What You Never Understood In Sophomore English Class
I awakened this morning with the snippet “slouching toward” circling round and round my brain, and the desire to isolate the poem, misty memory, from whence it originated.
Thank Google, it was a one-attempt endeavor. I landed on “No Slouch”, published April 7, 2014, by Nick Tabor, in the Paris Review. (I highly recommend the article, it delves into the pop culture phenomenon of allusions to the poem.)
Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, circa 1919, had fed my wakening obsession: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, /Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
This poem affects me today as a jarringly relevant collection of words which have maintained this same unnerving applicability since they were penned over 100 years ago. See what you think.
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?
I was struck, as I revisited this poem I likely haven’t read since sophomore year in high school, as many have been, by its starkly apt vision of humanity’s past, current, and future decline, especially looking back over the past century, the future over which Yeats penned his vivid and darkly compelling words.
Here we are, in the throes of unquestionably mismanaged handling of a heretofore unknown viral assailant, and my mind targets as rough beasts…Covid19, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Brian Kemp, Asa Hutchinson…all politicians save the virus. All only a sampling of the veritable herds of rough beasts with whom they pasture.
Likely the rough beast is, as it has been for over a hundred years now, wearing many different masks that are serially and subjectively identifiable more easily in retrospect.
I’m captivated by the line “The best lack all conviction, while /the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.” It resonates with me, echoing the gist of a recent conversation with a good friend about her recent conversation with one of her young adult sons. He is concerned with the high cost of healthcare in America, and as his mother is employed as an advanced practice nurse, he postulates that she and her physician counterparts would have, should they band together and demand it, the clout to implement change in healthcare accessibility. My friend’s response to his impassioned plea, paraphrased, was to encourage him to lobby for change, to mobilize his peers, to use his passion as a catalyst for change. She told him, “We are healthcare providers, not politicians. We just want to help people!” His response, paraphrased, was that he didn’t have the clout needed to make any difference.
Aha! There it is!! The best, like this young person and his peers— intelligent, thoughtful, and lacking the conviction to answer action’s call — and the worst, politicians and politically motivated entities full of passionate intensity to make as much profit as possible at each turn.
Ultimately, this applies to every major inequity in this world — thinking, rational people decrying the status quo from our armchairs, while men and women in positions of power grease the fated wheels of the machine.
This musing today is no call to action, no challenge to the average person to take up a cause to champion. This is merely my opinion that as we sit and wait out this pandemic, even as we recover and return to our lives in whatever capacity we are able and allowed, the ceremony of innocence has long drowned, and the rough beast, its hour come round at last, again and again and again, continues its inevitable slouch toward, and we, in our selfishness, ignorance, greed, and oblivion continue to ignore the loosening center.