Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”

For some unknown reason these words have been going through my head the last couple of weeks. The line is from the poem The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. I remember some of the poem from required reading of it in English Literature during my university days.

Written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, the poem is also connected to the 1918–1919 Spanish flu pandemic. When read in the light of our current COVID-19 pandemic, it carries an eerie parallel.

In the weeks preceding Yeats’s writing of the poem, Yeats’s pregnant wife Georgie Hyde-Lees caught the Spanish flu virus and was very close to death. The highest death rates of the pandemic were among pregnant women—in some areas, they had up to a 70 percent death rate. While his wife was convalescing, he wrote this essential poem.

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: 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?

– William Butler Yeats

Remembrance Day

Today is Remembrance Day. I’d like to pay my deep respects once more to the uncle I never knew who gave his life in WWII, along with so many others, so that we could all be free.

Thank you, Uncle George.

George Clifford Quartly

Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), R.C.I.C., Company C

Killed in action near Monte Cassino, Italy
May 23, 1944

Uncle George is buried in Cassino War Cemetery
Cassino, Italy
Plot 9, A20

First they came…

Lately I have been reviewing, captioning and posting my travel shots and journal from our 2012 trip to Berlin, Germany. Looking over the pictures we took of the Holocaust memorials and remembering their impact at the time has put me in mind of the powerful First they came… piece of prose.

First they came… is the poetic form of a post-war confessional prose by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy – including, by his own admission, Niemöller himself – following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group. Many variations and adaptations in the spirit of the original have been published in the English language. It deals with themes of persecution, guilt, repentance, and personal responsibility.


First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out—
Because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

– Martin Niemöller

You Could Have Heard A Pin Drop

This one has made the rounds before but as Remembrance Day approaches it is a great reminder to honour November 11th.

In France, at a fairly large conference, Former Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper was asked by a French cabinet minister if Canadian involvement in Afghanistan was just an example of “empire building.” Mr. Harper answered by saying:

Over the years, Canada has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return.

You could have heard a pin drop.


A Canadian Admiral was attending a naval conference that included Admirals from the Canadian, US, English, Australian and French Navies. At a cocktail reception, he found himself standing with a large group of officers that included personnel from most of those countries. Everyone was chatting away in English as they sipped their drinks but a French admiral suddenly complained that, whereas Europeans learn many languages, North Americans generally learn only English. He then asked:

Why is it that we always have to speak English in these conferences rather than speaking French?

Without hesitating, the Canadian Admiral replied:

Maybe it’s because the Brits, Canadians, Aussies and Americans arranged it so you wouldn’t have to speak German.

You could have heard a pin drop.


When Robert Whiting, an elderly Canadian gentleman of 83, arrived in Paris by plane at the French Customs, he took a few minutes to locate his passport in his carry on.

You have been to France before, monsieur?

… the customs officer asked sarcastically. Mr. Whiting admitted that he had been to France previously. The official replied:

Then you should know enough to have your passport ready.

The Canadian said:

The last time I was here, I didn’t have to show it.

The customs officer replied:

Impossible, Monsieur. Canadians always have to show passports on arrival in France!

The Canadian senior gave the Frenchman a long hard look. Then he quietly explained:

Well, when I came ashore on D-Day in 1944 to help liberate this country, I couldn’t find a single Frenchmen to show a passport to.

You could have heard a pin drop.


Canadians Are Cool…

Fog

The fog was rolling in a couple of days ago, and it put me in mind of the poem we learned in grade school – Fog. I seem to have retained this poem in my long term memory, I guess, due to its simplicity and imagery. I still love it all these years later:

Fog

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Carl Sandburg, 1878-1967