The Apocalyptic Dimensions of War: The Centrality of Biblical Narrative Subversion in William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”
by Veronike-Nicole Ban
An overarching theme in the Christian biblical narrative is the divine selection and salvation of virtuous people from sin. In the Book of Revelation, the voice of God declares that “the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable” shall face a “second death” in the afterlife, cast into “the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” (21:8) as they are denied the prospect of life in heaven. One would then expect texts appropriating tropes from the biblical apocalypse to espouse the redemption of good humans from evil upon the second coming of Christ. However, in William Butler Yeats’ poem, rather ironically entitled “The Second Coming” (“TSC”) (1919), the return of Christ is a tormenting rather than a glorious experience for the entirety of humanity, as evil completely overshadows all good. What significance, then, do the Christian themes in “TSC” have, given that the poem deviates from the conventional biblical narrative of the possibility for salvation?
This article argues that “TSC” posits that humanity is entirely irredeemable – a harsh, sweeping critique against human morals particularly communicated by the overt subversion of biblical narratives. Such a pessimistic contention can in turn be explained by Yeats’ experiences with war. In order to accentuate the rhetorical effect achieved by the poem’s engagement with biblical narratives, it is useful to reference Stephen Crane’s poem, “In the Desert” (“ITD”) (1895), which uncannily espouses a similar fatalistic vision about the fate of humans but without explicit religious references to emphasise the scale of humanity’s vices. Through comparing the poems’ motif of perversion, it becomes clear how “TSC”’s additional involvement of biblical narratives in the process amplifies its stylistic reprobation of human actions.
Overview of the Poems
Graphic manifestations of human evil underpin the cynical tones of “TSC” and “ITD”, providing a strong basis for comparison on how each poem condemns humanity’s flaws. “TSC” narrates a scene of chaos against an apocalyptic backdrop. It resignedly conveys that the sheer amount of brazen malicious actions has corrupted the second coming of Christ. In the first stanza, the persona comments that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”, indicating the imbalance of evil against good. Disturbing spiritual images in the second stanza are premised on this scene of “mere anarchy […] loosed upon the world”. Enraptured by this apocalyptic event, the persona ends the poem by speculating about a “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born”, prefiguring a twisted, alternative biblical narrative as the ultimate consequence.
Meanwhile, “ITD”’s persona is fixated on a single, “naked, bestial” creature in the desert eating its own heart. When asked if it is good, the creature responds indirectly, saying that “it is bitter” but “he” (the pronoun employed to reference the creature) likes it. This abrupt conversation ends the ten-line poem. In this short exposition, the creature powerfully embodies humanity’s moral degradation through what appears to be a reductionist, monolithic portrayal of humans as self-destructing.
Different from “ITD”’s more secular and centralised depiction on the flaws of humans, however, “TSC” proves to capitalise on religious imagery and primes the subversion of biblical symbols in its critique of human actions. “TSC”’s persona, while aware of the premise of human evil, narrates the unfolding of the apocalypse in divine proportions. In contrast, the brevity of “ITD” arguably obscures possible biblical references and its exact message on the implications of Man’s actions on the world. In this article, elements of “ITD” will thus be juxtaposed with those of “TSC” to emphasise the effectiveness of the delivery of “TSC”’s message brought about particularly by conspicuous employment of biblical references.
War: catalyst for moral perversion and physical corruption
Yeats’ condemnation of humanity as morally corrupted and self-destructive is informed by his experiences with war. Comparing with “ITD”, one further appreciates how Yeats, like Crane, sensitive to wartime atrocities, directs his criticism through symbols of moral perversion. As Yeats had lived through World War I (1914-1918) before the poem was written, his close encounters with wartime conflict likely influenced his view of humanity’s real, global capacity for destruction and brutality. Literary scholar Vincent Sherry (2007) notes that the “horrific extremity […], colossal novelty and atrocity” of the battles on the European continent generated the rhetoric of Yeats’ war-related poems such as “TSC” (p. 190). Yeats’ employment of apocalyptic imagery, then, can be seen as his attempt, amongst many other contemporaries, to make sense of an international conflict which caused some of the most unprecedented, bloodiest battles to occur. Already in the first stanza, the gruesomeness conveyed by the phrase “The blood-dimmed tide” implies that the scale of bloodshed was so great in volume that the “ceremony of innocence is drowned” in it. This metaphor of drowning additionally conveys in a lucid manner how the recurrence of violence destroys moral purity just as how large-scale wars cause an upheaval of societal order. Accompanying this metaphor is a graphic depiction of a bestial physique emerging from humanity’s moral degradation. Readers are presented with the image of “A shape with lion body and the head of a man” in the desert; the being is apathetic and handicapped, with a “gaze blank and pitiless” and “moving its slow thighs”. This half-human, half-beast faces impending doom as “indignant desert birds” – presumably vultures – signal its imminent death. The fusion of Man and beast constructs a corrupted image of humanity, utilising the literal damage to allude to the finality of destruction in war.
