In a volume of his poetry published in 1921, the Irish poet William Butler Yates included a poem entitled “The Second Coming.” John McCain’s death has moved me more than I might have expected, and it has brought several lines from Yeats’ poem into my mind. So I want to copy it out here and then speak to why I think the association is taking place in my memory.
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 the 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 toward Bethlehem to be born?
Some associations are obvious–so much of what I’ve held to be a base line about how individuals and institutions and governments behave is falling apart under the current president and his minions. Surely anyone still hanging on to some innocent idea of “things getting better” feels “drowned” by the literal and psychological violence he is causing by his own actions and by giving permission to millions of citizens to throw off any semblance of civility. I must hold on to believing that some of the “best” of us will not lose “conviction.” Rather we will persist and resist. The image of the “worst” being “full of passionate intensity” is plastered on our various screens every day. The part of Yeats’ poem that is more subtle comes in the second stanza, though the “shape with lion body and the head of a man,/A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” is unmistakable to me and so many others. Near the end of this poem, Yeats is, of course, using images recalling the birth in Bethelem of Jesus of Nazareth as a way to shock readers into understanding just how horrific this present day appearance should be to those of us watching it happen. For him the “rough beast” was the awful shadow caused by World War I where people like him saw basic definitions of human behavior blown literally to pieces in France and elsewhere. For many of us the “rough beast” is a hydra head of nationalism, fundamentalism, and blatant hatred of the “other,” whatever guise we happen to wear.
Working with this poem written almost a century ago has clarified why parts of it have come rushing into my mind as I take in what we’ve lost with the death of Senator John McCain. I haven’t always agreed with his stances of political matters, but I’ve long understood that he is a man of morals and decency. He’s also an institutionalist, i.e., he has deep trust in the institutions of American government. He’s never been so naïve as to think they insure justice or kindness or equality. But, compared to a society without such lofty ideals written into its foundational history, he and I know how much worse things can become and remain. His argument with the current administration is based on this belief. After all, he told us that he voted to retain the Affordable Care Act because the process that produced the bill to scrap it so deeply offended his sense of how to govern and arrive at policies of such magnitude. And that’s what we’ve lost with his death. There are not many people in our houses of Congress today who are willing to put the common good (“country,” if you like) above partisanship and/or personal gain. Surely they “lack all conviction.” Just as surely the president isn’t willing to consider anything that doesn’t pertain to him. And, without that process, we run the frightening risk of loosing “mere anarchy” on our land. And if we do not find ways to persist and resist current behaviors and words coming from the White House, we may well find ourselves watching our very own “rough beast” slouch his way from month to month, year to year.