13

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: somewhere in sands of the desert
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
Reel 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?

Yeats says basically everything in this poem except what the rough beast it is.
So what's the answer?

6

The poem is alluding to the Book of Revelation. The "rough beast" is the Anti-Christ. The scene is set for the final showdown and the Second Coming. Thus, with its unremitting pessimistic tone notwithstanding, the poem at least gives humankind the possibility of redemption. That having been said, the persona is not necessarily espousing a traditional Christian world view.

Written is 1919, the poem is a reaction to the Great War. It conveys the persona's horror at the slaughter that the war unleashed and its socio-political aftermath in language heavy with religious significance.

The poem's opening stanza portrays a society spinning out of kilter. "The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" are metaphors for the rise of radical politics. But we should be in no doubt that this is as much a spiritual crisis as it is a worldly one: "the falconer" and "the centre" are also God. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre" also alludes to the view of a cyclical nature of history expressed elsewhere by the poet. It continues by emphasising the scope of the crisis..."and everywhere The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned". these are allusions to the Book of Revelation (see comment below) and the Christian sacraments(?) respectively and once again emphasise a spiritual dimension to the crisis befalling humankind. "The worst" the persona says "are full of passionate intensity" emphasising their lustful, animalistic (and sinful?) natures, while "the best lack all [moral(?)] conviction". The best, at least, lack the conviction to act. One is "full" while the other "lack[s]". One thinks but does not act, while the other acts but does not think. Society is beset by chaos, as represented by imagery of "The blood-dimmed tide" and, especially, animals imagery laden with negative connotations: "rough beast", "indignant dessert birds", and the errant falcon. The worst give in to their primitive urges and themselves become agents of chaos.

The second stanza begins with the persona's plaintive cry: "Surely some revelation is at hand". And seemingly it is. The persona is assailed by a fantastical vision "somewhere in sands of the desert", an allusion to the Temptation of Christ, of "A shape with lion body and the head of a man"... is this then the "rough beast"? maybe - but it seems more likely to be a personification of the physical and spiritual crisis at hand, the "Spiritus Mundi", rather than the "rough beast" as the persona uses the phrase "The darkness drops again" to draw a distinction between the two. The hybrid creature may personify humankind's duel natures: reason/instinct, head/heart, order/chaos, reactionary/radical.

"That twenty centuries of stony sleep" alludes to the almost two thousand years since the birth of Christ. The "rough beast", its centuries long wait now ended, makes its way to the appointed place for the final confrontation.

The persona equates the slaughter of the Great War and it socio-political ramifications with the biblical end times, although this should not be taken literally.

(work in progress but constructive criticism is welcome)

  • 2
    Welcome to the site. You make a lot of claims in this answer, but these claims, for the most part, aren't backed up with arguments or evidence. For example, you say "the poem is a reaction to the Great War. it conveys the persona's horror at the slaughter that war unleashed and its aftermath" but don't really explain why that is the case. In general, points made here should be supported in some way, whether by quotes from a poem, logical arguments, and so on. – user111 Dec 22 '17 at 23:16
  • 1
    Give me a chance and I will. – wengchiang Dec 22 '17 at 23:35
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    Can you provide some more evidence for why you believe this? – Riker Dec 23 '17 at 3:00
  • 1
    No probs. Also, would it be possible to edit to focus your answer on the original question which only asks about "the rough beast"? Your answer seems to be more of a general analysis. – Fabjaja Dec 23 '17 at 13:20
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    I'll get there. But I would also like to address questions from other contributors such as whether the sphinx-like creature is the rough beast, which I think are germane – wengchiang Dec 23 '17 at 13:37
10

There is a surprisingly literal interpretation to this poem. Yeats describes a sphinx-like beast arising in the desert. It is entirely possible that this is the "rough beast" to which he refers, and that the metaphorical nature of the creature is there simply to add depth to the poem.

Yeats had a bizarre but fully developed mystical belief system, which he outlined in a relatively obscure book called A Vision. A central tenet of this belief was that history repeats itself in cycles, which he called "gyres". The connection to the first part of the poem is obvious.

In the second part of the poem, Yeats mentions the Spiritus Mundi, which is another part of his belief system. The litertal translation is "spirit of the world", which Yeats held to be a collective soul or folk memory, a repository of all cultural history throughout the world. That, of course, makes Christian culture a tiny fragment of the whole.

Yeats saw the Spiritus Mundi in a vision, which he describes in terms that have a very literal parallel in the poem:

"... there rose before me mental images that I could not control: a desert and a black Titan raising himself up by his two hands from the middle of a heap of ancient ruins"

  • Yeats, Autobiographies: Reveries Over Childhood and Youth and the Trembling Veil, 1926

So: the poem can be read literally. The "rough beast" is the resurrection of a thousand dead gods in a single image. It is terrifying only because it will wipe out our Christianised, homogenised culture and return us to a primal state.

