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On Poetry

No Slouch

April 7, 2015 | by

The widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions to Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

yeats

An undated photo of Yeats by the Bain News Service.

A recent Russia Today headline suggests that Europe is “slouching towards anxiety and war.” According to the title of Robert Bork’s latest best seller, the United States is Slouching Towards Gomorrah. A new book by W. C. Harris, an English professor, claims we’re Slouching Towards Gaytheism. A casual reader might wonder why the nations of the world have such terrible posture; is it that the earth is slouching towards bedlam? Have things fallen apart?

The only thing not doing any slouching these days is the “rough beast” in W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” the 1919 poem from which the phrase originates: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

But Yeats’s beast, it must be said, isn’t deteriorating or dying in its slouching, as the many references to the phrase would have you believe; rather, it slouches in steady, dedicated progress toward a goal. It’s actually a terrifying sight: the poem’s narrator intuits that the beast is coming to wreak some untold havoc. (At least one blog got this subtlety right in a headline about the 2012 election cycle: “Romney slouching toward GOP nomination.”)

“The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right?

Here’s “The Second Coming” in full:

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?

The poem has never joined that panoply of standard high school texts, such as “Do Not Go Gentle,” “The Road Not Taken,” and “The Raven”—nor is it quoted in Dead Poets Society. (The closest it’s ever come is a nod on Lou Reed’s 1978 Live: Take No Prisoners: “The best lack all conviction,” Reed says to a heckler, “while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”) If a social scientist were to canvas all the writers and rock bands who’ve lifted its lines, not many would say they found the lines while reading The Collected Yeats or a vintage back issue of The Dial.

Yeats began writing the poem in January 1919, in the wake of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and political turmoil in his native Ireland. But the first stanza captures more than just political unrest and violence. Its anxiety concerns the social ills of modernity: the rupture of traditional family and societal structures; the loss of collective religious faith, and with it, the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there’s nothing to replace them. It’s the same form of despair we see in, say, Ivan Karamazov.

Of course, twentieth-century history did turn more horrific after 1919, as the poem forebodes. The narrator suggests something like the Christian notion of a “second coming” is about to occur, but rather than earthly peace, it will bring terror. As for the slouching beast, the best explanation is that it’s not a particular political regime, or even fascism itself, but a broader historical force, comprising the technological, the ideological, and the political. A century later, we can see the beast in the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, the regimes of Stalin and Mao, and all manner of systematized atrocity.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the first book to borrow a line from “The Second Coming,” cleverly inverts the poem: here African civilization is the one under threat, and the rough beast is the West. Achebe’s Nigerian warrior faces exile from his village and pressure from Christian missionaries who threaten the tribal way of life; he commits suicide.

But the title essay in Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem goes one better: even its basic structure mirrors that of the poem. Didion stands in the same position as Yeats’s narrator, describing a social disaster, feeling the center start to give out. Didion reported the piece from San Francisco, “where the social hemorrhaging was showing up,” “where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves ‘hippies.’ ” She tells of the disoriented youth she met there, including a five-year-old named Susan whose mother feeds her acid and peyote. She muses that the hippies are dealing with “society’s atomization,” for which their parents are responsible. “At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing,” she writes.

In the wake of Didion’s success, publishers have come to realize they can apply Yeats’s lines to pretty much any book that documents confusion and disarray. Thus Elyn Saks’s 2008 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, concerning her bout with schizophrenia. Though these four words from Yeats surely resonate with Saks’s feelings, the “center” in question here isn’t the moral authority of the Western world, it’s one person’s sense of stability. The trend has held for art books (David Gulden’s photography collection The Centre Cannot Hold), politics (The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies), alternate history (American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold), popular history (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It), reportage (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East), religion (The Second Coming: A Pre-Mortem on Western Civilization), international affairs (Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa), right-wing moral hectoring (Slouching Toward Gomorrah), memoir (Slouching Toward Adulthood), and even humor (Slouching Towards Kalamazoo; Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy). It seems that for every cogent allusion (Northrop Frye’s Spiritus Mundi, anyone?) there are a dozen falcons that truly can’t hear the falconer.

