Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Decline of Civilization: W.B. Yeats' and Oswald Spengler's New Historiography of Civilization

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Decline of Civilization: W.B. Yeats' and Oswald Spengler's New Historiography of Civilization

Article excerpt

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.

W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Decline of Civilization

"The Second Coming" is one of William Butler Yeats' shorter poems, but it is nevertheless one of his most exemplary. It is marked both by Yeats' unique situation in history as well as his common experience with his contemporaries. The notion of decline of civilization was a very popular one during the days when Yeats composed this poem, as well as his far less circulated work A Vision, creating a cyclical course of history which sees me repeated rise and fall of great civilizations. Though many spoke of similar decline, few proposed so similar a system to that found in A Vision as did Oswald Spengler, who was still an unknown high school teacher in the Harz Mountains when he conceived his own work, ominously titled Der Untergang des Abendlandes - translated by CF. Atkinson as The Decline of the West.

Spengler's magnum opus appeared in English a year after Yeats published his own work privately among a few friends. He was at the time aware that Spengler had published a book, but was unable to read him and was not knowledgeable of its contents.1 In spite of this, the works follow an extremely different path and draw practically the same conclusions.2 The two men had, separately and independently, offered a contribution to the view of history and of our very understanding of civilizations, and in so doing offered a solution to the problems of their age - problems encapsulated by Albert Camus in his declaration that "There is only one truly serious philosophical problem: suicide."3

The world into which Spengler and Yeats were born was one of an already unsteady optimism that was finally brought to ruin by the First World War, giving birth to the world in which the men would write their great works. This has led to many proposing that in fact the works of Yeats especially reflect the same despair and pessimism growing from the Great War that made Spengler so popular.4 Indeed, by proposing a cyclical answer to history and time that was defined in its late stage by decline, Spengler was upsetting the established notion of a linear, forward march of history toward an ultimate, positive termination, and therefore very timely in his thoughts. Likewise, Yeats would comment on the pre-war era: recalling a friend telling him that the twentieth century would hold neither war nor poverty, he remarked after the war that such optimism "is all gone... we are not certain the world is growing better. 5

After close inspection of the two works, however, it seems too easy to say that their conclusions were merely the result of environment and Zeitgeist. Rather, there seems a much deeper sense of contemporaneity in history for them, the establishment of the Civilization as a type, and a commonality of all Civilizations throughout history in their natural growth and decline. Their project is not merely pessimistic despair or an attempt to rescue a shattered Civilization - it is a new vision of history, a broader vision of history, in which the Great War is not a great catastrophe but a necessary step. All authors, of course, find themselves influenced by their times; Yeats and Spengler, however, are among the authors inspired by the events in their lifetimes, but not responding to them: they do not belong exclusively to their own time, but through their writing offer answers to the problems not only of their age but also of days gone by and times yet to come.6

To best understand Spengler and Yeats as individual realizations of this theory of Civilizations in cyclical history, this work will look at A Vision of 1925 and Der Untergang des Abendlandes individually, and then consider A Vision of 1937 briefly. …

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