Sacrifice and Civilization in Yeats’ Poetry

I have always had a fascination with the use of religious or spiritual motifs in literature. Yeats’ work is particularly interesting because of his unique perspective on cosmology and theology. Throughout the poetry I have read by Yeats, the motif of blood sacrifice has recurred. Sacrifice is a fundamental part of the Catholic religion in the practice of the eucharist. The poem “The Second Coming,” to me, was the most striking example of this theme. This poem to me speaks to the unraveling of Catholic domination in society and the movement to a an increase in less organized spirituality. Aristotle’s notion of action demonstrates that out sense of shape is determined by the direction we are looking.

This means we perceive reality through a directional structure of beginning and end. He discusses this idea in terms of the human enjoyment of tragedy in plays. Tragic plays or movies allow us to embrace the uncomfortable emotions associated with something tragic and simultaneously bring it to an end. By structuring something that seems to have no logical basis into something with a logical and probable end, humans can find more comfort. This is the same concept of religion and sacrifice. Sacrifice in religion provides a means of communication with a higher being to ensure safety or access to heaven after death.

Additionally, the literary critic Rene Girard theorizes that humans use sacrifice as a means of embracing and expelling innate, primitive violence. Thus, religion was created as a means of ending the cycle of violence that would result in social chaos. Thus, if we combine these two theories and apply them to a movement away from organized religion, society would revert to violence and anarchy. Yeats often writes about the atrocities of WWI. After witnessing this violence, it is difficult to reconcile the absurdity of the mass death and the existence of a higher protective being.

In “The Second Coming” Yeats references the second coming of christ claiming that “surely some revelation is at hand.” Rather than the spiritual revelation of Christ returning to save the world, I believe Yeats is referring to his revelation of the inevitability of death and the need to reconcile the uncomfortable understanding, both that violence is innate, and life is cyclical and relatively meaningless. Without the conceptualization of life and turmoil as having a beginning and end, humanity might revert to anarchy. Without the need for religion, the moral code of doing good to ensure a future life is no longer applicable and “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

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