Yeats meets The Sopranos.

Examining culture and the arts.
May 31 2007 3:04 PM

The Second Coming

What Yeats is doing on The Sopranos.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

It is not often that a poem functions as a major plot point on a TV show. But on the most recent episode of The Sopranos, a morbid A.J. Soprano—suffering from depression after a breakup—is roused from his torpor when a professor teaches W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" to his class. The poem's prophetic intensities move A.J. to contemplate the violence of conflict in the Middle East and the general horror of a world in which the old orders are collapsing around him at every turn. He even reads the poem aloud in bed; shortly afterward, he tries to commit suicide.

As Jeff Goldberg rightly observed over in Slate's "TV Club," "The Second Coming" is something of a poetic cliché—invoked as a clairvoyant metaphor for everything from the Iraq war to the fall of the Romanovs—the "Blowin' in the Wind" of verse. (In fact, the poem has been cited once before on the show.) Even so, it might be worth considering why the show's writers have invoked it as The Sopranos barrels toward its long-anticipated conclusion on June 10.

Advertisement

Clearly "The Second Coming" was chosen for its most obvious quality: Its prediction of the impending destruction of the world as we know it. Written shortly after World War I (and the Russian Revolution), the poem offers up an apocalyptic vision of historical change, informed by Yeats' sense of despair at the encroachments of revolution upon the old ways of Western Civilization: "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."

On a broader level, the poem reflects the mystical theory of the universe that Yeats spent much of his life crafting. The "gyre" of the poem's opening lines refers to Yeats' theory of history set out in A Vision, an occult book that some critics find laughable. In Yeats' view, history consists of a double cone or vortex that meets at a central point and spins back out again ("the widening gyre" of the poem's first line). Approximately every two millennia, he thought, a wholesale shift in history would take place, signifying the arrival of a new dispensation—one that was antithetical (a term important to Yeats) to what preceded it. At the time he wrote the poem, he imagined that such an alteration would take place around the year 2,000, two millennia after the birth of Christ. Crucially, though, the second coming is not Christ's, but something else, an ambiguous "rough beast" come "slouching towards Bethlehem": "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." Critics have long debated the precise nature of Yeats' relationship to this vision of the "beast," but on a basic level "The Second Coming" is a prediction that the age of Christian history will soon be over.

The Sopranos may or may not be interested in this cosmic back story, but it's evident that the writers put some real thought into their choice of "The Second Coming." This episode and the one before it artfully weave together a set of images that correspond loosely to the poem: A.J. tries to drown himself ("the ceremony of innocence is drowned"); Tony took peyote in Las Vegas and experienced a vision in the desert in dialogue with the poem's transforming vision of a sphinx rousing itself in the sands. (For Tony, as in the poem, the vision is a kind of collective unconscious memory.) And of course as The Sopranos slouches toward its close, its writers have been leading us to believe that something apocalyptic is going to happen—building a mood of menacing gloom. It's easy to read the poem's final vision as a prediction of Tony's overthrow:

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?

TODAY IN SLATE

The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

This Scene From All The President’s Men Captures Ben Bradlee’s Genius

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.