The solace of poetry on Easter during the pandemic - Hindustan Times
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The solace of poetry on Easter during the pandemic

Hindustan Times | ByChintan Girish Modi
Apr 12, 2020 04:49 PM IST

A meditation on how a poem by WB Yeats, written after WW1, acquires new life in these times of COVID-19

How are you keeping yourself together in these strange times? Three weeks into a pandemic-induced lockdown, my coping strategy is to engage with more poetry and less information. I may not be able to tell you the death toll for the day but I manage to keep myself sane on most days.

The Resurrection of Christ, 1554. Found in the collection of Museum der Bildenden Kunste, Leipzig.(Getty Images)
The Resurrection of Christ, 1554. Found in the collection of Museum der Bildenden Kunste, Leipzig.(Getty Images)

Poets speak to me in the language of myth and metaphor, and this shift from the literal frees me up from narrativizing the present in unhelpful ways. I like to participate in the world not only through cold, critical reasoning but also through a more intuitive kind of knowing that might be difficult to articulate. This balance serves me well.

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The arrival of Easter reminds me of The Second Coming, a stunning poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The title refers to a Christian belief about the return of Jesus Christ after he ascended to heaven almost 2000 years ago. This poem from 1920 seems particularly poignant now because Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion, and the theme of renewal is also what our current crisis points towards.

Studying at a Roman Catholic school in suburban Mumbai introduced me to Jesus early in life. Every classroom had a crucifix, so the sight of his bleeding body suspended from a cross was not alien to me. However, the idea of one person atoning for the sins of all humanity and leading them to redemption was beyond my comprehension. What warmed me up to Jesus was his simple message of love, forgiveness and humility. Perhaps that was enough.

Yeats draws heavily on Christian imagery in this poem, and conventional interpretations focus on assigning meanings to specific words and explaining them through theological references. I am more interested in how the poetic imagination makes it possible to enter the verse from our own vantage point. A poem written after the First World War begins to acquire a new life in these times of COVID-19.

The “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” in this poem is, for me, the hidden aspect of our own self that we hesitate to confront because it makes us look bad. We find comfort in believing that evil is a monster out there -- an anti-Christ of sorts -- who must be fought and eliminated. The holy place, symbolized by Bethlehem, can be found in our own heart. For this new realization to be born, we must be willing to bury our own ignorance and prejudice.

Our education did not prepare us for a time when “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” There is an ocean of suffering we are all swimming in, and this includes those who have not been infected by the corona virus. People are hurting from hunger, financial distress, mental health issues, and the death of loved ones.

Living through a period like this is an experience that most of us feel unequipped for. We survive “the blood-dimmed tide” only because of personal resilience, networks of mutual support, the generosity of strangers, and whatever protection our privilege affords us. For me, Jesus is not a historical character or a mythological being; he denotes all that is brave and beautiful in us.

I imagine his second coming not as the miraculous appearance of a new prophet but as the resurgence of Christ-like qualities such as love, kindness and service among ordinary people. This puts the onus on us instead of divine intervention. When Yeats says, “surely some revelation is at hand,” I think we are being called to dive within and learn from those inner stirrings rather than a master who will instruct us.

WB Yeats (1865-1939), Irish poet and dramatist. (Bettmann Archive)
WB Yeats (1865-1939), Irish poet and dramatist. (Bettmann Archive)

Our leaders have let us down, and we must take responsibility for this because we elected them. If “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” this is an apt occasion to reflect on what led us to make those choices. Bigotry, racism and homophobia have not suddenly materialized out of nowhere. We have played a role in nurturing them either through active participation or the refusal to speak up.

Knowing that “The darkness drops again” can be scary but we must remember that renewal does not happen overnight. New shoots cannot announce their presence until the soil is ready. Waiting, after all, is a test of endurance. When “the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” it can be useful to cultivate a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” that is directed inwards in anticipation of fresh understanding.

War-mongering cannot save lives during a pandemic. The skills that are most beneficial have to do with feeding, nurturing, healing -- whether it is at home, in the hospitals, or on the streets. In my view, the second coming is also about giving Mary Magdalene a place as important as Jesus. Scholars can debate whether she was a follower, apostle or companion of Jesus but let us pay heed to the lessons that nature is teaching us.

The time is ripe for us to dismantle patriarchy, to honour a living spiritual practice rather than scriptural meanings set in stone, and to recognize the value of qualities that are typically considered feminine and therefore under-appreciated. The “Spiritus Mundi” that Yeats speaks of in this poem is his unique way of describing the universe as a collective soul. That, for me, is an invitation to think about and affirm our interconnectedness with each other.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He is @chintan_connect on Twitter.

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