Second Coming by W. B. Yeats

About the poem.

The poem The Second Coming by W.B.Yeats is regarded as one of his greatest masterpieces. It was written by the poet just a month before A Prayer For My Daughter in 1919. The poet was motivated to write it by the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the Irish Civil War of 1919.

The speaker describes a nightmare scene: the falcon cannot hear the falconer because it is turning in a widening “gyre” (spiral); “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”; anarchy is unleashed on the world; “the blood-dimmed tide is unleashed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The best people, according to the speaker, lack all conviction, whilst the poorest “are full of passionate intensity.”

Surely, the speaker claims, the world is on the verge of a revelation; “Surely, the Second Coming is near.” He is bothered by “a vast image of the Spiritus Mundi, or the collective spirit of mankind: somewhere in the desert, a giant sphinx (“A figure with lion body and the head of a man, / A look as blank and pitiless as the sun”) is moving, while the shadows of desert birds reel around it.” The speaker’s vision is again obscured by darkness, but he understands that the sphinx’s twenty millennia of “stony sleep” have been turned into a nightmare by the motions of “a rocking cradle.” And what “rough beast,” he thinks, “its hour has finally come to slither towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Summary of Second Coming

W.B.Yeats’ poem The Second Coming is considered to be one of his greatest works. It was written by the poet in 1919, just a month before A Prayer For My Daughter. The Easter Uprising of 1916 and the Irish Civil War of 1919 inspired the poet to write it. Because this poem is about the changing character of the universe, the poet claims that the world is continually being reshaped by violence and chaos. He compares the changing world to a widening gyre, claiming that it is made up of interconnecting rings that are always spinning and expanding to stimulate their existence. He claims that as a result of this shift, humanity has become disillusioned and has drifted away from its centre. This distance, in turn, frees the people from their historical customs and traditions. It also ushers them into a new period of liberty and opportunity. That is why the centre of the world is collapsing, which will eventually lead to more devastating conditions for humanity. As a result, the poet predicts that a monster will appear in the future, ceaselessly paving its way to this destroyed planet. The key themes foregrounded in this poem are violence, prophecy, and meaninglessness. Yeats underlines that the current world is collapsing and that a new scary reality is about to arise. The concept of “the Second Coming” is not found in the Bible. To him, the Second Coming is a sphinx that will add to the world’s misery and ruin, rather than a saviour who will restore humanity’s business. He claims that people are fleeing the centre and that there is no hope for the future as a result of the instability. Those who seek spiritual guidance are living in a fool’s paradise. This poem contains only two stanzas. Iambic pentameter is used throughout the poem to follow ABBA CDDC.

Analysis of  Second Coming

The poet ponders how one civilization gives way to another. He believes that an old civilization drifts away from, and eventually loses contact with, its basic code of ideas. It occurs just as the flying falcon’s connection with the falconer is lost. The poet claims that because the falcon is flying round and round in the sky, it cannot always hear the falconer’s control call. The connection between the two is severed at one point. The falconer, as the control centre, is unable to maintain control of the falcon. Similarly, when a civilization deviates from its beginning point, it loses hold of its central code and Scriptures. The people of the world are liberated from the shackles of morality, discipline, and religion. The sea of man’s darkened consciousness caused by desire is at large. As a result, courteous and innocuous behaviour has vanished everywhere. The best become sceptical of their convictions in life’s values. The worst are filled with fervent emotions (such as sexual desire, anger, etc). The similar issue exists in the modern world today. Without a doubt, some cross-cultural dialogue is on the horizon.

Certainly, the Second Incarnation is approaching.

When the poet exclaims, “The Second Coming,” a large image, produced from spiritus Mundi, enters his mind’s eye. In his vision, he sees a figure with the body of a lion and the head of a human. Its eyes are as expressionless and pitiless as the sun’s. It is taking cautious steps someplace amid the arid dunes. And all around it, the silhouettes of enraged desert birds soar unsteadily. The vision then fades away, and darkness envelopes the poet’s mental screen. But now, thanks to heavenly revelation, he has glimpsed one secret thing. The petrifying sleep of the Second Revelation, which has slept like a stone for the past twenty centuries of Christian civilisation, has been woken, much to its chagrin, by a rocking of its cradle. The Second Prophet is a vicious bestial figure. Having realised that the hour of its manifestation has arrived, it is stoopingly heading towards Bethlehem to be born as the Second Incarnation.

Structure of the Poem

“The Second Coming” is written in a rough iambic pentameter, but the metre is so loose, and the exceptions so numerous, that it almost sounds like free verse with regular heavy stresses. The rhymes are erratic as well; aside from the two couplets that begin the poem, there are only fortuitous rhymes in the poem, such as “man” and “sun.”

Thematic Analysis

“The Second Coming” is one of Yeats’ most famous and anthologized poems because of its spectacular, horrific imagery and terrifying ceremonial language; it is also one of the most thematically confusing and hardest to grasp. (It is reasonable to claim that only a small percentage of those who adore this poem could summarise its meaning to satisfaction.) The poem is quite simple structurally—the first stanza describes the current state of the world (things falling apart, anarchy, etc.), and the second deduces from those conditions that a monstrous Second Coming is about to take place, not of the Jesus we first knew, but of a new messiah, a “rough beast,” the slouching sphinx rousing itself in the desert and lumbering toward Bethlehem. This brief discourse, while intriguingly profane, is not overly complicated; yet, the question of what it should mean to a reader is a completely different affair.

Yeats spent years developing an intricate, mystical theory of the universe, which he articulated in his book A Vision. This notion arose as a result of Yeats’ longstanding curiosity with the occult and mystical, as well as the sense of obligation Yeats felt to order his experience inside a structured belief system. The system is incredibly intricate and has no permanent significance—except for the effect it had on his poetry, which has enormous long-term significance. The historical theory expressed by Yeats in A Vision is centred on a schematic of two conical spirals, one inside the other, with the widest part of one spiral ringing around the narrowest part of the other spiral, and vice versa. Yeats believed that this image (he referred to the spirals as “gyres”) captured the contradictory motions inherent in the historical process, and he divided each gyre into specific regions that represented different types of historical periods (and could also represent psychological stages of an individual’s development).

Yeats wanted “The Second Coming” to represent the current historical moment (the poem was published in 1921) in terms of these gyres. As history neared the end of the outer gyre (approximately) and began travelling through the inner gyre, Yeats believed the world was on the verge of a cataclysmic revelation. Richard J. Finneran quotes Yeats’ own comments in his canonical edition of Yeats’ poems:

The coming of one gyre to its position of greatest expansion and the other to its site of greatest contraction represents the end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the nature of the next age… The approaching revelation will take its character from the opposing movement of the internal gyre…

In other words, the world’s trajectory along the gyre of science, democracy, and heterogeneity is now coming apart, like the falcon’s frantically widening flight-path after losing contact with the falconer; the next age will take its character not from the gyre of science, democracy, and speed, but from the contrary inner gyre—which, presumably, opposes the science and democracy of the outer gyre. The “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem represents the new age, and the speaker’s vision of the rising sphinx represents his view of the new world’s character.

This appears to be nonsense as philosophy or prophecy (particularly because it has not come true as yet). But, like poetry, and interpreted more generally than as a simple reiteration of A Vision’s mystic theory, “The Second Coming” is a brilliant statement about the opposing forces at work in history, and about the battle between the contemporary and ancient worlds. The poem may not have thematic relevance of Yeats’s best work, nor is it a poem with which many people can directly relate; nonetheless, the aesthetic experience of its passionate language is powerful enough to ensure its value and importance in Yeats’s work as a whole.


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