Yeats' Turning Gyres and Strange Coincidences

Strange coincidences happen to me with some frequency. They probably happen to all people and, if we are paying attention, we are aware of it. A year or so ago, I made an assemblage box in response to, while thinking about, Yeats' poem The Second Coming written in 1919-20. I did nothing more than reread the poem, which I had first read and dissected in a college English class in 1979. At the time I had not thought that I liked it, a little bit put off by its cynicism perhaps, and not seeing it as relevant to my life at the time...pushing away from all things biblical in my rebellion to my upbringing. I do remember being intrigued and troubled by my young English teacher's enthusiastic interpretation of the chaos and the darkness of the vision in the poem. It had both religious references and strangely secular imagery and I do remember that the vision described by the poet was intense and palpable. None the less, the imagery and language has stayed with me over the years, occasionally coming to mind as poetry does.

More recently I had a discussion with an artist friend, Greg Martens, about literary references to the apocalypse and I brought up the Yeatsian vision. In that conversation I realized that some ofthe imagery and some of the lines of that poem have begun to ring true. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer". That spinning metaphorical gyre does seem to be widening and intensifying as things heat up in our world politically, with regard to religious fervor, climate change and climate justice issues growing, socio-economic gaps growing and the urgency around all of these front lines causing even the most engaged and empathetic to have to combat a sense of being overwhelmed and shutdown, cynical beyond action.

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity"  made me think of the political climate with radical fundamentalism of all of the bigger religions becoming heated and powerfully divisive, attracting more and more thoughtless people in search of easy answers like snowflakes to a snowball rolling downhill, picking up steam and intensity as it goes. Those who know better are often complacent, overwhelmed perhaps by too many emergency issues of human rights, social justice, climate justice....or perhaps feeling like speaking out would be somehow dangerous to their own safety, family, well-being. I have heard some caring people say "That is not my issue." When an injustice did not directly affect their family (or so they told themselves). This all gave me pause to think about what the poem meant to me and do some little drawings in response to it at the time. The drawings that I made and included in the assemblage box were almost mechanical, diagrammatic images of two conical forms lined by a spiral, one going up and one going down that popped into my head while I was reading the words that had been written almost 100 years ago, published in both the Chicago Dial and the Nation in 1920. I had kind of laughed at myself at the time for turning this emotionally charged, dark image into a rather anesthetic, diagram.

Two years after I did those drawings I discovered that Yeats had also made diagrammatic drawings that were strangely similar to those that I had created for my box. What a coincidence, right? I had never been aware of his drawings...which also represented two conical forms with spirals lining each. Weird...a bit haunting, actually. I need to pay attention to more of this kind of thing.

Here is the poem in its entirety:

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; somewhere in sands of the desert
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
Reel shadows of 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?  

---William Butler Yeats, 1919