Cribbage

In No Slouch, for the Paris Review of 7.4.15., Nick Tabor wrote:

“…The Second Coming may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for *Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right?

Here’s The Second Coming in full:

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: 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?

…Yeats began writing the poem in January 1919, in the wake of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and political turmoil in his native Ireland. But the first stanza captures more than just political unrest and violence. Its anxiety concerns the social ills of modernity: the rupture of traditional family and societal structures; the loss of collective religious faith, and with it, the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there’s nothing to replace them. It’s the same form of despair we see in, say, Ivan Karamazov.

Of course, twentieth-century history did turn more horrific after 1919, as the poem forebodes. The narrator suggests something like the Christian notion of a “second coming” is about to occur, but rather than earthly peace, it will bring terror. As for the slouching beast, the best explanation is that it’s not a particular political regime, or even fascism itself, but a broader historical force, comprising the technological, the ideological, and the political. A century later, we can see the beast in the atomic bomb, the Holocaust, the regimes of Stalin and Mao, and all manner of systematized atrocity…

…It seems that for every cogent allusion (Northrop Frye’s Spiritus Mundi, anyone?) there are a dozen falcons that truly can’t hear the falconer…

It’s tempting to say the feedback loop has gotten out of control—to sneer at minor rock stars and hack writers who’ve salvaged the poem for parts, yanking their titles from it without bothering to understand it. Achebe and Didion had paid it a kind of reverence, after all, and it’s safe to say Kevin Smith has not.

But why not celebrate the trend instead? Yeats’s lines work outside their context because the word pairings are brilliant in and of themselves. “Blank and pitiless as the sun,” “stony sleep,” “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”—they’re both jarring and sonorous. Even “slouching towards,” probably the most overused phrase of them all, retains its ominousness after all this repetition. We’d expect the rough beast to “plod,” like a limping monster in a horror movie or the killer in No Country for Old Men (which itself, of course, takes its title from another of Yeats’s lines, in Sailing to Byzantium). But plodding is a conscious action; slouching is not. We can’t even tell whether the beast has a will of its own. The verb heightens the mystery and dread.

Even if no one reads poetry anymore, The Second Coming is proof that a perfect poem can still go viral in a distinctly predigital way: that it’s become a part of the culture’s water supply. Slouchy though they may be, the misapplications amount to a tribute.”

*A title also used by Nina Coltart, in “Slouching towards Bethlehem, or thinking the unthinkable in psychoanalysis” (1993).

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