A Time for Tennyson and Yeats

by Bob Schwartz

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

Two poets and two of their most famous poems come to mind these days, both poems I’ve quoted before.

One is the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem Ulysses. The other is the William Butler Yeats poem The Second Coming.

In his time, the nineteenth century Victorian era, Tennyson was inarguably considered the greatest English poet. By the twentieth century, the greats such as Yeats and T.S. Eliot, observers of a different age, dismissed Tennyson.

It is a good thing we are in the twenty-first century, free to read without prejudice, to mix and match at will, to mine the treasures wherever they are found and whatever they are. We are, after all, heirs to heroism and horrors that were unthinkable (though Yeats had an inkling).

So here is an excerpt from Ulysses, a favorite of Bobby Kennedy. And the whole of The Second Coming, inspired by the just ended World War I, the Irish rebellion, and the death of Yeat’s beloved in the 1918 flu epidemic.


From Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre 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.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

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?