Connections to Yeat’s original are even more tenuous when his lines crop up in comics, pulp novels, TV, and music. The phrase “widening gyre” alone has been an inexhaustible resource. In a 2009 Batman comic by that name, written by the film director Kevin Smith, the superhero’s girlfriend nicknames him “Deedee,” in reference to their first night together (“we hit double digits”). Their bliss is cut short when the villain, Onomatopoeia, cuts the woman’s throat open, and Batman wets his pants. Mere anarchy indeed.

Widening Gyre is also the title of a 1973 novel by Robert Parker in which a detective has to retrieve an explicit sex tape of a senatorial candidate’s wife. (“But getting back the tape of the lady’s X-rated indiscretion,” reads Parker’s Web site, “is a nonstop express ride to trouble—trouble that is deep, wide and deadly.”) And let’s not overlook the “Widening Gyre” episodes of Andromeda, Sons of Anarchy, and Ben 10: The Ultimate Alien; or the album Widening Gyre by the Irish folk band Altan; or the downloadable RPG, featuring “a secretive organization of benevolent technologists who seek to prevent the dark monsters of humanity's past from overwhelming its bright and burgeoning future.”

Then there’s A Gaze Blank and Pitiless as the Sun, a 2013 album by the metal band Whelm, and a box set of experimental Norwegian music, Twenty Centuries of Stony Sleep—not to be confused with the work of the nineties grunge band Stony Sleep, who never released a self-titled album. Not to be outdone, the South African band Urban Creep recorded a song called “Slow Thighs,” a far cry from Yeats lyrically: “Slow thighs walking on water / See with brown eyes the fisherman’s daughter / She’s crying with dry eyes / The lamb for the slaughter.” And in the age of self-publishing, the term “rough beast” has itself been born anew: from Seth Chambers’s short-story collection What Rough Beasts (“It was late night when I came home to find a troglodyte in my shower,” one story begins), to H. R. Knight’s What Rough Beast (wherein Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini join forces to expose a spiritualist medium, “the most debauched man in London”), to Hunter Fox’s “Rough Beast Homo Erotica” trilogy “Gay Monster” (worth the purchase price for Evil Pegasus Wants My Gay Ass alone).

It’s tempting to say the feedback loop has gotten out of control—to sneer at minor rock stars and hack writers who’ve salvaged the poem for parts, yanking their titles from it without bothering to understand it. Achebe and Didion had paid it a kind of reverence, after all, and it’s safe to say Kevin Smith has not.

But why not celebrate the trend instead? Yeats’s lines work outside their context because the word pairings are brilliant in and of themselves. “Blank and pitiless as the sun,” “stony sleep,” “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”—they’re both jarring and sonorous. Even “slouching towards,” probably the most overused phrase of them all, retains its ominousness after all this repetition. We’d expect the rough beast to “plod,” like a limping monster in a horror movie or the killer in No Country for Old Men (which itself, of course, takes its title from another of Yeats’s lines, in “Sailing to Byzantium”). But plodding is a conscious action; slouching is not. We can’t even tell whether the beast has a will of its own. The verb heightens the mystery and dread.

Even if no one reads poetry anymore, “The Second Coming” is proof that a perfect poem can still go viral in a distinctly predigital way: that it’s become a part of the culture’s water supply. Slouchy though they may be, the misapplications amount to a tribute.

Nick Tabor is a reporter living in New York.

55 COMMENTS

2 Comments

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  1. Robert Hewitt Wolfe | March 17, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    For the record, Andromeda took two titles from “The Second Coming”. “The Widening Gyre” was the second part of a two-parter. Part one was “Its Hour Come ‘Round at Last”. But to be fair, we took the same number of titles from Auden’s “September 1, 1939”. We were an equal opportunity plunderer.

    Thanks for the shout-out.

  2. David Lewis | June 29, 2016 at 2:56 pm

    David Orr argues, at length, in his “The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong” that Frost’s poem is the most “pillaged” (not his word) poem in the English language. He does not address “The Second Coming” as I recall, and the thought that it might be more used, or a close competitor, just struck me and led me to your interesting essay. Thank you.

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3 Pingbacks

  1. […] like it’s been coming around for years. As the Paris Review noted last year, “The Second Coming” “may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of […]

  2. […] entail the disdain for vested authority without the reverence for chieftains and sages. The center cannot hold. Or, to put it more precisely, the new chieftains are but sophists, obliged to market themselves […]

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