A conversation I had last night reminded me one of my favorite prophetic poem: William Butler Yeats‘ “The Second Coming”. I first read it as a college freshman and it has haunted me ever since…Not the creepy/scary kind of haunting, but the kind that keeps you thinking 6 years later (and I imagine many more). I have read this poem so many times that I have memorized it from reading and re-reading it. From the scholarship and criticism on the poem, it seems that admirers cannot really summarize the poem—I know I can’t. I can’t even explain exactly why I love it…the best I can do is direct you to the first stanza. Every time I read it, it makes me think of those critical moments in time and in human history (ie. colonial encounters, declarations of wars) that have been the beginning of destruction for a civilization/group of people. It is no wonder that postcolonial writers, like Chinua Achebe, have made numerous references to it in literary works. Also, there exists many references to the poem in apocalyptic literature, films, shows and music.
“The Second Coming”, I think, first captured my attention as it contains allusions and references to the mysterious Book of Revelations in the Bible. Some critics say that the apocalypse in the poem is a prophesy for WWII (the poem was written shortly before the war began). In Islam, too, there is a belief in a second coming of Jesus. Accordingly, the Day of Judgment will follow Jesus’ return. Though in all Abrahamic faiths, references to the second coming essentially remain a mystery.
Needless to say, Yeats poem is interesting to me from a religious perspective in addition to a political and literary one.
This all comes down to the question of the century—the same questions that have risen since the poem: Who/what is the “Rough Beast” in Yeats’ poem, and is there a “Rough Beast” today?