Posted by: Mark Nielsen | October 8, 2008

The Centre Cannot Hold (Yeats Don’t Fail Me Now)

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 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?

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”, 1921

The above poem has been referred to several times in my hearing this summer and fall, and I make it my business to pay attention when the Spirit brings such divine coincidence through the ether and into my life. I’m not sure what the recurrence of this poem means for me (or for you). I don’t really know if things actually are falling apart permanently, or if the second coming is at hand. If we look at the financial markets (see below), the world sure seems to all be falling apart. But maybe not. Maybe these are birth pangs. So perhaps just passing the poem along here may be what is called for on my part.

The Second Coming is an amazing poem, and very influential. Like William Blake, another fave of mine whom William Butler Yeats studied closely, Yeats put Jesus in a context of worldwide mythology and mysticism, and great global change, and did so at a time when his audience was feeling most vulnerable (Europe, in the years just after WWI). In future periods of great change, at least two award-winning books also directly referenced the grace vs. chaos themes of the poem and expanded upon them greatly (Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in 1959, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a 1968 collection of essays by voice-of-the-hippie writer Joan Didion).

I believe the first time I heard the poem referenced (at least in my recent experience) was at the Men’s Rites of Passage in August, where the most famous line “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” was referenced in a morning ritual, early in the week. And as periods of change go, few weeks have ever been more influential for me personally than that August week at Pilgrim Park in central Illinois. I think when the soil of the soul is ready, the right words can make a huge difference.

After that, I believe I heard the anarchist hero of the graphic-novel-turned-movie V for Vendetta quote the first three lines, when I re-watched this interesting Wachowski Brothers film. (With or without W.B. Yeats, or a cheeky anarchist, any chance to watch Natalie Portman in action is always a real treat. Yum!) I think the third time was on the radio, but I don’t recall now. In fact, the phrase “the center cannot hold” is so descriptive and useful, while still sounding poetic, that it may be passing gradually from being a vague literary allusion toward becoming a plain old slogan or idiom, used in everyday conversation, like Shakespeare’s “neither a borrower nor a lender be“.

Also, unbeknownst to me until today, Joni Mitchell (one of the finest songwriters of the twentieth century) wrote a faithful adaptation of the poem and set it to music on her 1988 album Night Ride Home. The song is called Slouching Toward Bethlehem (after the last line of the poem). It’s a dirty rotten shame when musicians and writers like Yeats and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan often become celebrated for their early work, before they’ve even gained the maturity and vision displayed in their later work (by which time the adoring but fickle public has typically moved on to some trendy up-and-coming youngster).

The “falling apart” metaphor seems most apt when applied to the present economic instability, and it seems it has recently been used that way. Here I will quote Wikipedia directly:

In the September 20th, 2008 edition of The Economist, the lead article, entitled “What next?”, alludes to the poem. The article is about the financial crisis and seems to use the poem as a theme. The second line begins with the phrase “In the widening gyre.” The two section headings in the body of the article are also taken from the poem. One is “The blood-dimmed tide.” The other is “The centre cannot hold.” Also, the cover depicts a whirlpool pulling down the corporate logos of Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Washington Mutual, HBOS, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Northern Rock, Indymac, as well as the Lehman Brothers building and the Charging Bull sculpture.

So as I have watched the presidential debates (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”)
, and still more hurricanes and floods ravaging the world ( “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed” ), and the dropping Dow (“The darkness drops again”…  ),  I have continued to think of Yeats and his version of the Second Coming.

God does not abandon His people. But He does, I believe, chasten those whom He loves.



  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on %spinfile-E:\Users\Administrator\Dropbox\GSA\Mega Keyword List.txt. Regards

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