Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
– W.B Yeats, "The Second Coming"
The epigraph is the first four lines of “The Second Coming,” easily one of the most famous and frequently quoted poems in all of Western (and apparently Nigerian) literature. Yeats’s poem was first published in 1920, a year after the end of World War I, “the Great War,” in which millions of Europeans died. While many people at the time just wanted to get on with their lives, Yeats thought that European society had pretty much broken down, and the poem is a terrifying prediction of future violence. Unfortunately, the rise of Hitler and fascism in the 1930s proved him largely correct, and many have found the poem disturbingly prophetic in light of the later wars of the twentieth century.
By using lines from “The Second Coming” as the introduction to his book, Achebe points out parallels between a time of chaos in European history and the upheaval caused by the European colonization of Africa. In a way, Achebe uses the language of the colonizer (literally and figuratively) to enlighten them on the point of view of the colonized.
The specifics of the poem are also incredibly relevant to Things Fall Apart as a whole. The poem begins with the image of a falcon flying out of earshot of its human master. In medieval times, people would use falcons or hawks to track down animals at ground level. In actual falconry, the bird is not supposed to keep flying in circles forever; it is eventually supposed to come back and land on the falconer’s glove. In this image, however, the falcon has gotten itself lost by flying too far away, which we can read as a reference to the collapse of traditional social arrangements in Europe at the time Yeats was writing, or the dissolution of the Igbo social and religious structure.
The notion that “things fall apart” serves as a transition to the images of more general chaos that follow. The second part of the line, a declaration that “the centre cannot hold,” is full of political implications, like the collapse of centralized order into radicalism. This is the most famous line of Yeats’s poem: the poem’s “thesis,” in a nutshell. Since Achebe used “things fall apart” as his title, it can also be seen as the “thesis” of his book. In the novel, the traditional social structure of the Igbo is challenged by the missionaries and the white court. As a result, the Igbo people no longer have one set of social or moral rules to live by and the unity of the clan is shattered.
Yeats’ poem continues on to give the impression that the second coming of Christ is actually the coming of anarchy and a fearful anti-Christ. The second coming brings destruction and chaos to a world corrupted by its own greed. This was the end of Western civilization as Yeats imagined it. What better way to illustrate that decline of Western morals than for Achebe to show white men coercing and brutalizing a civilized people into destroying themselves. The “anarchy loosed upon the world” is, to Achebe, the horrors of imperialism.