William Butler Yeats as a Spectacular Poet to Remember

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William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), probably the greatest English poet of the twentieth century whose unusual creative potential was readily apparent as a young man, especially to his Irish contemporaries. He showed a great affinity towards mystical abstraction. His poetry is characterized by its intense lyricism, its use of symbolism, its sensuous beauty, precision and realism. Yeats is torn between excitement at the possibility of revelation and horror at the destruction and barbarism that accompany it when he wrote “The Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan”. The poems he wrote after winning the Nobel Prize in 1923 are from the crushing power of the tower to the eerie mysticism, they stood as a testament to the force and commitment with which he devoted himself for transforming his inner-self into poetry.

“The Second Coming” was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War (1914-1918) and was first published in the American Magazine the Dial in November 1920. Later it was included in the collection entitled Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921). It was written at a time when Yeats was puzzled by violence displayed by events like the Easter Rebellion of 1916, the Irish Civil War that followed it and the European Great World War of 1914 to 1918. And in terms, of his philosophy of history a new age in the world’s history was going to begin. “The Second Coming” written with the Irish troubles, the Great War and other troubles in mind and displaying his philosophy of A Vision which he was to formulate and organize in 1925. His reputation as a leading cultural figure was established through this poem. The poem having a pessimistic overtone is a dramatized presentation of Yeats’s cyclical theory of the historical process, according to which human civilization moves forward in antithetical or dialectical epochs, each of approximately two thousand years’ duration.

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The break-up of Graeco-Roman culture and the ‘Babylonian mathematical starlight’ came to an end with the coming up of the Christian civilization which began around 2000 B.C. Yeats poetically predicted and foretold in a 1936 letter to his friend about the rise of a rough beast or a new messiah that manifested as chaos and raising in the form of Nazism and Fascism. This sphinx- like creature typified the characteristics of the future civilization. The gloomy prognostication of the future was provoked by the political anarchy in Ireland, the unsettled state of Europe generally and especially the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. ‘Manuscripts in Mrs. Yeats’s possession show how large a part the world situation of 1918-1919 played in its conception and growth’ (Stallworthy, p.17). The theory of history or each cycle of history is imagined by the poet as a circular or spiral turn or ‘gyre’. The close of one cycle is followed by the birth of another. A gyre is a combination of line and plane, and as one tendency or the other must always be stronger, the gyre is always expanding or contracting. The gyre is drawn as a cone which sometimes represents the individual soul and its history, or general life. At the end of each age, the base of the cone widens.

As it gets wider even the center fails to control its movements which is given in the poem as: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold The image of the falcon which is out of the falconer’s control should not be localized, it can be seen as an image of man loose from Christ. The civilization of the poem’s period began with Christ at the point of the cone, and the gyre which then began has almost reached its fullest expansion. (Jeffares) The falcon was originally hawk; the hawk is familiar as one of Yeats’s favourite emblems. The spirit of man has lost contact with tradition, wisdom, control; a civilization is passing and the antithetical age is at hand. (Henn, p. 143) In Between the Lines, John Stallworthy regards Yeats’s falcon as the pride of the intellect.

For at least one moment the poet planned to introduce the visionary second coming with ‘a gloomy bird of prey’. Chinua Achebe chose the title for his work from the third line of “The Second Coming” as Things Fall Apart. Achebe opted the title from this poem because of the similarities like the two cultures are in disarray and ready for dramatic change. In fact, Achebe also included four lines from Yeats' poem prior to chapter one: Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Yeasts employed many symbols and images to portray the deadening hardships of the era that eventually leads to the complexity of the poem. ‘Falcon’ is a symbol that loses hold of Christian doctrine and teaching, bringing to a close to the Christian phase of human history. ‘The ceremony of innocence’ symbolizes order, the innocence of childhood and the innate purity of the human heart which occurs in A Prayer for My Daughter.

The ‘Spiritus Mundi’ also called ‘Anima Mundi’ is the spirit or soul of the universe. Individual souls are connected to it through the ‘Great Memory’, a reservoir of subconscious memories of the human race. For Yeats it is the source of symbols. The ‘stony sleep’ is an echo or an unconscious borrowing from Blake’s The First Book of Urizen. The sphinx, in Greek legend, is a monster with a woman’s bust on a lion’s body. It was believed to stray into Thebes, pose riddles to the Thebans and devour them if they failed to resolve them. In his definitive editions of Yeats’s poems Richard J Finneran quotes Yeats’s own notes. The poem consists of twenty-two lines in two verse paragraphs. The first is of eight lines and the other is of fourteen lines. This renders a rather imbalanced feeling of the poem, giving more importance to one than the other. It is relevant to acknowledge that Yeats’s poems follow a definite stanzaic pattern. Yeats introduces more general terms into this poem such as ‘anarchy’, ‘the ceremony of innocence’, ‘the good’, and ‘the worst’.

The poem is written in blank-verse pattern in a very rough iambic pentameter, but the meter is so loose. The title of the poem directly refers to an allusion to the Christian expectation of Christ’s second coming as predicted in the New Testament of the Bible. However, it indirectly hints at the arrival of a rough beast which is the binary opposite to the Christ. The “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem is the symbol of this new age. The speaker’s vision of the rising sphinx is His vision of the character of the new world. The poem is a magnificent statement about the contrary forces that work in history and about the conflict between the modern world and the ancient world. The aesthetic experience of its passionate language is powerful enough to ensure its value and its importance in Yeats’s work as a whole.

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