|What rough beast?|
I am interested in Yeats' “The Second Coming” currently as it illustrates my thesis that Western Civilization has never recovered from the First World War. It, along with Eliot's “The Wasteland,” is perhaps the great poetic statement of this in English—though there certainly are many others. “There Will Come Soft Rains” was also written in the year or two after the war ended.
I gather the usual interpretation of “The Second Coming” is that it speaks of Yeats' concept of “The Great Year,” with the idea that after two thousand years Christianity has had its day and is about to be replaced by some new paganism. Fair enough; but there is no need to read it this way. After all, it is no suprise to any Christian that the Second Coming of Christ would involve first the appearance of a “rough beast”--that much is in the Book of Revelations. There is to be a period of tribulation, and it is to last as long as a thousand years. All quite orthodox, in fact.
|Durer's Apocalypse, with two rough beasts apparent.|
I imagine the notion that the poem is non-Christian, indeed somewhat anti-Christian, comes from the identification of the “rocking cradle” that “vexed to nightmare” “twenty centuries of stony sleep” with the birth of Jesus. This would then imply that Christianity, if only over millennia, actually caused the blood-dimmed tide now unleashed by the rough beast of mere anarchy. But there are multiple problems with this identification.
First, the birth and infancy of Jesus is not, theologically speaking, as important as his death and resurrection. So the poem, if this is its focus, would have slightly misfired here. Second, it is common knowledge, and an essential element of the mythos, that Jesus was not born in a cradle, but in a manger. With Yeats' sensitivity to symbol, it seems incredible that he would have muddled this—to actually make the synecdoche of a cradle represent Jesus himself. This alone, I think, makes the identification impossible, and care has been taken to ensure that this is so.
But it also makes no sense in terms of cause and effect to see the cradle referred to as the cause of both the “twenty centuries of stony sleep” and the “vexing to nightmare.” These are two different and quite disparate things. If the twenty centuries of stony sleep refers to Christianity, the vexing to nightmare cannot.
Finally, Yeats himself elsewhere considers the height of civilization to have occurred in the Byzantine Empire—a resolutley Christian context, the paradigm of a time and place where Christianity ruled both the intellectual and the political world. If things started to go wrong, it must have happened sometime after 1000 AD.
The essential question in the poem, therefore, the climax to which it all points, is the puzzle: who is the baby in that rocking cradle?
Or, indeed, is there a baby in that rocking cradle? For only the cradle, not the baby, is mentioned, as if it were empty. Indeed, implicitly, it must be empty, in order to be filled by the “rough beast” slouching to Bethlehem “to be born.”
If one wracks the good old Spiritus Mundi for some obvious and necessary referet for this rocking cradle, it seems to me the first and strongest reference is to the best-known English lullaby: “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” This nursery rhyme also refers, in a way, to a cradle that is empty—at least, the baby and cradle both fall. This feature of the rhyme is quite odd, and so conspicuous—for centuries, people in English-speaking countries have in fact lulled their babies to sleep with a story of some poor child coming to disaster.
But then who is the baby in ths nursery rhyme?
There are a range of theories, and no agreed answer, but I thing the most valuable piece of evidence is the tune to which it is sung. It is a variant of an old Irish tune, as Yeats would surely have known, “Lilibullero.” And Lilibullero is a song about the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which overthrew James II of England and replaced him with King William of Orange, with historic consequences for both England and Ireland.
It seems reasonable then to guess that the words of “Rock-a-Bye Baby” also refer to the same event. And such coded references were indeed commonly necessary in such turbulent times, and commonly used in Ireland. There are a lot of historical examples of satiric rhymes used as political weapons in Ireland.
It seems to me the suspicion is reinforced by the perfect irony of using what was composed as a military march, a war song, as a baby's lullaby. This sounds like deliberate parody. It makes it all seem quite ominous.
