I was reading The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), and found again one of the more insightful lines in poetry: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
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.
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?
Critics have given no single exegesis or explanation of Yeats' imagery. What is the "widening gyre?" Who is the falconer? What does the falcon represent?
The lack of consensus among the experts gives me leave to propose my own interpretations, and the freedom to change my mind with every reading. As America's librarian Archibald MacLeish insisted, "A poem should not mean, but be."
The poem's title suggests that Yeats was thinking of the Christian expectation that Jesus will come again. This parousia will herald judgment day. Yeats confirms that the world is falling apart and he sees some apocalyptic vision on the horizon forecasting a new stage in human history.
The line contrasting the best and the worst captures the formula for disaster. Jesus saw it: "The children of this world are more prudent...than the children of light." Edmund Burke saw it: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
On the world's stage or in the church's sacristy politics today seems to be in a downward spiral. Too many good people are disheartened.
I do not want to be counted among "the prophets of gloom" with whom Pope John XXIII disagreed, but I think we are in one of those valleys which characterize certain epochs of human history, including the history of the Church. Coming off the heady days of Vatican II, the Church has had to struggle to implement the council's vision and spirit. Many members are tired, some are discouraged; still others are afraid.
I don't sense much conviction about the mission and ministry we reviewed at Vatican II. The excitement of celebrating new forms of liturgy, the exhilaration of seeing Catholics and Protestants in friendly dialogue, the enthusiasm of lay involvement in Church ministry, the euphoria of the council's call to holiness re-animating the spirituality of the faithful -- all these prescriptions for aggiornamento have in my estimation slowed and become commonplace.
Jesus too sensed a malaise in his day: "We piped you a tune but you did not dance, we sang you a dirge but you did not wail."
Maybe the biblical visions and images of apocalyptic literature were devised to rouse a sleeping people to awareness and action. Maybe Yeats' "blood-dimmed tide" is an echo of "the sea tuned to blood" in Revelation 8:8. Maybe the beasts of Revelation 13 are mirrored in Yeats' vast image out of Spiritus Mundi in the desert sand.
Experts in poetry may well reject the spin I've put on The Second Coming, but I suspect Yeats would nod generous approval for I am convinced that he is saying, "We've screwed up the last twenty centuries. It's time for a second start."
Yeats' prophecy of the second coming reflects his belief that Christians might do better the second time around as they waken from twenty centuries of stony sleep.
Even in his day, St. Cyprian (200-258 AD) reminisced about an earlier time when "the faith of believers was warm with a fervor of faith still new."
I think this belief prompted Pope John to pray that his council might effect "a new Pentecost in our time," a new age when the best will be full of conviction and the worst will lack passionate intensity.