Yeats and “The Rough Beast”

While we are on the subject of the pursuit of power, let’s turn our attention to W.B. Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” and his intriguing image of “the rough beast”. I have read some contemporary interpretations of this “rough beast” (such as the very conservative US judge Robert Bork’s best-selling Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline with its purely self-serving, conservative ideological slant on the “rough beast”), and most of those interpretations get it wrong.

So, here is the poem, written in 1919, again

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?

First of all, it seems pretty straightforward that by “rough beast” Yeats’ intends us to understand “Anti-Christ” as described in the Book of Revelation. But in the Book of Revelation, the Anti-Christ is a semblance of the Christ — a semblance sufficiently persuasive and convincing as to fool many. This is clearly born out by the title of the poem, “The Second Coming”, and by the reference to the beast as slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

“It’s a Renaissance, Jim. But not as we know it!”, to paraphrase Bones from Star Trek.

The second thing to observe about the rough beast is that it is the form of the Egyptian sphinx, emblem of pharoahism, and is described in the poem exactly as it stands today in the Egyptian desert as a “shape with lion body and the head of a man”. My own understanding of the sphinx is that this is probably not a lion’s body but a cat’s body, for the cat was a sacred animal in ancient Egypt, one with which the pharoahs would want to be associated. One of the reasons the cat was a sacred animal, I suspect, was that the regular inundations of the Nile would bring plagues of rodents, for which the cat would serve as a benefactor, protector, and saviour, and therefore as something that the pharaoh would like to be associated with also — as a protector and saviour figure.

So, the rough beast in Yeats’ poem also returns as a saviour, redeemer or protector figure and clearly in response to the conditions described in the first stanza of the poem — the loss of the vital centre when, in consequence, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”, or what we would call “chaotic transition”. In the first stanza, then, we have described an excess of liberalism, and in the last is described a reactionary conservatism — a mere swing of the pendulum.

The sphinx is the image of pharoahism and the return of the god-emperor who, like the sacred cat, crushes his enemies as if they were no more than rodents — ruthless, merciless, pitiless, and the image of profane power.

And it seems clear enough that if the rough beast returns as god-emperor, and in the guise of saviour and redeemer, then the rough beast and the followers of the rough beast would see any constraints, or “checks and balances”, on that protective, salvific and redemptive power to be illegitimate and even threatening, and would be quite willing and content to have such constraints and such checks and balances on the god-emperor’s power and authority done away with completely. For if the god-emperor is now taken as the guarantor of “the way, the truth, and the life”, however profane, shrunken and withered up all that might be, any constraints on that would be perceived as an assault on the way, the truth, and the life.

In those terms, the rough beast is the image of profane power. Profane power is what is essentially implied in the old saying that “Satan is but the ape of God”, and it is profane power that is described by Algis Mikunas as “technocratic shamanism” or as “inverted totalitarianism” by Sheldon Wolin. These are just contemporary terms for what is here called “pharoahism”.

In those terms, the contemporary plague of fundamentalism and reductionism are like the two forks of the serpent’s tongue — the tongue of profanation, where “the way, the truth, and the life” becomes inverted, usually through quantification. This also pertains to one of Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” which runs: “Bring out number, weight, and measure in a year of dearth.”  The “year of dearth” is the kali yuga, the desert waste from which the rough beast emerges in Yeats’ poem. “Number, weight, and measure” are the profaned aspects of “the way, the truth, and the life”. The “year of dearth” or drought, is also called “malaise”, and it is from this malaise (or ennui) that the rough beast promises salvation and redemption.

In those terms I think we can anticipate an assault on the institutional checks and balances intended to constrain the hand of power, and which is likely to have widespread support, and any resistance to this is very likely to be construed as nothing more than interfering with the salvific and redemptive hand of power. I think we can anticipate that. But, at the same time, I know of no regimes of absolute or totalitarian power — profane power — which have denied truth and reality, or have perverted truth and reality, that have ever endured long. They have a habit of self-destructing.

In that sense, Yeats’ poem was quite unfinished.

15 responses to “Yeats and “The Rough Beast””

  1. Dwig says :

    Not long before reading this post, I read Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”, expressing the willingness of an old Christian man to abandon “the dying animal” of his body, and have his soul enter “Into the artifice of eternity”.

