“The Second Coming”–Circles or Lines? Cyclical or Linear? – History, Life and “Us”

w-b-yeatsI had a fascinating exchange of emails with a gifted poet recently about a poem he had written entitled “Circles.”Initially, I had mis-read the poem, missed his intent and allusions (happens to all of us on off days ;). And I am not authorized to quote from it it, let alone print it in its entirety here, but the exchange got me thinking about metaphors and images and (yes) symbols in Poetry.

Yeats and his winding gyres, an image/symbol which so obsessed him and which formed the driving engine of some of his most provocative poems, immediately came to mind.

No, not exactly circles per se for there are process and progression in a gyre as Yeats conceived them.

Here is a clever by half explanation of what he was up to:

Yeats’ View of History

Different cultures have differing notions of the shape of history.  Yeats’ own personal myth of history borrows from several different models:

The Ancient Attic Greek (as well as the classic Chinese and ancient Semitic) notion of history is one that is essentially circular.  History is conceived as either essentially static, moving through a yearly cycle, or cyclical in the sense of a “Great year” a centuries-old cycle where various ages of humanity eventually repeat older patterns; thus, the “golden” age is followed by the “silver,” “bronze,” and “lead”.  This is eventually followed by a new golden age, etc.

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The Modern Enlightenment notion of history from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century was one of essential progress.  History is moving in a singular direction, increasingly improving in matters of knowledge, science, lifestyle, freedom, etc.

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Christianity’s view of history can be thought of as a spiral.   It recognizes that human beings tend to replicate the mistakes of the past and that humans continue to be fallen beings, yet it also recognizes that history has a direction and a final end.  God has promised to return and renew all things.

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Naturalistic evolutionary theory is often associated with the Enlightenment view of history, but strictly speaking, it does not judge whether something is good or evil; rather, it understands history to be a wave: things change and they move in a certain direction, but this is not necessarily for the better.  It simply is.

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Yeats conceptualized history as a series of interpenetrating gyres.   Historical eras overlap, one ending as the next one begins.  He believed that these gyres or eras of history tended to fall into roughly 2,000-year periods.  While one tends to dominant, the other is always implied and weakly present.  He believed that a new “rough beast” was coming to replace Christianity and that the ideal time to live would be when the two gyres were at the midpoint of change.  He believed that Byzantium in the year 1000 A.D. represented this ideal time. yeatshistory.bmp (197958 bytes)
Yeats’ notion of history is clearly present in his poem “The Second Coming.”  A new era is upon the world, one that is displacing the old Christian one.  The second coming that the poem refers to is not that of Christ’s return but of a “rough beast” that will replace Christendom.
“All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one.” — T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding




William Butler Yeats 1865-1939

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?

Personally this kind of grand conception of history and our lives fails to move me or convince me one way or another.

For me, life, mine and LIFE, are highly circumstantial, unpredictable and too complicated and surprising to reduce to such neat schemes.

True, on many days I seem to be moving in, locked inside of, circles, yet something always happens eventually–a poke in the eye, a surprising new thing, an airtight refutation of a “truth” I had relied upon all of my life, to keep me wide eyed, hopefully nimble and light on my feet.

Yeats’ gyres and his schematic are more complex than I have feebly described here, and if you are interested in pursuing this–or circles and circling–you will find many resources online and in print, enough to keep you busy and absorbed for the rest of your life.

The “Rough Beast,” though? “The Second Coming?” Something prophetic about all that given this year’s news, this WEEK’S news, wouldn’t you say?   Creepy.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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9 Responses to “The Second Coming”–Circles or Lines? Cyclical or Linear? – History, Life and “Us”

  1. lahowlett says:

    Your posts are always thought-provoking, Margaret. On a slightly lighter note from Yeats, here is a short video that a filmmaker shot using my reading of the Yeats poem “All Things Can Tempt Me.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gaKktiKrZs

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mikels Skele says:

    Nice. And yet, is your “surprising new thing” so different from Yeats’ rough beast?


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