Blake and Yeats Vision of the Apocalypse
William Blake and William Butler Yeats both reflected on the apocalypse and the second coming of Christ in their art and poetry. Yeats takes a darker look at the second coming, comparing the Christian age he was in as a “widening gyre” where “the center cannot hold” (lines 1, 3, 1073). The world in “The Second Coming” is falling apart with “anarchy loosed upon the world” and “blood-dimmed tide” (4-5). Yeats believes that the “Second Coming is at hand” and that a “rough beast” (the antichrist or perhaps new saviour) is “slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born” (21-22). Yeats thinks that the apocalypse is near because of the bloodshed (caused by World War I) and injustices going on at that time. Blake, however, was inspired by the Romantic movement of his time that emphasized spirituality, emotions, and the natural world as close to god. Blake writes and paints about a judgement day, yet his version includes salvation through Jesus. In Blake’s painting, sinners are seen plummeting into the fiery lake of Hell, while those who have stood with god are seen on his right side, in Heaven. Both poets were inspired by their respective literary movements, major events happening in their time, and the overall attitude of their audience during the construction of their art.
Some symbols in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” are the gyre (a common symbol in Yeats’s poetry), the sphinx, and the Spiritus Mundi. The gyre is a recurrent self-made symbol of Yeats. It symbolizes a historical cycle ending, while another begins (Abrams & Greenblatt, 1073). These two historical cycles are categorized by both order and growth, as well as chaos and decay. Yeats was making an example of the world at his time ending, and making way for a new cycle — the second coming. The sphinx is a “common archetype of royalty” (Winston). The sphinx, which can also be referred to as the “rough beast,” symbolizes the spiritual being that heralds the second coming — one of heavenly (or hellish) royalty (line 22, 1074). The Spiritus Mundi is a “universal subconscious where the human race stores all past memories” (Abrams & Greenblatt, 1074). Yeats uses the Spiritus Mundi to predict the second coming of the “rough beast” (22). These symbols, especially the gyre, were a present concern with those in the early to mid 1900s. The gyre, expected to come to a new beginning/end in less than 100 years, plagued those who believed in its existence. The rough beast (the sphinx), is the creature needed to show those in the modern world their wrongdoings. Many symbols are influenced by the actions of those around Yeats and the beliefs/fears of the time.
Yeats’s “The Second Coming” deals with several themes, including the blurred lines between good and bad, spiritual and Earthly warfare, and lack of salvation. Many lines in “The Second Coming” demonstrate the ambiguity of good and bad, leaving the reader to question what is good and what is bad. In line six, Yeats writes that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” meaning that the rituals of the world before the second coming no longer mean anything; ceremonies that made the world “civilized” are now being annihilated. The inclusion of crumbling traditions also go along with a movement sparked by Freud that questions why man has specific roles in society and why do these social constructs exist. In lines seven through eight, Yeats says that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity” (lines 7-8, 1073). This attitude of good and bad not being absolute was a common theme in modern literature, especially post WWI. People believed that there was really no “good and bad” in regards to war, as many countries were just sending out soldiers to die (Rhee). A symbol in “The Second Coming” that displays the theme of ambiguity is the mysterious “rough beast” — neither a definite good nor bad in the poem. Though posed as menacing at first glance, the “rough beast” is never stated as bad (or good for that matter). He is described as “rough,” which is theorized (as Yeats never stated) that it is because the world will recieve a “rough” awakening (22).
Another theme in “The Second Coming” is spiritual and Earthly warfare. The entire poem is a countdown to the second coming, or as described in Revelations 12:7, “a war in heaven” (New American Standard Bible). The poem describes the Earthly warfare as “twenty centuries of stony sleep” that is “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle” (lines 19-20, 1074). Yeats is referring to the last gyre (or historical cycle) that appeared at the birth of Christ (2000 years ago) and is now appearing again as the second coming is approaching. Lastly, Yeats takes the position in “The Second Coming” that there will not be salvation during the apocalypse. The first stanza explains that horrors of the apocalyptic world with “things fall[ing] apart,” “anarchy loosed upon the world,” and “blood-dimmed tide loosed” (3-5). The second stanza rhetorically states “surely some revelations at hand / surely the second coming is at hand,” leading the reader to believe that the second coming will be ushered in by a savior in this lost world (9-10). However, the only salvation Yeats refers to is that of the “rough beast” who “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” (22). Those in Yeats’s time had a grim view of the future. WWI left little hope, and this view is reflected in the themes in “The Second Coming.” Good and bad were blurred at this time; countries who were previously thought as “good” switched to the “bad” through new policies, war tactics, and laws. Along with Earthly fighting, Yeats uses spiritual fighting to mimic the chaotic world. Lastly, the lack of salvation experienced during this second coming copies the despair and hopelessness that was a common belief at this time.