In his magnum opus, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), Crane had explored psychological complexities of a fictional private fleeing from the atrocities of battle in the American Civil War, displaying a personal interest in understanding the negative impact of wartime experiences. Crane’s disgust towards war echoes in “ITD”, where the creature is primitively “squatting upon the ground” and eating his heart from his hands, the cannibalistic act representing self-destruction and conveying repulsiveness. Yet, just as the figure in “TSC” has a human head, this creature exhibits a human-associated trait of self-awareness as it is able to speak and communicate its thoughts and actions: when the speaker asks, “Is it good, friend?”, the creature’s immediate response is “It is bitter—bitter”, before unabashedly declaring that he “likes” it, rhetorically conflating “good” with “bitter” as a reflection of corrupt morals. Both poems’ creatures hence deliberately have remnants of humanity identifiable in them. This symbolically suggests that these perverse creatures are transitioning from the ideal, virtuous notion of humanity to being totally non-human and amoral, just as how society descends from peace and order into mortal violence through war. The creatures’ physique and behaviour sensationalise and hence stress humanity’s self-inflicted path to moral and physical destruction as was felt by both poets through their awareness of wartime experiences.
The Effect of Subverting Religious Narratives
Expanding on its theme of perversion, “TSC” goes further than “ITD” to openly engage in biblical narrative subversion. Consequently, Yeats’ approach produces a twofold (human and divine), harrowing vision to convey the impact of the horrors of war on a cataclysmic scale, escalating its critique of humanity’s propensity for destruction. This is most clearly illustrated through the figure supposedly representing the returned Christ: after “twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare”, a “rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born”. Deliberately mentioning Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, the poem perverts the story of salvation. Instead of the Saviour, a savage, lazy creature is produced, congruent with the apparition of the “slow” beast-human chimera earlier in the poem. In doing so, “TSC” contests the biblical image of an upright, powerful, and radiant Christ in the Revelation, whose “head and his hairs [are] white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes […] as a flame of fire […] and his voice as the sound of many waters.” (1:12-16). The poem hence illustrates a “deformed reverence” (White, 2019, p. 195) to convey how humans’ overwhelming evil is reflected in the birth of a new, grotesque god, denying humans themselves of the biblical redemption that had been foretold for them. By proposing that humanity’s vices caused its total deviation from salvation, “TSC” intensifies a rampant fear of wartime societies that wrongdoers amongst societies can sabotage in totality the just and good aspects of the world: if what the Bible predicts is totally changed, it must imply that a superscalar, moral conversion has occurred throughout the world big enough to alter the religious narrative.
It is thus that “TSC” deviates from “ITD” in its approach to convey its harsh critique on humanity: its deliberate appropriation of the biblical apocalypse conveys beyond doubt to the reader that it views the whole world as hopeless. In “TSC”, this biblical apocalypse augments a sense of helplessness felt by the speaker, who can only bear witness to the events unfolding before their eyes. Indeed, the persona’s main role in “TSC” proves to be spectator-like, a mere commentator of the apocalypse, whose own speculation about the macabre rebirth of Christ is fuelled from pre-existing fears. When the half-human, half-beast image from “Spiritus Mundi” – the “world spirit” – appears, the persona receives it passively, only commenting that it “troubles [the speaker’s] sight”. Contrastingly, in “ITD”, the lack of a religious backdrop constructs an ambiguous position for the speaker, giving rise to diverging takes on the poem’s underlying message. One can argue that the persona could just be another human, with intact, upright morals, especially since he addresses the creature as a “friend”. The creature, then, may not necessarily be read as the overarching manifestation of humanity, but rather how other good humans may perceive their sinful counterparts. Hence, one may just as strongly propose that the poem suggests that the effects of humanity’s vices are not enough to corrupt the whole of humanity, as another positing that the creature is the reductionist portrayal of mankind.
Some interpretations of “ITD” contend that religious subversion is strong in “ITD”, especially considering Crane’s own religious conflict and how he was grappling with “the nature of God and existence” (Sorrentino, 2014). In such interpretations, including one proposed by The Poetry Foundation, the person who judges the beast in the moral “desert” is interpreted as the returned Christ himself; when the conversation ends after the creature expresses non-repentance, it conveys the hopelessness of humans in the eyes of divinity who decides to abandon the creature (humanity) after that brief, telling conversation. The desert could also refer to Christ’s experience of Lenten temptation, but here, instead of emerging untainted by the devil, a self-consuming, sadistic creature is seen, having succumbed to evil. In response to this view, I argue that the fact that such biblical interpretations of the poem strengthen its reprobation of humanity’s vices, further reinforces how a subversion of religious narratives is utilised to emphasise the critique on humanity’s moral decline. This was explicitly done in “TSC”. These interpretations, reflecting the intention of readers to attribute a subverted biblical narrative to “ITD”, are therefore in line with what “TSC” has achieved more overtly, embracing and twisting the religious apocalyptic narrative as an integral part of its fatalistic outlook on war.
“TSC” enriches an age-old discussion on humanity’s vices and a fear that wrongdoers amongst societies can sabotage in totality the just and good aspects of the world. Through explicitly subverting the biblical narrative of the apocalypse, Yeats’ poem is able to capitalise on bestial configurations of Christ and Man to envision an image of the consequences of humanity’s propensity for destruction on apocalyptic scales. Poems like “ITD” focus more on portraying humanity’s moral degeneration while leaving the floor open for religious interpretations from their readers, and the enigma generated from its brevity leaves room for interpretation as to whether the poem is intended as a representative depiction of all humans. Given both poets’ sensitivity to wartime displays of human atrocity, reading the poems as a critique of humanity’s wrongs in a monolithic manner is in order; eventually, “TSC” communicates more clearly the defeatist message that the whole of humanity is irredeemable, a view with which one sensitive to wartime experiences would often pessimistically concur.
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