    This triggered a reaction in me, to the concept of the body as the temporary “container” of the immortal soul: I see it as a major source of Western Civilization’s alienation from the Living Earth that gives us life and connects us to all other living creatures (“all my relations”). (Not to blame Yeats for this — he sang well of what he no doubt sincerely believed.)

    His conception is also well expressed by “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”, considering the Sphinx as “a dying animal” with no Soul to temper its actions. (I wonder whether he’s contrasting “Spiritus Mundi” here with “Spiritus Dei”.)

    Certainly your indigenous friends see the sun in a very different light (pun intended), one that I too find more congenial.

    That said, the image of the worldly “Second Coming” as such as beast is a powerful one. (And I agree, it’s “life” is likely to be a short, but violent one.)

    The trick for the rest of us is to “weather the storm”, or adapting LeGuin’s phrasing, to “follow utopia into the abyss which yawns behind the Grand Inquisitor’s vision, and then clamber out on the other side.“) Another good guide might be Wendell Berry’s “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front“.

    • Scott Preston says :

      You could compare Yeats’ “rough beast” to the windigo (windego, wetiko). I think it’s very likely the same.

      Yeats was a peculiar fellow. That remark about the sun was odd, given his knowledge of, and apparent affection for, Blake, given that Blake had a very different view of the sun as well (although a desert sun can be considered quite merciless. It’s the moon, rather than the sun, that features in Arab symbolism). I think, likewise, Yeats’ affections were reserved for the moon and night rather than the sun and day.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    It is a menacing vision that fits frightfully the trajectory of our global time. The destruction of Gomorrah and the fate of the pharoah and the deafness of the falcon that no longer hears his falconer. it is the fateful end of all those who play the infinite game in the grammar of the finite game. Your vision blazed the fire in my heart,yet I thank you for keeping me awake.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      the infinite game in the grammar of the finite game

      Well said. One can scarcely glance in any direction without being met first and foremost with ends. End of this, end of that, end of everything.

      “Every ending is a new beginning,” so they say. “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.”

      Sheesh! And after thousands of years. When will we ever learn?

      Perhaps related is that the foremost thing I’ve learned in our journey through the “crucible” is that terms e.g. person, people, lifestyle, entrepreneurial, particular and, apparently, every other term in the English language (as well as every other globally-recognized language, perhaps) mean different things to different speakers and different audiences even when synonyms, e.g. “power” and “energy” are being used to describe the same concept.

      Beginning in early childhood and over the course of my life, it became far less important to me what people said and how they said it than the spirit in which was intended. This is how I define the old maxim “actions speak louder than words.” If a person desires to understand what you say, he or she will lay aside their own linguistic prejudices and put forth the effort to do so instead of demanding that your language and word usage conform to theirs.

      Scott noted in a recent comment:

      The person…is the social role and to play a social role or office is to speak a particular style of language.

      God forbid, however, that you do speak a particular style of language. As a former English major, this has become a subject of some interest to me because I’ve learned that to say or write anything at all in this atmosphere has become more akin to traversing a minefield than actually engaging in meaningful dialogue. I somehow came into the habit a few years ago of placing quotation marks around any terms I thought might be open to interpretation. Take “belief” and “conviction”, for example. These are synonyms, but I’ve found that the terms rank highly among those different
      people use in reference to the same concept: “belief” by “conservatives”; “conviction” by “liberals”. (And, again, God forbid you suggest liberals and conservatives actually share any core beliefs/convictions in common. You’ll be skewered.)

      By way of another example, let’s have a look at “lifestyle”. It’s defined primarily as “the way in which a person or group lives” with synonyms listed
      as “way of life” or “way of living.” Secondarily, however, it’s defined as “denoting advertising or products designed to appeal to a consumer by association with a desirable lifestyle.” How can one possibly know how the term will be interpreted by the listener and whether or not this will be done with or without regard of context? Simple answer: one can’t.

      That speaking has become akin to traversing a mine field recently prompted me to test the theory that more people will demand that your language and word usage conform to theirs than will actually listen to you, but won’t appreciate it a bit if the tables are turned. Conclusion: most do and, no, they definitely won’t.

