In the aftermath of the First World War, at a time when massive social divisions were fuelling the rise of extremism both on the left and the right, and venerable empires in Britain, Austria and Russia were crumbling, Irish poet William Butler Yeats appeared to capture the Zeitgeist perfectly with his poem, The Second Coming, first published in 1919. It begins like this:
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.
The thinking behind the verse was rooted in Yeats’ conviction that the world would turn in 2,000 year cycles (“turning and turning in a widening gyre”), and that we were due another significant crisis in his time, which was roughly 2,000 years since the birth of Christ.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the publication of this poem, one might legitimately pose the question, was Yeats a century off? Are we now entering a period in which the centre cannot hold, the fateful time when the “ceremony of innocence” will be drowned?
The recent events in the UK and the rise of populism in the form of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others suggests that if the centre is still holding, it’s only just holding. And it’s certainly straining under the weight of events. Meanwhile the tensions triggered by the apparently racially motivated shootings of black men in the US recall the image of a “blood-dimmed tide” being loosed.
Is this, as Yeats believed, part of an unstoppable cycle? A turn in the great wheel of time which we might observe, but are powerless to direct?
I for one refuse to believe that is so. I think we are the masters of our own destiny. And while there is a sick comfort in fatalism, in the abdication of responsibility to ‘Fate’, I believe we should resist this temptation and continue to fight for what we know is right: Compassion, justice and a fairer, better world.
If the wheel is “turning and turning in a widening gyre”, and if we can’t stop it, let’s at least direct it away from the cliff and onto safer pastures.