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.

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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?

Over in the TV Club, my colleagues were wondering who the rough beast might be: A rival coming to replace Tony as boss of the DiMeo crime family? Phil Leotardo? Paulie? A ghost from Tony's violent past? His dead mother, who helped shape his "sociopathic" qualities? Or something deeper?

For it's possible to imagine that the allusion to the poem foreshadows a more profound change—a true "new dispensation." From the very first episode of the series, Tony has been hounded by a sense of belatedness, a sense that the old ways are not going to survive in the highly computerized world of late-capitalist commerce that is his children's to inherit. In this regard, Yeats has arguably played an important role in The Sopranos from the start. The series opened with a scene hauntingly reminiscent of Yeats' famous poem "The Wild Swans at Coole." An encounter with a group of ducks who have settled in his pool during their fall migration prompts Tony to realize how much he has lost, how diminished the world seems to him. (As "The Wild Swans" puts it: "I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,/ and now my heart is sore./ All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,/ The first time on this shore,/ The bell-beat of their wings above my head,/ Trod with a lighter tread.") An anxiety attack sends Tony to the  psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi and sets the stage for the show's preoccupation with decline. Tony tells Melfi, "The morning of the day I got sick, I been thinking: It's good to come in something from the ground floor. I came in too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over." She responds: "Many Americans, I think, feel that way."

Just t'ink aboud it, as Tony might say. If Yeats' swans opened The Sopranos, it is plausible that his destructive sphinx has come to close it—and that this "rough beast" alludes not just to a rival to Tony, but to both the invasion of Jamba Juice and Starbucks along the DiMeos' old collection routes, and, now, in 2007, the encroachments of Islamic fundamentalism. After all, it is Tony's increasing intimation (and ours, and A.J.'s) that in the light of 9/11, the old dispensation truly has changed. Consider that the last few episodes cycle back to a pair of mysterious Arabs who have been doing business with the mob and may have nefarious purposes. Even Tony, made nervous by them, gives the Feds a heads up, realizing that some threats are more menacing to his family than the FBI. Meanwhile, the angry and unstable A.J. was busy checking out AlJazeera.net, as if entertaining the notion of joining forces with the oppressed in the Middle East. His suicide attempt, the show implies, isn't just the action of a lovelorn young man, but of a young man brutally woken to the fact (duh) that nothing about his upper-middle-class American life is cozy and safe. (It's worth noting that Tony's ducks settled in the same pool where A. J. later tries to drown himself.)Whether the show will end with a terrorist event is unclear; what is clear is that we're meant to feel a gathering threat.

Finally, in a roundabout way, "The Second Coming" underscores one of the most powerful themes of the show: Tony's habit of misreading the world around him—a tendency he and Carmela (who shares it) have passed on to their children. I think we are meant to feel the dissonance between the poem's vision and A.J.'s transformation by it. On the deepest level, this poem has very little to do with A.J. and Tony Soprano. In the lines "the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity," Yeats was originally mourning the collapse of the aristocracy ("the best") in the West and the arrival of mobs of revolutionaries ("the worst" with their "passionate intensity"). Indeed, Yeats might be horrified by A.J.'s appropriation of the poem as an expression of a slacker's anomie: Neither A.J. nor Tony—nor anyone on the show, really—could be read as "the best" by any stretch of the mind.

But this irony plays into the tragic comedy of the show; it has always been Tony's habit (and is now A.J.'s) to continually find a way to view himself as one of the best—a good guy bent on preserving the old order, doing his hardest to provide for his family in a chaotic world. He has never seen that he himself is the rough beast; nor will he, one imagines.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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