanwhile, might regard the abrupt end to Turnbull’s political career as poetic justice in a literal sense, as well as further evidence of the centre not holding in Australian politics, or at least not until the next federal election.
Although the poem was informed by the major events such as the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Easter Rising, ‘The Second Coming’ hasn’t dated in any way that matters. How can a poem 100 years old, full of arcane imagery as well as the universal statements that people quote, still matter to us now?
It seems to me there are two key aspects of Yeats’s creative process in particular that help explain why ‘The Second Coming’ remains as pertinent today as it ever was. One of the two aspects I have in mind is biographical, and the other is grammatical. Paradoxically, neither aspect has to do with politics for all that ‘The Second Coming’ manifestly is a political poem.
Yeats himself tried to resist writing public poetry. In 1915, when asked by Henry James for a poem about World War One for an anthology intended to raise money for Belgian refugees, Yeats declined:
I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right
Yeats’s own poet’s mouth would have been silent but for the women in his life. Prior to his marriage to Bertha Hyde-White, Yeats was simultaneously rejected in life and inspired in his work by Maude Gonne and by Maude’s daughter Iseult Gonne. During his honeymoon with Bertha, who was known as Georgie, he discovered in her not merely a muse but an amanuensis and collaborator who was the making of him as an artist as well as a human being.
In a much-quoted passage about the latter phase in his literary career, Yeats’s first major biographer Richard Ellmann wrote: ‘Had Yeats died instead of marrying in 1917, he would have been remembered as a remarkable minor poet who achieved a diction more powerful than that of his contemporaries but who, except in a handful of poems, did not have much to say with it.’
As Ellmann explains, being married to Georgie for Yeats opened up an entire imaginative cosmos. A woman who had long been fascinated by the occult, she revealed this to him through the automatic writing she began producing at a time when Yeats seemed to be pining for Iseult Gonne, regretting his marriage and in general feeling sorry for himself.
Discovering all of a sudden that his wife was a medium appears to have changed Yeats’s life completely. He wrote this in a letter to his own friend and patron Lady Gregory:
The strange thing was that within half an hour after writing of this message my rheumatic pains and my neuralgia and my fatigue had gone and I was very happy. From being more miserable than I ever remember being since Maud Gonne’s marriage I became extremely happy. This sense has lasted ever since.
The wealth of material produced by Georgie’s automatic writing formed the basis for an entire system of esoteric belief that in turn finds expression in Yeats’s poetry. Like so much of the best of Yeats’s mature output, ‘A Second Coming’ elucidates a vividly conceived world view based on a conception of history as a kind of perpetual motion machine whose basic structure in terms of geometry are a pair of cones, or gyres, that revolve inside each other at their opposing ends. One of these Yeats labelled Discord, the other one Concord. They keep turning, though the expansion (or ‘widening’) of the one will place stress on the other. History, in this conception, is a process that can affected by such traditionally non-historical factors as the phases of the moon—which explains the reference in the poem to Spiritus Mundi.
While ‘The Second Coming’ arises out of the unique creative partnership between Yeats and Georgie, there is another aspect which makes it universal and timeless and which is not private and abstruse at all but universal and indeed may seem obvious once it is pointed out.
Quite simply, what gives lyric poetry of the kind revived and mastered by Yeats so much of its power is the mere fact that it is written in the present tense. Just as the gyre operates in history in perpetual, if not always harmonious motion, so too is the poem always happening, the prophecy it discloses endlessly experienced with redemption expected but yet to arrive. Things are always falling apart; the centre never quite holds. In troubled times like ours when we must contemplate the potentially devastating consequences of having a leader like Trump in the White House, we see more vividly what Yeats views as the underlying entropy in human affairs.
The obvious appeal of the simple present in poetry is its timelessness, or, to put it another way, its location in what can be called literary time. In an article on Temporality and Literature in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, Theodore Martin distinguishes between the story that has happened and one that is happening: ‘it is the difference between the time implied by the chronological happenings of the story and the time that reshapes that story in the telling’.
In an ever-present, open-ended poem like ‘The Second Coming’, the meaning is felt in the current events against which it is being read, whenever that may be. At once imminent and immanent, the poem gives an uneasy sense of a psychic disturbance, a palpable apprehension of disaster we feel in 2019 no less than Yeats evidently felt in 1919.
Simon Caterson is a Melbourne writer.