Sunday, September 28, 2008


Another one of the poems that I'm always kind of thinking about is The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats . It showed up as part of the narration of the first episode of Heroes this third season, and I thought that was a really interesting melding of "high culture" (a term that makes me twitch) and "low culture"; something that makes me really happy when it happens.

So, first, if you don't know the poem, here's the text:

The Second Coming

-William Butler Yeats

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?

I don't want to talk about the poem in terms of Yeats various religious connections. Those essays are out there and you can find them easily enough. I don't want to talk about the poem in terms of its messianic (or, more properly, anti-messianic) message; that's right there for anyone to draw connections to (some of the language directly from Revelation ). Again, those essays are out there and fairly easy to find.

No, what I want to talk about are those last two lines that slam even a devout atheist like me in the gut (I don't agree that the falconer is God, capital G, what seems to me to be the "standard interpretation" of the poem). I want to talk about that level of language use. Though I think it can be a mistake to divorce a poem from its contexts, remember that my project here on this blog is not so much to attempt to show some sort of fully researched point about the poetry I include here to others in my field. Nor is it to introduce the poem to novices in literary criticism. What I want to do, instead, is talk about what I like most about the poem, personally...something that I think gets lost, especially when talking about such "high culture" (gag) poems as this one--people seem really interested in digging up obscure facts and synthesizing hundreds of sources, but very rarely seem to talk about what they like.

Go back and say those last two lines out loud to yourself.

Notice those staccato notes, the single syllable words that hit like gunshots in the next to last line? Hour is a funny case, though, isn't it? Do you say that in a way that takes two syllables or one? I say it with two, I have to be honest (but I don't claim to have that "ideal" of the zero-degree accent from CNN). So, to me, it seems logical and artistically sound (not to mention cool as fuck) that he wants us to slow down at that moment by using a two syllable word for that concept: a foretold time, every dog has its day, we all get 15 minutes of fame, time-as-thing-that-has-portions concept. Then look at the last line: He slows us down by introducing more syllables for concepts we need to think about and, just before we have the chance to get too used to two syllable word/concepts, he pops that three syllable shot in there. In an anti-messianic poem (in so many ways), the word/concept he wants us to take the most time with is this birthplace-of-savior ideal...the payoff concept/word. If you don't slow down for that one, then the whole idea of the poem loses its punch.

Here's what I find most interesting, though: those last three single syllable words. Do they slow down for you? Read those last two lines out loud again. They slow down from the pace of the other one syllable words in the next to last line for me. Instead of [dah-dah-dah.] they arrive more like [dah. dah. dah.]. And I wonder at that, because there's nothing in the line, punctuation-wise, that makes those words change speed, yet I think they do. That's fascinating to me, and I wonder how it sounded when he read it out loud. Then again, poets are notoriously bad at reading their own work out loud, so I wonder if that would even be a good indicator. Maybe it has something to do with the concept "end of the poem" and how that changes rhythm, cadence.

I'm fascinated when a poet not only has a message to deliver, but so consumately shows their skill by making the structure itself perform some heavy lifting.

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