Eight years ago I started keeping a private blog of poems that I particularly like, it’s still kept here. There was never intended to be much crossover between that blog and this one, but a friend referenced the Yeats poem ‘The Second Coming‘ during a brief political discussion on WhatsApp earlier in the week and seeing as I’ve heard the poem quoted a number of times over the last couple of years I thought it would be worthy of a post.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Yeats wrote the poem in 1919 between the end of the Great War and the violent birth (in two wars) of a new Irish state, as he personally reflected on the forces of self-destruction that he imagined would soon be unleashed within his own country during its birth as a modern state. It’s not much surprise that the poem is a relentlessly bleak onslaught of terror and warning that speaks of the inescapable ‘gyre’ of history, the inevitability of monstrously destructive forces wiping away civilisations, and the roots of all this destruction lying in our own tribalistic human failings.
It’s a poem that appeals to pessimists and a tempting one for humans to reach to in all times of bleakness, but taken as a whole I am rather sceptical of all attempts to put the poem to use as a tool with which to interpret the times we currently live in, or as a pointer as to where human societies are inevitably heading.
Thinking about the current state of the UK, which of our current cast of characters and forces might populate this neo-Yeatsian world? The ‘worst’ are obviously the easiest to identify. Listening to the Remainiacs podcast (actually for the first time, a friend recommended it) earlier this week I was struck by something Alex Andreou said commenting about Nigel Farage’s recent tour of northern towns, that his most recent speeches as leader of the new Brexit Party (his ‘second coming’ if you like) were essentially empty of any real political content, no manifesto, no policy ideas, not even containing any real political discussion at all. Instead all that was being offered was the ‘passionate intensity’ of pure rage and contempt. Like Trumpism and Orbanism, an essentially negative creed.
Who might ‘the best’ be? The fundamentally decent, but ideologically adrift folk at Farage’s rallies swept along in the undertow of his demagoguery, the still hopelessly divided remain coalition unable to effectively resist the gathering purchase of populism because they fail to find any deeper unity beyond the narrow angle of fundamental opposition to Brexit?
My own view of current events inverts Yeats’ notion of the inevitability of descent and collapse in Western societies, that today’s contemporary populist forces contain the seeds of their own destruction, the beast slowly falls apart as it labours its way to Bethlehem, during its own journey from simplistic social media fantasy into the reality of having to actually propose workable policy. Farage’s worldview falls apart on a purely managerial level, it simply can’t deliver that which it promises. I imagine Farage having the self-awareness to know that he’s essentially empty in terms of publicly acceptable policies that will be capable of delivering better times for the kinds of people who attend his rallies. Given that he knows that he can’t square his own right-wing political beliefs with those of the bulk of his audience (many of who are rather left of centre on the traditional left/right economic axis of UK politics, though of course where Farage finds better agreement with them is on the axis of social conservatism/liberalism), the man’s only choice is to keep pied-pipering his audience along, ever broadening the definition of untrustworthy ‘elites’ until it contains virtually every category of person not well represented in the room (nefarious foreigners, the liberal metropolitan elite (code for people under 45), the BBC, the financial elite, the judiciary … ). He know he must keep playing the tune because he is merely leading his hungry followers in ever tighter circles . . .