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.
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?