Is W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ the Most Pillaged Piece of Literature in the English Language?

W.B. Yeats. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

[W.B. Yeats’s 1919 poem] The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right?

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In the wake of Didion’s success, publishers have come to realize they can apply Yeats’s lines to pretty much any book that documents confusion and disarray. Thus Elyn Saks’s 2008 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, concerning her bout with schizophrenia. Though these four words from Yeats surely resonate with Saks’s feelings, the “center” in question here isn’t the moral authority of the Western world, it’s one person’s sense of stability. The trend has held for art books (David Gulden’s photography collection The Centre Cannot Hold), politics (The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies), alternate history (American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold), popular history (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It), reportage (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East), religion (The Second Coming: A Pre-Mortem on Western Civilization), international affairs (Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa), right-wing moral hectoring (Slouching Toward Gomorrah), memoir (Slouching Toward Adulthood), and even humor (Slouching Towards Kalamazoo; Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy). It seems that for every cogent allusion (Northrop Frye’s Spiritus Mundi, anyone?) there are a dozen falcons that truly can’t hear the falconer.

Nick Tabor, writing in The Paris Review about the “widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions” to W.B. Yeats’s famous 1919 poem “The Second Coming”.

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