Slouching Toward Bethlehem

An English poet named William Butler Yates wrote the poem, The Second Coming, in 1919 not long after the First World War had come to an end. I was thinking about the current political situation in the U.S. when the poem bubbled up into my memory. Here’s the entire poem. As you read it, think not only about the chaos during and after the First World War, but also about our current politics:

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?

World War I had ended, but the Treaty of Versailles so hobbled Germany that it made the rise of Hitler and the Second World War essentially inevitable. At the time he wrote the poem, Yates didn’t know that WWII was just around the corner, but he sensed that “the centre” wouldn’t hold.

We seem to be at a similar point in the States today. The metaphorical “beast” for Europe at the time proved to be Hitler and the Nazi movement. You might have a “beast” in mind for today. My sense is that the “beast” is an “Energy” rather than an individual, although certain individuals seem to embody what the beast represents. Two of the lines that stand out for me are, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Those lacking conviction aren’t doing much to make their feelings known, while we have plenty of evidence for the passionate intensity of the worst (Charlottesville is just one example). Things really do seem to be falling apart. I had no idea, for example, that sexual misconduct was such a pervasive problem, not only in politics, but also in the entertainment industry and business in general. This is perhaps, part of the “Spiritus Mundi” that troubles our sight.

At this point, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is best known for the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” which captures a fundamental truth about the human condition: We humans are much better at changing externals than we are at changing internals. We pay homage, of course, to those who preach love and kindness, but we’re not very good at following through with behavioral change. I have been waiting for “peace and goodWbrotherhood” since the days of the Vietnam War. At this point, I’m not at all sure that I will live long enough to see it.

I was among those who marched in the 1960s for Civil Rights and to protest the Vietnam war. I had friends who went to Canada to avoid the draft, but I chose to serve as a noncombatant. The music of that period (starting with early “rock & roll”) was a major influence on me, and I find that it still has meaning for me. The principal message of the music of that time was “peace and love.” I’ve embedded one of my favorites. Listen, and see if it has meaning for you:


In case you were wondering, the “Crystal blue” mentioned in the song is not a drug. It is a reference to the Book of Ezekiel. So … the concept has been around a long time, even if we have struggled to implement it.