Contrasting to Yeats’s “The Second Coming” is William Blake’s “A Vision of the Last Judgement.” Blake describes his painting as “The Last Judgment when all those are Cast away who trouble Religion with Questions concerning Good & Evil or Eating of the Tree of those Knowledges or Reasonings which hinder the Vision of God turning all into a Consuming fire” (70). Some symbols in Blake’s painting are Jesus on the throne, bloody clouds, and Moses and Abraham. Jesus, the judge in the last judgement, is sitting upon a throne. All of the innocents stand at his right, while all of the wicked stand at his left, with a sea of fire underneath as a punishment to the wicked. Jesus is the one who decides the “good or wicked” nature of men, and whether they will fall into the pit of fire or live in Heaven with him. Blake writes, in his description of the painting, that Abel (the first killer) is “kneel[ing] on a bloody Cloud” (Blake, 80). The cloud symbolizes the churches before the Biblical flood — filled with blood, fire, and smoke. The cloud also symbolizes the eternal states of churches, and even though man does not live forever, the “ States remain for Ever he passes thro them like a traveller who may as well suppose that the places he has passed thro exist no more” (79). moses and Abraham are also symbols in “A Vision of the Last Judgement.” Blake says that Moses and Abraham “are not here meant but the States Signified by those Names the Individuals being representatives or Visions of those States,” meaning that though the Earthly body has passed on, their spirit lives eternally in Heaven. Both Moses and Abraham are standing at the right hand of Jesus, symbolizing their just and god-fearing lives. Abraham is standing above his abundance of children , while Moses stands above two shackled sinners who have perished in the flood. Moses stands above a multitude of others from the flood, who are falling head-first into the pit of fire. Blake’s background in religion helped sculpt the themes present in his painting. He includes many references to biblical characters and events, as well as goes along with some of Christianity’s beliefs: redemption, belief of a god, judgement, and salvation.
Some themes in “A Vision of the Last Judgement” are consequences from good and bad, salvation through love, and the eternal nature of human imagination and identity. Blake defines the consequences for men’s actions through reward or punishment; those who are good go to Heaven and those who are evil are cast to Hell. Blake describes the judgement as separated into two sides, with “The Just arise on his right & the wicked on his Left hand” (76). Among the Just are Abraham, Moses, Adam and Eve, and on the left with the wicked, Blake includes figures such as Cain, those who died in the flood, and other assorted sinners. Blake wants to convey to readers that though his vision of god is that he is a loving creator, he still must set a distinct line between those who live in sin and those who seek forgiveness. Blake clearly states that “they do not Expect Holiness from one another but from God only,” showing that god does not just accept those who are considered “holy,” but those who hold a belief in him — God, to Blake, is loving, kind, fair but tough (93). Blake paints a picture of a creator’s love and the want for his creations to be rewarded with Heaven. He notes that “Forgiveness of Sin is only at the Judgment Seat of Jesus the Saviour,” explaining that Jesus is the only one who can forgive a sin and accept the sinner. In the same sentence he describes that the “Accuser is cast out. not because he Sins but because he torments” (93). The epitome of sin — the devil — is not cast out because god is unforgiving and is vengeful, but because he does not want to be forgiven.
Blake writes that “In Eternity one Thing never Changes into another Thing Each Identity is Eternal” (79). He uses the example of Lot’s wife whose body was turned into a pillar of salt; her mortal body was changed, but her personal identity was left unchanged (79). Blake also writes that “Individuality never dies. but renews by its seed. just as so the Imaginative Image” (69). This eternal individuality and image can be seen as a mirror to the Christian version of a soul. The mortal body may change, but the individual’s identity and imagination are what follows them to judgement. Themes in “A Vision of the Last Judgement” coincide with the beliefs of the Romantic period: imagination, individuality, spirituality, sublime, and emotion.
Blake and Yeats are a product of their environments and literary movements. Their poetry reflects the common idea of the beliefs within their culture because of their time periods and the mindsets of their audiences. Yeats, a modernist and religious-skeptic wrote “The Second Coming” with dark tones and themes because that is what his audience believed at the time due to World War I, decline in spirituality, and traditional societal roles. Blake, a Romantic and religious writer, painted his “A Vision of the Last Judgement” as his readers saw the world coming to an end — Jesus judging and forgiving them on the throne. They lived in two time periods with vastly different ideals on religion, spirituality, and the end of the world.
Yeats’s time period, beliefs and movements helped sculpt the writing of “The Second Coming.” The poem was written during the aftermath of WWI. Historically, debts were high (136% of gross national product), Britain ceased as an economic power, unemployment was at a record high (11.3%), and there was the question of “necessary” war (The National Archives). Many writers wrote in a backlash against WWI and the cruelties that came with it. Novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front and poems such as “Dulce et Decorum Est” condemned war and brought to light the soldier’s plight to the public. Along with this decline in power, money, and economy, Britain began a new literary movement called Modernism. Some values of this movement include faithlessness, skepticism, confused sense of identity, loss of social value meaning, pessimism, alienation, and despair (Kuiper). This seemed to go against the previous movement’s values of restraint, faith, optimism and known identity. The Modernist movement and literature that comes from it shows that “the enormity of the war had undermined humankind’s faith in the foundations of Western society and culture, and postwar Modernist literature reflected a sense of disillusionment and fragmentation” (Kuiper). Yeats’s views in the poem reflect the war-torn period of when he wrote “The Second Coming.”
Blake, although not under an established religion, is spiritual. He grew up Christian and was even baptized on 11 December (Wilson, 2). Later in life, Blake did not agree with most of Christianity’s principles, although still believing in a god, so he created a belief system for himself based off Greek mythology and Christianity (Fry, 11). His Christian background and later belief system gave him a foundation of spirituality in which he made “A Vision of the Last Judgement.”
Although Blake and Yeats both wrote on the same subject, their interpretations are completely different. Blake writes of love of Jesus as the judge and the salvation of those who are worthy (as well as the condemnation of those who are wicked), while Yeats takes the stance of no salvation, with the second coming of an unknown entity. The pessimistic and fear-written nature of the literary movement of Modernism compared with the optimistic and spiritual nature of the Romanticism movement helps explain the different viewpoints of both authors.