jeudi 31 janvier 2013

Mythodological approach to William Butler Yeats "the Second Coming"

As J. Campbell suggests in his book “the Power of Myth”: Mythology teaches you what's behind literature and arts.  Mythological and archetypal approach help understanding writings. A writer might use foregrounding details such as names of gods and goddesses, elements of nature, colours...etc, generally from Greek or Roman mythology, to convey a specific message or draw a particular image that one could not interpret it easily.  In a poem, for instance, the poet uses a symbolic name with a mythological significant such as a name of a place,  a god,  a goddess and others to draw attention to a particular thing, event, character and the like. To illustrate this approach, let's take a look at William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”.

From the very beginning of the poem, the title “the Second Coming” suggests the idea of rebirth, renewal and ‘incarnation’, if I dare say.  Yeats’ poem can be divided into two major parts: the first part-stanza- a mere and concrete description of the actual world and the second part – second stanza- a discussion of the second coming, the revelation, the end of the world as often described in religious texts.  The second coming which might be replaced by the revelation, the second advent, or parousia -as referred to in the Greek New Testament- are all referring to the return of Jesus: the end of the world.

The first stanza depicts the actual world “turning and turning in the widening gyre”, the world of widespread anarchy, the world of blood baths, the world where “the best” and “the worst” are mixed up to the extent that it is hard to differentiate this from that, the world which is repeating itself over and over, repeating and re-living its history, the world where obedience does no longer prevail: “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”, the world where “things fall apart” and no longer make sense; values, morals and principals are left over making place to hypocrisy, anarchy, and lack of innocence.  “The centre cannot hold”, the centre can refer to religion, to policies, to institutions that rule the world which now no longer do.  “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”, anarchy henceforth controls of the world. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”, blood is everywhere, people are being murdered whether guilty or innocent, innocence is “drowned” in the tide of blood. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”: the worst- people- are those who fear the end with “passionate intensity”, while the best have no concern since they are doing right.

The second part of the poem is a description of what is going to happen, the will-to-be world.  “Surely revelation is at hand”, Yeats is predicting a near end of the world; “Surely the second coming is at hand”; both the word ‘revelation’ and ‘second coming’ suggest a religious connotation: the revelation of Jesus Christ and the second coming of Jesus Christ and the end of the world.  “When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the dessert”, the spirit of the world is going somehow to be lost as a sand in the sands of the dessert.  Added to this, the word ‘dessert’ suggests a symbolic meaning of hopelessness and death.  
“A shape with lion body and the head of a man” is depicting the image of the Beast or often called ‘the sphinx’: it is a mythical creature found in Egyptian and Greek mythologies.  In Greek mythology, the sphinx is described as a creature that has haunches of a lion, wings of a great bird and the face of a woman.  This creature is characterized by its merciless, treacherous and malicious character.  As for the Egyptian mythology, the sphinx is shown as a man, a benevolent guardian of temples.  In this case, the Greek sphinx is what might be referred to when it was said “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”.  Again, the word ‘sun’ suggests the notion of death; “the darkness drops again”, the darkness highlights the elements of the unknown and the mystery as the end of the world actually tend to be: a mysterious, unknown, unpredictable and mostly catastrophic.  
“That twenty century of stony sleep” prompts the consideration of the age of Christianity in a “stony sleep” that now “were vexed to nightmare”.  The word ‘Bethlehem’ in the last line is in fact the place of birth of Jesus.  This part of the poem in fact is not only Yeats version of the end of the world but also the versions of many others and also the depiction of the apocalypse throughout many religion texts: the beast, the darkness, the dessert, and the second coming of the Christ.

To round of, the mythological and archetypal approach all help deciphering literature and solving its puzzling meaning in particular, as it was applied to Yeats’ the Second Coming, it enables to know what Yeats had in mind, what he wanted to say, and which feeling he wanted to regenerate in the readers: the feeling of insurance, fear, hopelessness, mystery and the unexpected.  The second coming, in fact, is a prediction of the end of the world, as it was often described in many a myth and many a religious text.