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“Things Fall Apart”: Understanding 2020 Through Poetry

Written over 100 years ago, Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming, continues to be referenced in the times of chaos. Today, it helps me rationalize 2020, in all its absurdity.

Aug 30, 2020

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center 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.
— W.B Yeats (1919)
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” This phrase from W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming has been resonating in my mind for the last nine months, whenever I scroll through my newsfeed, turn on the TV and even during small talk. Yeats also wrote it in the face of disaster: the wake of the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, political unrest in Ireland and while watching his pregnant wife close to death during the deadly second wave of the Spanish flu. It paints a bleak image of humankind, but is also a reminder of the social ills of modern society and the inevitable collapse of systems, neatly packaged in a cyclical understanding of history. It is this poem, despite being written a hundred years ago, that helps me rationalize 2020, in all its absurdity.
The title itself, The Second Coming, is a reference to Christian theology — similar ideas exist in Islam and Judaism — alluding to the arrival of the Antichrist which would cause anarchy, followed by the Second Coming of Christ who would punish the wicked. This biblical understanding is rooted in the notion that a “bad” age is inevitably followed by a “good” one, which is the balanced nature of history. In hindsight, we know the horrific turn of the 20th century and can reflect on the prophetic nature of the poem, as it is almost indisputable.
This year, we have seen things fall apart. We have also witnessed the unrestrained nature of events, “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere.” Here, “loosed” portrays the image of a wild animal released from a cage, suggesting why we must question our impression of the stability of systems, as they are fragile by nature. On Jan. 3, #WW3 was trending on Twitter. And now, a pandemic, a stock market crash, explosions, political crises, natural disasters, widespread protests, a famine, murder hornets and three UFO videos later, we find ourselves nearing September, nervously awaiting the grand finale.
Yeats presented the source of destruction as overt, mysterious and ubiquitous. This is how the internet today sees it too: 2020 can you chill, please? This is the vagueness that gives the poem such longevity and relevance to various circumstances. After all the converging and diverging events that led us to where we are today, it is difficult to know where to point fingers, or how to rationalize this exceptional year.
Yeats’ prophecy asserts that when changes occur, chaos and confusion inevitably follow, implied by “the turning and turning of the widening gyre.” This results in complete distortions of our worldviews, stripping us of any illusion of stability. Parallel to the unprecedented changes that have occurred in the last few months, one may also think that events in history are possibly repeating themselves.
The trope that history repeats itself, despite being common in everyday speech, is not technically accurate and does not consider the fact that there is always a finite range of events that may occur at any moment. Nonetheless, Yeats echoes these disturbing fears with the famous phrase “Things fall apart,” asserting that it is an objective fact of the human condition. With this bitter truth exists some level of reassurance, as history is also understood as a cycle between good and bad, which suggests that chaos is natural and cross-generational. A month into lockdown, my mother told me there was not much to worry about because a pandemic happens once every century. Still, pandemics have and will become more common, due to globalization, urbanization, climate change and increasing consumption of animal products.
Patiently waiting out the bad, hoping for a brighter future, is the reassuring message behind this poem, and I wonder how Yeats would feel about the echo of his words today. We find ourselves at a difficult crossroads, as we can choose to attribute this year to history repairing itself, or to a phoenix burning itself out to be reborn, for the bad to be purged out. However, to think that these dystopian times will simply fade away is perhaps the only criticism I have of this poem.
I am very wary of narratives that imply inevitability because they often lack the recognition of human agency that is required to prevent the same mistakes from being repeated. As Karl Marx famously said, “history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce,” and I only agree on the farce part. As we’ve seen protests erupt worldwide, this is where the image of “the falconer cannot hear the falcon” is essential, as it points at a relationship between authorities and citizens that is broken and no longer symbiotic. Despite the diversity of protests, at the core of these movements, we see a unified fight against all forms of injustice. A new realm has also been discovered, with digital activism becoming mainstream, as a tool to disseminate information from the comfort of your home.
Despite having the world in the palm of our hands and reaping the benefits of global awareness, Yeats predicted society’s desensitization to chaos and violence. As a reaction to collectively witnessing destruction and failing to prevent it, Yeats wrote ominously: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” deeming innocence obsolete. And when he wrote “The best lack all conviction” he was referring to the silent people, the bystanders, and those on the opposite spectrum of the “righteous of the nation.” In mentioning the voices that have silenced themselves, he suggests that the existence of evil is not only in the systems in which we are embedded, but is also embedded in us. This is a gut-wrenching reality and the core relevance of the poem for understanding the dystopian times we live in today.
The disillusionment at the core of this poem can help us question: how much progress have we really made as a species in the last century? History is happening before our eyes, but the only agency we truly have are our steps forward.
Yesmine Abida is a contributing writer. Email her at
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