Spent most of the day avoiding reading.
Attended a very successful audio/video presentation by Julian Barnes beamed into about a dozen of us at Collected Works bookstore in Ottawa. Barnes was charm itself. He read from Nothing to be Afraid of for about 20 minutes and answered questions for 20 more, after which he signed cards for various members of the audience. I had a chance lob a few easy ones at him, the responses to which I’ll divulge shortly. I did then read for a while at the nearby Bridgehead coffee shop. Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love. But it was one of those days where every word is a fight, bobbling around, appearing in the wrong order. Perhaps it was all that free-trade bean juice. Then back home to write the following narrative of the second part of my conversation with David Solway:
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?
Was Yeats’s writing of The Second Coming motivated by politics, by a grand Viconian view of history? By current events? Personal Crisis? One doesn’t know. With Harold Pinter however, it’s hard not to read his God Bless America as anything but political. This is because Pinter’s poem is motivated, says Solway, by sheer hatred. In Yeats there is not hatred. His poem is born out of a grand historical anxiety. Out of fear and instinct. A sense of the cyclical in human existence. A recognition of the rise and fall of civilizations. Yeats saw a world filled with inordinate tumult and uncertainty in 1919, much as we find it today. A void which some new pagan messiah would soon fill, staring with us into a dangerous, unprecedented, unpredictable future. He felt something big was due to happen. Yeats’ poem invites us to stand with him at the beginning of a new phase in the cycle of history.
Just as the falcon circles the sky, so the word ‘Turning ‘ repeats, and comes round on itself, replicating, reenacting syntactically, the behavior of a gyre, a sort of vortex. Gyres were important symbols for Yeats, representing the cyclical. We see this circling too in the internal rhyme of the line, the use of vowels.This plus Yeats’s exquisite use of consonants and their sounds…
"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned"
…and presence of the sibylline, in "passionate intensity" all work together to make this poem memorable.
The title’s Christian metaphor appears in the second stanza, referring to the arrival of a new leader or mentor coming out of Spiritus Mundi to greet an unsettling future. A man’s head and a lion’s body bring up the Sphinx which sounds historic, poetic echoes of the mystery and obscurity found in Oedipus’s riddle. "Slow thighs" and desert birds example the powerful imagery this poem contains. This monster conveys imminent danger, the lurid, mysterious quality of an unknown event about to occur, which promises to have, as Solway puts it, "stigmatic" repercussions.
The poem models the poetic craft, both in its use of rhetorical tools, and its sheer memorability. There is no one particular theme, rather a spectrum of possible themes.
None of this appears in Pinter.