We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but with the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.
~ W.B. Yeats
Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick might have substituted horror for poetry.
Lit critic Harold Bloom wrote that William Butler Yeats’s poem The Second Coming was perhaps not one to love but remains one to remember. I’ve read it to the point of memorization as all great and deeply personal poems should be. It continues to grow richer the better I know it and recently took a surprising turn toward the pulp and politics of today.
Coarsely put, the outset of Yeats’s poem is about things falling apart. The strange turn it took for me was while watching The Shining. The image of Stanley Kubrick’s blood wave pouring out of the elevator door at the Overlook Hotel and rushing into the hallway brought back the line: The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned. Kubrick’s horror film (not to be confused with Stephen King’s novel) is also about things falling apart. The film disguised as a haunted house shocker is really a meditation on domestic violence. It gives us the seemingly traditional set-up with the father/husband as the moral middle and provider for his family. A man who slowly succumbs to the pressures of responsibility and bodily temptations until as the poem states: the center can not hold. As he looses sanity his grasp on reality and family spin further and further away. Meanwhile the three children, the represented innocence of the film, quickly have that very thing stripped away. The twin girls in brutal fashion by their father who then turn their new found worldliness into a twisted siren song. Then the new boy now left on his own and chased by the person that should shelter him learns to grow up rather quickly inside a snowy hedge maze. The maze substitutes nicely for the child’s inner confusion and ultimately becomes the source of his chilling solution.
It’s easy to believe that Kubrick had Yeats in mind when he filmed The Shining. He was of course from a time when people still read poetry if not leisurely than certainly in school. I can imagine the visceral images Yeats evoked appealing strongly to the director.
The poem was written shortly after the horrors of World War I. Yeats was deeply affected by the 1916 Irish Easter uprising which resulted in over 400 deaths and the Russian Revolution in 1917 and believed we were coming to an end of a great human era. I suppose a world in turmoil could do that to a guy.
The social and political upheaval we’re currently experiencing in America (not to mention around the world) is like a frightening creep of horror movie fog. Our inability to discuss the views of others, the lack of empathy and compassion, the anger, the ignorance, the arrogance should, to the majority, be alarming and instead becomes alarming because it is not. We’re just shy of marking a century gone from the horrors of 20th century war and revolution Yeats wrote about in The Second Coming. The gyre spins ever wider. He would say we’re still stumbling lost in our snowy maze.