Well hello there everyone. Happy New Year! My holiday break is almost over and I spent an inordinate bulk of it curled up in bed under the covers, wrestling with anxiety and insomnia. If that strikes you as a symptom of depressive behavior you’d be correct. Sure I could ascribe it to the “holiday blues” syndrome, which I’m told is a legitimate thing, or I could just be honest and acknowledge that I’m prone to this disorder, and have been for some time. So forgive me if I don’t offer a blog post bursting with good cheer, high hopes, and sanguine sentiments for the new year. However, you have my word that I’ll soon shake off this gloom and doom weepy dark cloud, or the “black dog” as Winston Churchill called it.
What’s interesting to me is how fear, anxiety, and disaffection have been potent catalysts for creative expression throughout history. While joyous, uplifting works of art are certainly among the greatest, most memorable of all time (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is a prime example), the ominous, and at times alarming, works of expression are compelling in a much different way. And just as memorable.
I’ve stated before on this blog that William Butler Yeats is one of my favorite poets. I’ve featured him here, here, and here and I’m going to feature him again right now. This very well-known Yeats poem is one that I find apropos with regard to the world right now. Here is 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: 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?
I came across an excellent essay in The Paris Review which describes The Second Coming as “the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English”. It discusses the remarkable scope of references to the poem in pop culture and the arts, ranging from rock bands, comic books, artists and writers .. all of whom could not resist appropriating Yeats’s haunting and evocative turns of phrases. Who can blame them? The man was absolutely brilliant. Think about what he communicates with the imagery of “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”. Here’s a paragraph from the Paris Review piece:
Yeats began writing the poem in January 1919, in the wake of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and political turmoil in his native Ireland. But the first stanza captures more than just political unrest and violence. Its anxiety concerns the social ills of modernity: the rupture of traditional family and societal structures; the loss of collective religious faith, and with it, the collective sense of purpose; the feeling that the old rules no longer apply and there’s nothing to replace them.
George Frederic Watts, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The Rider on the Black Horse, 1878: