THE SECOND COMING (1920)
Summary of The Second Coming
In Christianity, the phrase ‘the Second Coming,’ refers to the Second Coming of Christ, his return to the earth as prophesied in the gospels. It is believed that in ‘end of the world’ or apocalypse, with his coming, the Messianic Age of peace and happiness will be established.
The poem is, however, based on a vision of the poet about the coming of an antiChrist. This prophetic event suggests the advent of a civilization opposite to the present Christian civilization. The present civilization has lasted for 2000 years and is now coming to an end as signalled by widespread violence, bloodshed, and a period of great anarchy.
In “The Second Coming,” Yeats integrates mythology and history into an organic whole. He abstracts a mythological system out of history, as well as reads history in terms of myth. While Yeats borrowed widely from Greek and Irish mythology, he had long been working on his personal mythology, an imaginative system to comprehend history and civilization, as well as the modern reality dominated by violence and bloodshed during the World War I, and the Anglo-Irish war. His efforts materialized in a prose work called A Vision, which was published in 1925. However, in his numerous poems prior to his publication of A Vision, Yeats had already expressed many of his ideas and images. The poem “The Second Coming” is one such poem, which employs the concept of a cyclic creation and destruction of the world, as an alternative to Christian doctrines about creation and the dissolution of the world. As an expression of the Yeatsian apocalypse, it announces the coming of the anti-Christ, and in the process, subverts the Christian notion of revelation. In his earlier poems such as “Easter 1916,” Yeats had already expressed a revelatory vision antithetical to the Christian doctrines:
All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
“The Second Coming” was written in 1919. It was first published in The Dial, an American magazine, in November 1920. In the same year, it appeared in the collection of Yeats’s verse called Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
Gyre: a spiral or cone. In the Yeatsian system, the rotation of a gyre represents the movement of both history and the human mind.
Spiritus Mundi: a “spirit world,” or a storehouse of images and symbols that creative people share, according to Yeats.
Bethlehem: a Palestinian city, located near Jerusalem. According to the New Testament, it is the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Apocalypse: a prophetic or visionary revelation about events of great devastation and violence, such as described in the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation in The Bible.
Analysis of The Second Coming
The poem is written in 21 stanzas, divided into two stanzas. The first stanza contains 8 lines; while the second has 14 lines. It is unconventional in structure. However, its structure compliments the development of its theme. The two stanzas divide the poem into two parts: the first part being an intense reflection on the violence and disorder of the society is shorter, and give way to the fuller projection of the nightmarish vision in the second part, which is as long as sonnet. The first stanza presents interconnected images of a fragmented world living amid confusion, anarchy, and violence. Through the image of the falcon flying free out of the control of the falconer, who may be taken as a symbol of a unifying being, the God, the poet presents an impression of a murderous world let loose without control. The spiral movement of the gyre upon reaching its end at its widest expanse is occasioned by mindless violence. It acts as a symbol for ‘the end of world’ phase of human history characterized by anarchy and bloodshed. The innocence of the world is overtaken by violence. The people with quality and ability who could bring some order to the society are apathetic, while the worst are driven by frenzy, escalating social disorder and violence.
The second stanza separates from the first stanza by the images abruptly forming in the mind of speaker-poet as he reflects upon the panorama of violence and chaos. The massive scale of destruction makes him predict and utter that certainly the return of the Christ, his “Second Coming” is imminent. It here that the speaker has an extremely disturbing vision of the grotesque figure, “the rough beast” emerging out of “Spiritus Mundi,” the creative unconscious shared by the poets and visionaries. This repulsive figure, the anti-Christ, with a lion body and a human head, is spotted in a desert scene. Its eyes are remorseless and blank, as indifferent as that of the sun, unlike the benevolent eyes of the Christ. It is a stark and nightmarish vision. As this figure moves its beastly things, the desert birds of prey hover about it, even as darkness descends on him. The poet infers that this horrendous figure, the signaler of the new history, had been lying dormant as if in “a stony sleep” for the last “twenty centuries” when the Christian civilization lasted. As this civilization ends with enormous violence and chaotic scenes all around, it’s time for this creature to come out of its “rocking cradle,” and walk towards Bethlehem, where Christ was born, to be born and inaugurate the new civilization.
The meaning, images, and symbols of the poem are based on the geometrical figures that lie in the background. The first line refers to the expanding gyre:
Turning and turning the widening gyre
Yeats imagines a pair of antithetical gyres, locked into each other, as constituting opposite progress of human history. One of the gyres or cones is widening, while the other is tapering. He associates the widening gyre with the elevating flight of the falcon:
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Yeats had used the flight of the bird as an image of the widening gyre of history in his earlier poems as well, such as “The Wild Swans at Coole”:
I saw before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings Upon their clamorous wings.
The widening gyre represents the historical progress of 2000 years that had begun with the birth of Christ. It is at this point, that the world order is all well, as the ‘falcon’ is well within the control of the falconer, stationed at the pointed base of this gyre. But as this gyre moves ahead and up, widening further and higher, the ‘falcon’ soars higher and higher and loses the control of the ‘falconer’. What this image symbolizes is breakdown of the social order, the destruction of all institutions and moral values that the Christian civilization stood for:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
As the widening gyre widens the contracting gyres narrows up, the widened end of the first gyre is met with the narrowest point of the second gyre, antithetical to the first. The second gyre, also in progress antithetically to the first, is therefore spoken by the poet lying in “twenty centuries of stony sleep.” It is at this point that the second gyre or cycle of history will begin its widening movement producing values antithetical to the Christian civilization. The Western civilization at the contemporary moment, at the widest opening of its historical gyre, is the worst where,
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.
These lines and the sentiments they convey bring to our mind the poem “No Second Troy” that we have already analyzed:
or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways, Or hurled the little streets upon the great, Had they but courage equal to desire?
The tone of the lines in this stanza is sombre as well as cynical. Though tirelessly working for the Irish independence, Yeats detested the violence perpetrated by the radical nationalist groups. By the “best” who “lacked conviction” the poet obviously means the middle-class Irish people, who had turned away from the nobility of character represented by the aristocracy and busying themselves in mercantile activities, had turned a blind eye to the chaos and disorder in Ireland. By the “worst” that are “full of passionate intensity,” he refers to the mob driven by frenzy and irrational passion that turned themselves against the true heroes of Irish nationalism like Charles Stewart Parnell, J.M.Synge, and Yeats himself. These lines also present a picture of the World War Europe, of massive violence, bloodshed, and loss of hope in humanity.
The tone of the lines is sombre as well. “The blood-dimmed tide” is an intense image symbolizing horrific violence as well as opacity of scene that submerges and overwhelms all innocence of humankind.
In Yeats’s philosophy, these figures do not simply represent movements of history. They also symbolize the subjective and objective forces within the individual. The widening gyre stands for the objective or ‘primary’ force or attribute of an individual as well as civilization. The new world order, which is imminent, would represent the subjective or the ‘antithetical’ force governing the individual or the civilization. The widening spiral of history, as also the individual existing in this history, is scientific, rational, democratic, and mechanical, while values antithetical to these will be associated with the second pattern of history and the individual living in it. Yeats says in his A Vision:
After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war.
The second stanza sets off an escalation in the tone, as well as takes the theme to a visionary level. It takes the readers to a desert scene to stage the “Second Coming,” not of Christ but of the anti-Christ. This figure symbolizes paganism, destruction, irrationality, passion, evil- in short values that would destroy modernity or the modern civilization ruined by excessive use of reason and rationality. The term“Spiritus Mundi” is a technical coinage in Yeats’s esoteric philosophy. It refers to the “world spirit.” In a description found in “An Image from a Past Life,” Yeats calls the “Spiritus Mundi” “a general storehouse of images which has ceased to be a property of any personality or spirit.” In the poem, it refers to the inner eye or the creative unconscious out of which evolves the desert scene in which appears that
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs…
The poet presents a nightmarish spectacle as the horrific man-beast walks its animal thighs slowly towards Bethlehem to herald the onset of the new history and civilization. As it walks above it sway “the indignant desert birds.” This image connects these lines with the first stanza. The solitary falconer, who is noble and gracious, has been replaced by a group of desert birds of prey.
In the final lines, the poem mixes the dark and nightmarish vision of the beast with the Christian myth of the Second Coming of the Christ. As if like Christ, the grotesque beast “its hour come round at last” moves towards Bethlehem to be born. But whereas Christ’s Second Coming is associated with the beginning of the Messianic Age of happiness and peace, the rough beast signals the continuation of violent history and civilization.
The poem has been composed in blank verse. The metre is not regular throughout the poem; however, generally, the poem in iambic pentameter.
Questions and Answers
1 What is the significance of the title “The Second Coming”?
Answer: The title suggests the theme of the poem, the “Second Coming” of the not Christ to announce the beginning of a Messianic Age, but of an anti-Christ, the rough beast, to herald a new world of violence, primitiveness and irrationalism.
2. What makes the poet predict the Apocalypse?
Answer: The all-round violence and anarchy, the wiping out of innocence by bloodshed, the unrestrained fury of the mob, whereas the silence of the people holding positions have given the poet enough evidence that the end of the word is soon.
3. Discuss a few images that the poet has used to indicate the world associated with the coming of the anti-Christ.
Answer: In the Christian context, the image of the rough beast, human head with the body of a lion, is a grotesque image. This harbinger of the new age walks slowly towards Bethlehem, while the desert birds of prey hover over his head. These images are used as symbols to suggest the grotesqueness and the violence associated with the new world that is about to begin.
4. Discuss a metaphor from the poem to suggest Yeats as a modernist.
Answer: For example, Yeats’s use of the ‘falconer’ is full of concrete suggestion. Unlike the traditional metaphor, its meaning is not limited merely to a controlling agent, say God. By mixing the image of flying falcon with the spiralling gyre, Yeats could make the metaphor more concrete as well as compressed with associative meanings. the flight of the falcon, symbolize the anarchy of the world, its breaking apart, its loss of spiritual core, while at the same time announcing the end of the world.