If this is true, the tree in which the baby rocks is the tree of state, an image of the nation popularised by the Irish statesman Edmund Burke, and influential enough that it is still the logo of the British Conservative Party. The tree represents a society's natural hierarchy: at the top of the tree, “in the treetop,” is the royal family. This identification is in fact explicit in one version of a later verse of the lyrics of the nursery rhyme: “Rock-a-bye, baby, thy cradle is green, Father's a king, and mother's a queen...”
|British Conservative Party logo.|
The baby, therefore, is a new heir born to the royal family. And this is just what caused the Glorious Revolution in 1688. It was kicked off more or less immediately by the unexpected birth to King James II of a male heir, James Francis Edward. This caused great consternation in some quarters, because James II's wife was openly Catholic, and little James Francis was certain to be raised as a Catholic. The “wind” that blew this innocent child off the top of the tree of state, was then the famous “Protestant wind,” an unseasonably favourable wind that blew William of Orange's ships from Holland to England in 1688. This “Protestant wind,” a catch-phrase of the time, is referred to as well in one popular version of the lyrics to “Lillibulero.” Parliament cut a deal with William, naming him the new king in return for ceding a great deal of the royal prerogatives to Parliament, and James Francis Edward fled into exile.
|James Francis Edward Stuart|
This would seem to make Protestantism and the Reformation the true cause of the rough beast of the Apocalypse. This may be so; Yeats was nominally Protestant, but was not practicing, and was surrounded by an overwhelmingly Catholic mileu. While considerations of class may have prevented him from converting, a portion of his subconscious, at least, might have favoured the old church. Nevertheless, the religious angle does not quite fit. The Glorious Revolution and the deposing of James II was not in this regard an epochal event in the history of the world, only of the British Isles. If the Protestant Rebellion was the trigger for the apocalype, it should have far more naturally been traced back to something like the nailing of Luther's theses to the door of Wurms Cathedral.
But something else about the Glorious Revolution was epochal. It effectively transferred British sovereignty from the king to the people; and this was a first for Europe and for the post-Byzantine world. Parliament, not the king, was now supreme, demonstrated by the ability of Parliament to depose a king. At the same time, the Glorious Revolution established the principle that the civil society was supreme over religion: the people could also depose a church, and dictate to the conscience of a king. This was both novel and revolutionary. The Glorious Revolution led in a straight line, and quite soon, to the political musings of Locke, and quite explicitly to the doctrine of “no taxation without representation” that triggered the later American Revolution, faounded on Lockean doctrine, which in turn triggered the French, which triggered the doctrine of Marx, the many revolutions of 1848, the ideal of nationalism, the Chinese Revolution beginning in 1911, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the many revolutions, falls of monarchies, and general drowning in blood of all ceremonies of innocence following World War I, at the time that Yeats was writing this poem. Indeed, the doctrine of nationalism can also be blamed for the carnage of the Great War. Note that all the4se subsequent revolutions also shared the essential feature of believing that politics was and ought to be supreme over religion. This poison pill of “Liberalism” caused it to be oppsosed by the Church for many decades.
Widening gyres all beginning with the gentle rocking of one cradle.
The loss of the religious centre of a society, “the ceremonies of innocence,” is indeed a cause of social decline. It implies a fundamental failure of the social consensus which allows societies to function. This fact has been recognized almost everywhere and at all times. It was understood by the Romans to be the cause of the decline of the Roman Empire. Constantine then deliberately revived it for a further thousand years through the formal adoption of Christianity. It was the reason for the sudden rise of Islam in the seventh century. It was the reason for the decline of the Koryo dynasty in Korea; and on and on. A society must be united in its ideals.
|Constantine, founder of Byzantium|
The modern hope, which reached its apex in the nineteenth century, was that society could find a new centre around the doctrines of liberal democracy and science. New cathedrals were built, even higher than the early Christian ones: the Washington Monument, the Eiffel Tower. But this imagined centre has been losing mass rapidly since the First World War. The poets and artists saw it first, in the 1920s. The general population have taken a lot longer, busy destroying Christianity in the name of false science and a false liberalism for most of the years since, but are gradually coming, I think, to feel the same thing in their guts. Perhaps in another fifty or a hundred years, it will even occur to the academics, naturally the most conservative element of society.
The whole darned thing, Western Civ, looks like it is winding down to its final whimper.