      Needless to say, I no longer concern myself with how people choose to interpret the same language and have dropped the recently acquired practice of quotation mark utilization in favor of qualifying terms such as “people” (as the word is most commonly understood) with subsequent, inclusive phrasing. Even this practice is apparently wide open to interpretation and, therefore, some manner of tyrannical “political correction,” as it were, so I’ll be dropping it as well.

      I often wonder if our languages haven’t been so thoroughly compromised by the prevailing worldview that the “tower of Babel” may prove impossible for many to transform into a commons, which is to say, anything universally meaningful. I would suggest that the “tower of Babel” is already universally meaningful in the subjective sense and that it’s the objective sense that has us stymied. Whether that would be interpreted in the spirit in which it is intended is an open question.

      “Pursuit of power,” indeed.

  3. Charles says :

    As Infinite Warrior writes: language and words means different ideas to each person. I feel that a symptom of this age is a simplification of categories so that people can be manipulated. A form of modern stupidity. What I mean is -if in conversation with someone I mention one word, they assume that I can be fit into a category and can be labeled as a conservative or whatever.

    I am thinking about the process of initiation. In an essay Gary Coates writes:

    as seen so clearly in the poetry of William Blake, the psychology of Carl Jung, and the mystical traditions of all mystical traditions, the internal structure of the psyche is impersonal: the gods and demons, the guides and antagonists, and the forces of darkness and light experienced by the conscious ego persons engaged in a struggle for the human soul.

    Initiations are paradoxically the birth and death process simultaneously. This is happening on the personal and collective level. And as Coates suggests
    To realize the full human potential is to simultaneously create a fully realized world.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      This reminded me of a conversation that took place on Newsvine (a promising outlet that quickly succumbed to the all-too-familiar “in-fighting” that has come to characterize so much of our discourse, especially when it was eventually bought out by MSNBC).

      A Newsviner (and, apologizes, but I’ve no idea who it was today) wrote a brief, quite exasperated-sounding article that more or less expressed his frustration with the notion that “seeding” a news article (opinion or otherwise) somehow meant that he agreed with it 100%.

      they assume that I can be fit into a category and can be labeled as a conservative or whatever

      Yes. That was more or less his point of exasperation. He’d been incredibly even-handed of his treatment of the subjects he’d covered to that point.

      (Probably) needless to say, the most constructive and creative of the Newviners wound up quitting the outlet to pursue other avenues of endeavor.

    • mikemackd says :

      McGilchrist noted how “the words we use to describe human processes are highly influential … for the values to which we hold” (McGilchrist 2009, p. 459), and how the reductive language of the “worn-out mode of scientific materialism” can blind people “to the very possibility that they might be dealing with anything other than a machine” (ibid). Umberto Eco wrote that “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning” (Eco, Umberto. 1995 “Ur-fascism.” The New York Review of Books 42(11): 12-15, p. 8).

      The same processes are endemic in our machine-serving culture. Our English teachers teach our children that the long sentences of yore, necessary to even begin to convey the complexity and nuance of the organic mind as differentiated from that captive to Mumford’s “Myth of the Machine”, are verboten.

      Any sentence of longer that 20 words is as taboo as tenderness is for post-historic man, with his delusion that behaving more like a beast makes him more of a man, when, as the Nazis realised and exploited, all it does is turn him into a beast-slave of the Machine.

      • Charles says :

        Well put. To Have or To Be is a book by Erich Fromm . Fromm writes about the differences between the being mode and the having mode. The phenomenon of substituting nouns for verbs. I am or I have. Fascinating.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    Last night I was listening to an interview with Buddy Rich who picked his education on the road and became visionary in the realm of sound and the realm of words. Attention to what is good and beautiful and intending them in his development. Two of his educative rules that left their stamp in me. They are, never stop learning and never depend on other opinions or views , I bring this in light of Charles mention of initiation and how sometime self-initiation needs no guru, but intending to correct your image according to the divine mirror and not in light of other people mirrors. People mirrors get you lost and dispersed among the billions of human mirrors. How merciful to leave us with only one true mirror to save us from confusion. The universe is built on language, that is why all prophets spoke with their people through words, not through numbers due to their simplicity in delivering the message and not the complicated equations that depend on numbers whose understanding is confined to the few. We pray to him through words and he delivr
    ers his message through words. The language of numbers is the language of the money worshipers. There is no synonyms in language despite the apparent resemblance, conviction is not belief, belief can be inherited through blind imitation but conviction is a personal fresh stand of the now. Human disclose themselves through their intonation, that is why oral communication is more meaningful and more effective than the written words that veil the writer personality. It seems even god words get stale and rusty, that is why we have always processes of renewal through new messengers. Thank you IW( i wish you take off that mask) for introducing me to Nora Bateson blog the voice that realizes the staleness of our present vocabularies and the necessity for change, freeing ourselves from the enslavement of language that no longer express what is real. Yes the displaced is not immigrant. It is time to leave the pit of imagining that governments or corporations are our sustainers and feeders and not god that created everything and that have delivered all these bountiful, diversified gifts to humanity. I do not think such lies can continue. One only has to ponder the darkness of the night he sleeps in and enjoy,one of the billions divine gifts.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Thank you IW…for introducing me to Nora Bateson blog

