Sunday, February 13, 2011

Songs From Poems: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joni Mitchell: Slouching Towards Bethlehem


“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” It’s a very familiar quote. The original source is the poem The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. The Second Coming was Yeats’ response to the trauma of World War I. In the United Kingdom, the so-called “great war” cast a long shadow. Well into the 1920s and beyond, there are cultural references to the war, and to the generation of young men who were lost in it or permanently emotionally scarred by it. As late as the 1980s, when Joni Mitchell adapted The Second Coming into her song Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Sting wrote about this lost generation in his song The Children’s Crusade. Yeats, in his first reaction to the war, equated the dark times to the precursor of the second coming as foretold in the New Testament.

In the 1980s, there were small wars, famines, and other troubles in the world. Joni Mitchell was becoming more aware of, and concerned about, these troubles than she had been in her youth. Her song Ethiopia is one sign of this. So that may be why Yeats’ dark vision resonated with her. Mitchell needed to modify the poem to make it work musically for her. She elongates some passages, and compresses others, and also changes some of the wording to fit her musical idea of how the poem should sound. For comparison, I have included the original poem below.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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