Sunday

Jun. 13, 2010

The Second Coming

by William Butler Yeats

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?

"The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, (books by this author) born in Dublin, Ireland (1865).

He grew up at a time when the nation of Ireland was struggling with its identity as an English colony. Most members of the Irish Protestant upper class were pro-British rule, and members of the Catholic middle class were pro-independence. It didn't help the two sides get along that Catholics were denied equal access to education, jobs, and government positions.

Yeats grew up in a Protestant family, but the only things he cared about were poetry and mysticism. His aunt gave him a popular book of the era called Esoteric Buddhism (1884), about mystical philosophy, and Yeats especially loved its idea that the material world was an illusion. When he was 20, he and a group of friends formed the Dublin Hermetic Society in order to conduct experiments into the nature of ghosts and psychic powers. Later he joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, a group that performed a variety of ancient magic rituals. And he attended séances and tarot card readings.

In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, a beautiful actress who had become an activist and who spoke out for Irish nationalism and independence. She became the love of his life, and though she refused his proposal of marriage, she believed that they were spiritually married, that they could communicate telepathically. She inspired him to use his writing as a force for national unity. Yeats came to believe that if he could get in touch with the deep, mythic history of the Irish people, he could pull the country together with poetry.

Yeats spent years writing plays about Irish nationalism for Maud Gonne to star in. But by 1910, Maud Gonne had married someone else and Yeats had given up on trying to win her love. He also gave up on the idea of writing poetry for the collective soul of Ireland, and wrote instead for himself.

At the same time that he stopped trying to use poetry as a national force, he started getting directly involved in politics, and served for six years in the Irish senate. In 1922, he witnessed the end of the English occupation in all but the northern counties of Ireland. He died in 1939. A few weeks before he died, he wrote: "Man can embody truth but he cannot know it."

We don't know the day on which Alexander the Great was born, but historians believe that he died on this day in the city of Babylon (323 B.C.), probably of malaria.

A Macedonian, Alexander was actually tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. When he was a teenager, he and Aristotle got into an argument about whether non-Greeks were barbarians. Aristotle said they were, and Alexander said they were not. He eventually broke with Aristotle over that point, and went on to become one of the first rulers to accept all races and cultures into his government.

He was one of the most influential conquerors in the history of Western Europe, and by the time he died at about the age of 33, his kingdom spanned across Europe and Asia, from Greece to Egypt, Turkey and India. Alexander ultimately conquered the Persian Empire in just five years, expanding his own empire by 2,500 miles. But he never got along well with his troops. He had the habit of adopting the clothing and customs of whatever city he conquered. He was also a brutal military commander, pushing his men on marches over hundreds of miles through monsoons and scorching heat. But he never asked his men to do anything that he wouldn't do himself. He rode into every battle, alongside his men, and he was frequently wounded.

The thing that killed Alexander on this day in 323 B.C. was probably malaria. He collapsed from a fever after a banquet. There was no successor to the throne and the empire fell into chaos. But it's thanks to Alexander the Great that the ideas of Greek Civilization were spread throughout the Middle East and Asia, and the Greeks had their eyes opened to other cultures and traditions. Historians argue that the Roman Empire, and the spread of Christianity as a world religion, might not have occurred if Alexander hadn't expanded the boundaries of his kingdom so far.

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