      We have mikemackd to thank for that. It’s his comment that led me there.

      There are no synonyms in language despite the apparent resemblance, conviction is not belief, belief can be inherited through blind imitation but conviction is a personal fresh stand of the now.

      There are in our dictionaries, fortunately and unfortunately for us.

      I prefer “conviction” today, myself. As you say, “conviction is a personal fresh stand of the now. So…how do we prevent those “convictions” from solidifying into “beliefs”.

      In everyday usage, it’s more common to say “I believe that [fill-in-the-blank]” than “I am convicted [for the moment]” . Tricksy.

  5. abdulmonem says :

    The divine mirror of good and beauty that gave and gives enough to every body irrespective whether it is little or plenty, to remind those who are afraid the competition of the new comers, to feel at rest and to think that god leaves nobody without food or shelter if ony we watch his universe and how, the birds ,the wild animal, the insects and everything that creeps on this earth are fed including those who have filled their heart with fear as a result of forgetting the divine abundance and that that there is plenty for every body in god world not the world of the money mongers and the collecters of mountains of money without any inclination to spend any on others and even when they spend they spent to serve their interest, not only that but they advise the others not to help. Some time I wonder what is the use of all this accumulation in light of life span but alas it is the blindness of those who have forgotten their divine origin and thus forget themselves imagining they are in light while they are in darkness. How strange and peculiar some of our humans friends become, when they lose the divine path.

  6. Charles says :

    Aldous Huxley suggested that “knowledge is a function of being.” Our Being attracts our level of knowledge. Let’s make the assumption that there there is an image and example of a human being that is highly evolved. This is where language becomes challenging. What do we mean highly and evolved?

    IW wrote

    I somehow came into the habit a few years ago of placing quotation marks around any terms I thought might be open to interpretation.

    Interpretation is a very important idea. Each of us interprets what we call “reality” based on our being. I can say that I not a fan of literal interpretations of ideas. Literalism leads to idolatry. Harpur writes: to endow everything physical with only a literal reality is a folly to which our age is particularly prone..nothing is literal, Imagination transfigures everything.

    IW wrote

    (And, again, God forbid you suggest liberals and conservatives actually share any core beliefs/convictions in common. You’ll be skewered.)

    J. Wade writes conformist consciousness is “thought to represent the mainstream consciousness in civilized cultures…revealing embedded assumptions about the nature of reality, i.e., that the perceptions permitted by this level are a true apprehension of the world…the dynamics of conformist consciousness can embrace human rights, religion, genocide, etc.- any belief that can be dogmatized…conceptualization is limited by the absolute and dualistic nature of thinking (right/wrong, good/bad, black/white)…polarization includes dividing the world into member groups and outgroups…the rules or norms of a person’s member group are not viewed as one of many alternatives; rather they are the ‘right way.’

    Wade talks about the limbic system, because of the dualistic dynamic, influencing consciousness. The limbic system cannot tolerate ambiguity. Affect dominates and colors reason, permitting quasi-rational arguments (rationalization) in service of emotional (usually egoic) need.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      I can say that I not a fan of literal interpretations of ideas. Literalism leads to idolatry.

      Literalism is not what I have in mind here. By interpretation with or without regard to context, I’m alluding to the practice of arbitrarily (and autocratically) assigning meaning to a word or phrase said or written according to personal whim, which seems to correlate with the practice you allude to further on.

      rationalization in service of emotional (usually egoic) need

      The term “thought police” comes to mind.

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