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,

Can the adjective mere apply to "anarchy"? I've always taken it to mean the same thing as "only", in a dismissive way. E.g He's merely a baby. -> He's only/just a baby.

So does the phrase mere anarchy mean that the anarchy was nothing serious, not much to worry about?

  • This was a great question which got some really interesting responses. Thanks for asking it, I hope you ask some more! – Silverfish Nov 3 '15 at 23:27

Mere, when it came into English from Latin and OF, meant “pure, unmixed”, and was usually used as Yeats uses it here: mere anarchy means absolute anarchy, sheer anarchy, anarchy unmixed with order, “nothing less than” anarchy.

Mere could of course also be used with deprecated qualities, with the complementary sense “nothing more than”: mere folly is folly unmixed with wisdom, mere conjecture is conjecture unmixed with fact, and that use predominates today. Dictionaries may call this “obsolete” or “archaic”, but it is at most an archaic use, not an archaic meaning.

  • 2
    The OED says the meaning pure, unadulterated has been obsolete for a long time, but absolute, sheer was around in the 19th century. The difference between these two definitions is not completely clear, but it seems that the first is more or less literal (meer Chalk; earthly happiness is never mere) and the second figurative. – Peter Shor Nov 3 '15 at 23:03

I think it refers to the obsolete meaning of mere:

  • pure.
  • absolute

The Free Dictionary

From Yeatsvision.com:

  • The word ‘Mere’ means both pure and only, and the first section further emphasises the generality and absoluteness of the situation with words such as ‘everywhere’ and ‘all’. The ‘Mere anarchy’ which is loosed (by whom?) like a plague or scourge then becomes a tide dimmed by blood, recalling the bloody seas of the Revelation of St John, the flood from the mouth of the serpent and the vials of wrath (Rev 8:8; 12:15; 16:1-4).

In this case, I believe the author is using 'mere' in the sense that anarchy is a state without order, a base existence. 'Mere' in this case amplifies the despair of the condition, a resolution of one's fate... At least, the way I read it.


"Mere" here is used with the meaning of "unmitigated".

  • 2
    Can you specify your source please? – Nonnal Nov 4 '15 at 2:04

In the context of "The Second Coming" this appears to mean total and unmitigated anarchy. How else could this be interpreted? IMHO.

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