In 1919, W.B. Yeats wrote “The Second Coming,” an apocalyptic poem that warns of the collapse of European civilization. “The Second Coming” is his most famous work, and choice bits like “things fall apart” and “slouching toward Bethlehem” have been part of the vernacular for nearly 100 years. Recently, a data firm called Factiva discovered that the language of Yeats’ most famous verses has a newfound cache in the troubled times of 2016.
“Nearly a century later,” writes Ed Ballard for The Wall Street Journal, “the Irish poet’s incantatory words and frightening symbolism are being deployed with unusual frequency by commentators, journalists and others seeking to add an apocalyptic tone to their work.”
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Factiva analyzed the frequency of lines like “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” “the centre cannot hold,” and “the ceremony of innocence is drowned” in British print publications and social media and found they’re cited with increasing frequency. Between war in the Middle East; terrorism abroad; England’s departure from the European Union; the Presidential election in the United States; and concerns over press freedom, nationalism, and income inequality in parts of Africa, the haunting language of the poem seems apt for every current affair. It really does seem like “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.”
“What remains,” continues Ballard, “is a sequence of images dark enough to conjure a sense of doom and vague enough to be invoked by anybody looking for a more highbrow way of saying ‘the world is going to hell in a handbasket.’”