This impressive poem is capable of suggesting a variety of meanings, none of which will be “it”, and this makes it worthy of ongoing revisits. This brief post is in no way an ‘analysis’, but only a sharing of some thoughts which have arisen. Historically, the poem was written just after World War I, which gives especial poignancy to “the blood-dimmed tide”.
The basic image in the first part is of a falcon flying away from the falconer in ever-increasing circles, until there is ‘a loss of touch’ between them. I’m choosing here to see the falcon as representing a set of ideas that someone has set in motion and, since the poem refers to the “The Second Coming” of Jesus Christ, I’m also choosing to focus on the religion which claims his name.
A telling contemporary image, for me, is that of a world “leader”, standing outside a Christian church and brazenly holding up, but NOT looking into, a Bible. And I remind myself that millions of his fellow citizens gave him and, despite his recent comeuppance, continue to give him, their unquestioning support.
This is support for someone who continually lies, deceives, defrauds, betrays, crudely belittles and insults others, appears to be a misogynist and serial adulterer, and seems to have no intellectual or emotional understanding of the word ’empathy’. This list could be much longer. My point is that although the perpetrator holds up a Christian Bible, his ongoing conduct is more or less in complete contrast to the lifestyle and values of Jesus Christ himself. There has most certainly been ‘a loss of touch’, not only on his part, but also on the part of those who continue to idolise him.
In the second part of the poem, Yeats imagines a different set of ideas being set in motion, from a “Bethlehem” now fit only for “beasts”. He uses the image of the Sphinx to suggest power that is pitiless – the “lion body” and the “blank gaze”. When we look at our world, we see dishonesty, cronyism, corruption, greed, indifference and oppression; we hear hollow words, empty slogans and spurious promises. One could rightly say that this has always been the case, but what troubles me is this – that it no longer seems to need to be disguised. It’s now blatant and shameless. It’s the in-thing, it’s “smart” – and it generates popular support.
In 1914, as populist ‘fury for war’ built up to bursting point, it could well have been said, as in the poem, that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. How sad if that should continue to be the case today.