Four Different Ways of Looking at How “Things Fall Apart”

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
 The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

These four lines are half of the opening stanza of William Butler Yeats’s 1919 poem “The Second Coming.” Composed of twenty-two lines in two stanzas, “The Second Coming” is one of Yeats’s most beloved and often-read works. Written in 1919 and published the following year, the poem is commonly thought to be an interpretation of the savagery of World War I and the apocalyptic moment Europe had reached immediately following it. Earlier versions (several of which survive) are more specific, as though Yeats had national instead of continental or worldwide upheaval in mind. Literary critic Harold Bloom has submitted that the poem refers to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Either way, it is quite clear that “The Second Coming” is about a moment in history when the past has been obliterated and the future is unknown but arriving any dark minute now. There is great fear in the land Yeats has created—fear borne not of the inescapability of change but of the uncertainty of exactly what that change will be. Yeats ends with this immortal image:

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

Yeats has reached all the way to the birth of Christ for much of the poem’s visual power. The title and double repetitions of the phrase “The Second Coming,” the references to “twenty centuries” and “Bethlehem” recall the Book of Revelation and the coming of the apocalypse. The apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ are of course another fulcrum where one eon is ending, another about to begin. But as any believer will tell you, “the future” of the Christian Second Coming is not uncertain at all. You just have to go through hell to get there. The phrases “widening gyre” and “beast” complicate what kind of future we are to expect even more. Will the era to come be governed by beasts? A “widening gyre” is a spiral getting bigger and further away from center, never to return to its point of origin, what it once was and knew.

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