Yeats’ “Rough Beast”: An Interpretation

Most of you are, I’m sure, familiar with W.B. Yeats’ ominous and enigmatic poem “The Second Coming”. I was reflecting on that and the meaning of his rough beast “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born” again this morning, and in connection with some of my recent posts about the “Shadow”. So, I want to take a few moments this morning and propose what I think might be the meaning of Yeats’ poem.

The Second Coming

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 was an avid student of Nietzsche’s writings, and this poem seems to reflect that influence. The first verse is, quite evidently, a description of the “death of God” and the implications of that. The falcon — the ego consciousness — becoming increasingly alienated and estranged from its own “vital centre” recalls Nietzsche’s remark that “Since Copernicus, man has been rolling from the centre towards X” — the unknown. This description of the widening gyre or centrifugal trajectory of the falcon also brings to mind William Blake’s comments (and Yeats was familiar with Blake also) about the location of “Reason” on the outer circumference of the energy body as described in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

“Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.”

Readers of Iain McGilchrist’s book on neurodynamics, The Master and His Emissary, will also perceive that same relation in the Falconer and Falcon metaphor, as well as Jean Gebser’s remarks in The Ever-Present Origin about the increasing “severance” of the alienated ego consciousness from its own “vital centre”, which severance McGilchrist describes as the “Emissary’s usurpation”. All this “loss of the vital centre” is implicated in the first verse of Yeats’ poem, and this includes much of the present nostalgia for — and a radical return to — a supposedly lost past “Golden Age” such as espoused by Traditionalism, and the lost of which is largely blamed on “liberals”, “intellectuals”, science or “modern ideas” in general.

Now moving to the second part of the poem, Yeats’ describes his vision of the consequences of this, and much that appears enigmatic about the poem is reflected in this verse. I’m sure some think of Yeats’ “rough beast” as the foretold “Anti-Christ”, and in a manner of speaking that is true, but not in the way one might think. It’s quite evident that Yeats’ thinks of the “rough beast” as the Shadow of Christianity itself. Yeats’ reference to “twenty centuries of stony sleep” now “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle” implicates Christianity itself in the generation of the “rough beast”, as all those energies that were repressed by Judeo-Christian morality as being “pagan” or “sins of the flesh” or wicked and “cast into the outer darkness”, as it were, where it became the Shadow.

With the death of God also comes the removal of all constraints and restraints on the Shadow as rough beast — appropriately characterised as something old and dark from the depths of time just as the Kraken is characterised as a creature of the ocean depths, or like H.P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu, or indeed today the so-called “Alt-Right’s” Kek, the dark lord and Lord of Chaos. This removal of constraints or inhibitions on the Shadow that attends the death of God is what has become referred to, also, as “the return of the repressed”. But it is also what Nietzsche anticipated as his “two centuries of nihilism”, and I think it is this “two centuries of nihilism” that Yeats’ wants us to understand by his “rough beast, its hour come round at last”.

It’s also the meaning of Seth’s “ancient force”, from that haunting passage from The Unknown Reality which I quoted earlier (in “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature”),

When, at this point now, of mankind’s development, his emerging unconscious knowledge is denied by his institutions, then it will rise up despite those institutions, and annihilate them. Cult after cult will emerge, each unrestrained by the use of reason, because reason will have denied the existence of rampant unconscious knowledge, disorganized and feeling only its own ancient force.

If this happens, all kinds of old and new religious denominations will war, and all kinds of ideologies surface. This need not take place, for the conscious mind – basically, now —  having learned to focus in physical terms, is meant to expand, to accept unconscious intuitions and knowledge, and to organize these deeply creative principles into cultural patterns…

Yeats wrote his poem “The Second Coming” around 1919, at the conclusion of the World War, and the war must have impressed Yeats with Nietzsche’s prescience in his forecast of “two centuries of nihilism” and the (violent) return of the repressed — all those unintegrated aspects of the fully human for which Nietzsche blamed a mistaken moralistic form of Judeo-Christianity which he thought would eventually turn against life itself and become itself, effectively, Anti-Christ.

And that is something many people get wrong about Nietzsche. He hated religion for the same reason that Blake hated religion — that it had effectively clipped the wings of the spirit and bound it in chains and in darkness, and effectively teaching and doing the exact opposite of what Jesus had taught.

If it takes an “enlightened ego consciousness” to handle the ancient force or subdue, pacify, and integrate the “rough beast”, that is what Nietzsche offered up in his exemplar “Zarathustra”, and, of course, a lot of similar efforts to provide such an integral and integrating framework for integrating the return of the repressed — Jean Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, Carl Jung, William Blake, Aurobindo, among others, (and the Hermeticists).

After all, the Shadow has also been called “dark gold” for a reason.

4 responses to “Yeats’ “Rough Beast”: An Interpretation”

  1. dadaharm says :


    it occurred to me that the warning by Seth you quote contains a somewhat optimistic or maybe even naive assumption. It is the first sentence that bothers me:

    When, at this point now, of mankind’s development, his emerging unconscious knowledge is denied by his institutions, then

    I think that it is precisely the function of these institutions to suppress unauthorisised types of knowledge. Such knowledge is considered untrue, immoral, evil or mad. Therefore our institutions will have no choice. It is there job to suppress this type of knowledge. This they will do.

  2. erikleo says :

    I am presently doing an online course on modernism and postmodernism. The following thinkers are among the ones we’ve looked at. Ardono and Horkheimer, Foucault, Baudrillard, Guy Debord, Deleuze and Guattari. As most of these are new to me I was wondering if any overlap with your critique, or if not, which wd you regard as worth spending time on?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Man, that’s a big question. I only have a passing familiarity with most of them, although I did write something up about the “New School” and “Critical Theory” represented by Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Fromm a while back which emerged initially as a riposte to the challenge of “New Conservatism” in Germany after the humiliation of the world war and the disaster of the Second Reich. Both ended up as transplants to America during and after WWII as New Right and New Left (Leo Strauss being the most prominent representative of this “new right”).

      Foucault was all the rage a couple of decades ago. I’m unsure what his status is presently, but he denied he was a “post-modern” thinker and questioned whether the term “post-modern” had any meaning at all. But I’ld say, from what i know of Foucault and the others, that they are all transitional thinkers, because they were mostly deconstructionists and usually very good at that. But you can only take deconstruction so far until you run out of things to de-construct. But much of it I found insightful.

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