The Making of “The Second Coming”

Updated: Jul 15


M: If only you would stop lying! W (gesture of arms): I have never lied, my father never told a lie, my grandfather never told a lie. M: You are lying now.

So Yeats (“W”), and Maud Gonne (“M”), in a December 8, 1918 public confrontation, at Stephen’s Green “among the nurses and perambulators,” both, so said their auditor, Iseult Gonne, Maud’s daughter, behaving childishly.  “…there should be a law,” she had written Ezra Pound a couple weeks earlier, recounting for him the increasing tensions between the two, and the burden of being unavoidably the go-between, “by which after 50, people should be placed under the tutelage of their juniors…” She catalogued the problem as late-onset childishness, which it was, though it was also serious enough to threaten the decades-old relationship between Yeats and his beautiful but intemperate poetic inamorata.  Their difficulties resolved in an interim truce when the two, said Iseult to Pound, “pledged never to speak to each other again apart from flat excuses.”  It would be two more months before hostilities ceased; a friend said the incentive was Yeats’ threat to rewrite all his earlier love poems to her.  

Six months earlier, the English government had rounded up Gonne and seventy-three other Sinn Féin leaders and sent them to Holloway jail after finding evidence of collaboration between the Kaiser’s secret service and the Irish Republicans. Yeats did two things to try to help her:  first, he sublet Gonne’s Dublin house, an idea which seemed good for both, relieving her of a financial burden and providing him and his wife George a period of stability after peripatetically living in twenty places in twelve months. And he exerted what pressure he could on officials he knew, including on Edward Shortt, Chief Secretary for Ireland, to accelerate her release and ease the conditions of her prison stay.  He had promised to vacate the rental when she was free and could reclaim it.  But then Gonne unexpectedly appeared at the door demanding possession—unexpectedly because she was in the country illegally.  Showing signs of serious ill health in prison, she had been moved, partly due to Yeats’ urgings about her health, to a nursing home for treatment, and then eluded her watchers to make her way to Dublin. 

Yeats recalled his promise to vacate the premises on her demand, but felt he could not honor it now. Things had changed. Worries impinged from all sides. His father was down with the deadly Spanish flu in New York City, and his heavily pregnant wife George had recently collapsed with the same disease. He himself had moved out of the house to make room for the day nurse, the night nurse, and the specialists hired to care for her. There would have been no room for Maud Gonne in the best of circumstances, and now her presence in country illegally brought a real threat of a military raid on the lodgings. The possible negative effect of all this on his wife’s health was more than he was willing to risk.

Also disruptive to his or anyone’s good mental peace was the continued chaos and violence of the world situation: The Russian civil war became the Russian revolution, beginning a fight that would continue to 1922; the Russian royal house was murdered by revolutionaries in July, with various reports about who was murdered and by whom trickling out over several month and years—as late as 1922 the Soviets were still claiming that though the Czar had been killed, his family survived; the Paris Peace Conference opened in France with calls for retribution to avenge the twenty million Allied soldiers and civilians killed and wounded in the late war, as it worked to rearrange the map of Europe and parts of Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands; and at home, Sinn Féin members opened the first meeting of the unicameral parliament of the revolutionary Irish republic (the Dáil Éireann) on the same day as the first deaths in what would become the Irish War of Independence, with two Royal Irish Constabulary members killed and the explosives stolen that they were escorting to Tip