An Immense Purchase - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
March 26, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — There's a conquistador echo in the atmosphere, a brute intoxicant in the airwaves. Sensitive mutated eyelids wink in the symbol-wind: Picking up everything. Picking up nothing. We're all antennae now. Finely tuned, standing still, tall, assaulted--delighted.

I don't care for jeremiads. Really. Don't like listening to them, don't like spewing them.

So the impetus behind these over-heated, prophetically charged observations isn't to warn of something wrong, something out of whack. Even if there is. To be honest, they're just inebriated, under the influence of the over-heated, prophetically charged Celtic vision of William Butler Yeats. Full of that liquor, an ordinary man's mind reels, stumbles, stands on street corners with a sign that says "Life is a wonder" on one side and "The end is near" on the other.

My business here is simply to wonder, intensely, at a particular Yeats pressing ('19) that famously worries over portents and tumults.

So famous are his worries and warnings that we've probably tasted them without knowing it. And that's one of the sources of my wonder, which could hold true for a musical composition, an image, or any artistic artifact dense with memorable material that escapes to common circulation.

Yeats, a composer of verse as close to music as mere words get, gives us, within a 22-line poem, at least three lines, or limbs, that have walked away to live apart from the parent.

"The Second Coming" begins this way: "Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer." A gyre is a ring or circular course. Right out of the gate, more than a hint of losing our way. But then comes the first prodigy, that walks upright and wanders into the mouths of pundits and polemicists.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; . . .

This hits us between the eyes. General declension grieves us, publicly and as a matter of policy, or inwardly, a loss that gnaws. There are particular sorts of declines which we imagine as avalanches, a complete sloughing of familiar reference points, a liquefaction of foundations. This is the sum of all fears, introduced into the world a hundred years ago, making itself completely at home. It lurks, a wonder of economy and power, a large bomb in a small package.

This was after the Great War, the Irish Rising, and the Russian Revolution. Apocalypse wasn't prophecy, but present. "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/the ceremony of innocence is drowned;. . ."

And then the lines that may trouble our sleep more than the specter of chaos.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

They've been used as a bludgeon, a justification, a rallying cry, a challenge to conventional thinking, for nefarious purposes and (I think?) otherwise. You know them. I tremble to touch them. There they stand, prodigious, exercising an immense purchase, like a great wrench, on our sensibilities.

"Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand." After the Great War and its ancillary upheavals, such a shoe dropping seemed less outlandish than it might have a generation earlier. The events of the following century more or less hard-wired us for such visions.

But then, "a vast image . . . troubles my sight: somewhere in the 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;. . ." This isn't the Second Coming we expected. Some kind of dumb, shaggy Nemesis is rising out of a wasteland. No telling how this thing is going to behave, or what it means for us. In his last lines Yeats invokes a sacred place but asks a rancid question:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The certainty, apparently, is desecration. The only question is of what kind. Joan Didion, for one, offered up a possibility from a particular time in her dystopian "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." Flower power and bad vibes in the Haight, 1967.

But Yeats' poem is capacious, a portmanteau. Any and all analogues can fit in this very big bag. Spiritual, social, political, polemical. They all want to ride along, and will. But the power, and the wonder, is in its grip. Like any great imaginative enterprise, as Harold Bloom says, it rewards even misreadings, and it more likely explains and contains us, than the other way around.

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?

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