I don’t know about you, but I first read these poems in high school. I had a great teacher (and, one should add, a great book—I still have it) and thus was born a lifelong love of the word-thrill only poetry can provide. The rhythm, the rhymes (or not), alliteration, imagery, and much, much more come together in ways that move me, over and over. And yes, I buy books of poetry too.
I’ve been thinking about “The Second Coming” for months. Grim and dark, written in 1919 at the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, William Butler Yeats’s masterpiece speaks directly to events happening now, nearly a century later:
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?
If the imagery in this poem shakes you up, you’re not alone. The Wall Street Journal says, “A torrent of bad news and political upheaval has given new life to a nearly 100-year-old poem written in the aftermath of World War I.”
Flash backward a century to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” published in 1818.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I wish you peace this season, wherever you may find it. Perhaps in poetry.