Jorie Graham and William Butler Yeats
“The Geese” versus “The Second Coming”
Life isn’t always pretty, thing’s don’t always get better, and poetry often captures dystopian themes rather than utopian ones. In The Geese and The Second Coming, Jorie Graham and William Yeats – respectively – depict worlds that will imminently fall apart, and sooner than expected at that.
Yeats describes the current world as on the decline, or soon to be declining, at least. “The falcon”– a symbol for humanity – is trapped in the “widening gyre,” unable to foresee the lethal blow coming from “the falconer,” which is representation of any number of world-ending things. Disease, war, and poverty all will lead to “anarchy loosed upon the world” (Yeats, 4). To Yeats, this anarchy is inevitable, at least based on the trajectory that humans are currently on.
It is here that Graham provides explanation for Yeats’ dystopia. “Things will not remain connected, / will not heal,” (Graham, 11-12). For him, the conflict lies between the behaviors of geese and spiders. The geese are ambitious, flying through the sky with a goal firmly envisioned – migration. They are on the move, always changing. Advancing and progressing; making sure to avoid being tied down. The spiders, however, resemble a pattern. A continuous, monotonous cycle that, no matter how many different times it happens, always appears the same. The geese embody the fear of missing out on a crucial part of life. With constant movement – but staying to their path – it’s easy to skip over something important. The spiders are the opposite. They create carefully constructed webs built to last as long as possible. They don’t adapt, they don’t change, living in “a bedrock poverty” (Graham, 24). They simply create and endure. The poem is a comparison of those afraid to slow down, and those too fearful to speed up. It’s a conflict between progression and security – whether that progression be political, technological, or biological – there will be those who oppose it and those who fight for it. Battle lines will be drawn, a “revelation is at hand” (Yeats, 9).
Yeat’s poem expresses a fear of change and a desire for security. This security is slowly falling apart, “the centre cannot hold” (Yeats, 3). The fear and resistance can only be overcome by a “Second Coming.” The spider’s in Graham’s poem also express this fear of change. For “if these spiders had their way, / chainlink over the visible world, / would we be in or out? I turn to go back in” (Graham, 21-23). The spiders, meticulous, mechanical, almost robot-like would ensnare the entire world in their web. They “bind and bind….as if, at any time, things could fall further apart / and nothing could help them / recover their meaning” (Graham, 16-20). These spiders, like the sphinx depicted in The Second Coming, are a type of powerful entities who seek to bring control to the chaotic world: The spiders, by way of chainlink webbing, and the sphinx, by way of the revelation. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (Yeats, 22). Yeats’ warning is that of the sphinx, the mythological and biblical creature that will lead the second coming. Graham warns of a personal downfall, one describing the dangers of being too urgent and forward, like the geese, and being too restrictive, like the spiders. The spiders would created a shroud over the world, and essentially decide who stays and who goes – who survives and who dies. It is a notion of power very similar to that of Yeats and his sphinx.
This is where the two poems differ, however. Yeats’ focuses on a biblical wrath that will lead to the destruction of the world. Along with the biblical reference to deities and higher powers, Yeats also portrays his message using much darker images. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / the ceremony of innocence is drowned;” (Yeats, 5-6). The poet is leaving very little to the imagination, and one even cringes at the thought of a blood-dimmed tide. And the harbinger of death, the sphinx, with “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” (Yeats, 15) strikes fear even in the reader. Relentless, unmerciful, and cruel – the falconer paints a bleak future for the falcon.
Graham’s images of dystopia are much more subtle, though. While no bloodshed or destruction is directly alluded to, the threat of infinite monotony and ensnarement is apparent. The “chainlink over the visible world” either traps people in it or outside of it. The geese are depicted in an almost hypnotized state. “forever entering” and “a code / as urgent as elegant.” They are repetitive , unwavering in their destination, even if it means staying trapped by the spider’s web.
While both poets focus on destruction and a sense of hopelessness, they also use images that typically represent faith and optimism. Graham uses geese to imply the disintegration of the world, which is an odd choice given that geese, and birds in general, are usually seen as free, alive, and at peace. Yeats uses a sphinx to deliver his destruction, but this too is peculiar, because Jesus Christ – in the biblical sense – was the product of his own “second coming.” It appears that the authors are alluding to the state of the world before its destruction, as if the end will not be easily predicted. Humans will be as peaceful as those geese flying overhead, determined to follow the path they’re set on, until it’s too late. The floodgates open and that naïve, unknowing “innocence is drowned” as the silky web covers the earth.
Yeats and Graham depicted a sad, bleak end to humanity. One filled with pain, suffering, and disappointment. Yeats is disappointed and saddened by society and his peers. He loathes being caught by the widening gyre of death. As a falcon, he wishes to be free, he wishes for all of humanity to be free, but he does not see this as a realistic achievement in the future. Instead, he predicts punishment for the ignorance and selfishness that his fellow humans have shared over the years. Graham is disappointed in the two unstable directions humanity can go in. They can fly forward in straight line, without deviation or improvement until crashing into a wall. Or, they can stand still, waiting for the web-like structure of civilization to collapse from an outside force. Either way, to them, the end is near, the only question is, what rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem, to put an end to the system at hand?