That said, there is no doubt that Yeats was well aware of the symbolic values of his verse, because he talked about them himself. In a 1936 letter he wrote that the poem was:

"written some 16 or 17 years ago and foretold what is happening"

This is, of course, refers to the rise of Facism in Europe. However, it seems likely that, here, Yeats may be assigning himself an undue level of foresight. The poem was written in January 1919. While the world was indeed "falling apart" in the aftermath of the first world war and the influenza epidemic, making it easy to fear for the future, it seems unlikely anyone could have been so specific about those fears as to foree the Nazis.

References: - W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, 2012.
- A Preface to Yeats, 1978

  • 1
    Excellent context. Thanks for contributing! – DukeZhou Nov 30 '17 at 19:42
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    @DukeZhou Excellent question: it had never occured to me to dig in to it before, but it was a fascinating read. – Matt Thrower Dec 1 '17 at 9:06
6

Surely the point is that we don't know. When a civilization ends, what comes next?

If the previous civilization began with a birth in Bethlehem, then whatever comes next symbolically repeats the pattern. But when all we see about us is the fall of the old, how would we know what comes next? And so the question: what rough beast?

  • 2
    Beware of interpretations along the lines of, "If this were an essay, the author would be saying." Poetry is not a puzzle or a guessing game. Art is about capturing the experience of the moment and the experience of that moment of history would have been very much one of doubt about what rough beast was being born. The poem is an expression of that dread, not a piece of encrypted political science or prognostication. – Mark Baker Mar 13 '17 at 21:16
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    That is an expression of awe, not a puzzle. Blake has no doubt what the answer is. Good writers make their point as clearly as they can. They don't purposely obfuscate. We sometimes need interpretation not because the work was written to be obscure but because the passage of time and/or a difference of culture distance us from it. – Mark Baker Mar 13 '17 at 22:23
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    Blake's line "Did he who made the lamb make thee?" is best translated to modern English by adding "Seriously?" after it. It breaks the meter, though. – Torisuda Mar 14 '17 at 4:06
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    @MattBaker and do you imagine Blake intends the question to be understood as addressed to the celestial Tiger, as opposed to the "child" the poem is being read to? I think even in Blake's time he was playing games, and your conception of poetry is quite reductionist. The simple use of metaphors in poetry represents a "puzzle" of deeper meaning. I find it telling that you are unable answer the question on Yeats except to say "who knows". – DukeZhou Mar 22 '17 at 14:23
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    @DukeZhou, actually, I regard the quest for "deeper meaning" as essentially reductionist. It reduces the effect of literature to the propositional. Art is about the creation, or, at minimum, recreation of experience, not about the concealment of propositions in riddles. The problem is, there is far more of an industry to be had out of decoding that which was never encoded than there is in helping people realize the fullness of the experience available in the art. Metaphors evoke images which evoke experiences. Aged metaphors need explanation, but the poet's intent was not to conceal meaning. – Mark Baker Mar 22 '17 at 14:33
0

Given that the poem was written in 1919, Yeats could be seeing referring to the rise of fascism in German. Think about it; "...rides towards Bethlehem to be born?" The birthplace of Christianity and a powerful symbol to the Jewish faith.

  • That's what I'm looking for. Although I upvoted Baker's answer, I totally disagree with his assessment. – DukeZhou Nov 29 '17 at 17:05
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    Welcome to Literature! Could you possibly edit to expand on this answer by adding more evidence? While this may be a good interpretation, at the moment it's hard to tell because you haven't included much info to support it. – Rand al'Thor Nov 29 '17 at 18:52
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    1919 sounds a bit early for Yeats to be thinking of the threat of Nazism. Do you have any information about explicit statements about Nazims by Yeats (i.e. the earliest explicit evidence that Yeats was concerned about the rise of Nazism)? – Christophe Strobbe Nov 30 '17 at 16:20
-1

It may have been more likely that this was written in response to the publication in 1919 of the Balfour Declaration, which was signed originally two years before it was made known. In Revelations we are told that political and military upheaval will take place in Jerusalem which will initiate the return of Christ. The Balfour Declaration promised just that. Yeats was likely referring to the sands of the Judean desert.

  • 1
    But then what is the "rough beast" which the question asks about? – Rand al'Thor May 8 at 6:30
  • This is a problematic theory because it doesn't account for the "twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle", an unambiguous reference to Christianity, and, presumably, its incredibly bloody history during most of that period. – DukeZhou May 10 at 20:53

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