The speaker describes a nightmarish scene: the falcon, turning in a widening “gyre” (spiral), cannot hear the falconer; “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”; anarchy is loosed upon the world; “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The best people, the speaker says, lack all conviction, but the worst “are full of passionate intensity.”
Surely, the speaker asserts, the world is near a revelation; “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” No sooner does he think of “the Second Coming,” then he is troubled by “a vast image of the Spiritus Mundi, or the collective spirit of mankind: somewhere in the desert, a giant sphinx (“A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun”) is moving, while the shadows of desert birds reel about it. The darkness drops again over the speaker’s sight, but he knows that the sphinx’s twenty centuries of “stony sleep” have been made a nightmare by the motions of “a rocking cradle.” And what “rough beast,” he wonders, “its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
“The Second Coming” is written in a very rough iambic pentameter, but the meter is so loose, and the exceptions so frequent, that it actually seems closer to free verse with frequent heavy stresses. The rhymes are likewise haphazard; apart from the two couplets with which the poem opens, there are only coincidental rhymes in the poem, such as “man” and “sun.”
Because of its stunning, violent imagery and terrifying ritualistic language, “The Second Coming” is one of Yeats’s most famous and most anthologized poems; it is also one of the most thematically obscure and difficult to understand. (It is safe to say that very few people who love this poem could paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction.) Structurally, the poem is quite simple—the first stanza describes the conditions present in the world (things falling apart, anarchy, etc.), and the second surmises 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 exposition, though intriguingly blasphemous, is not terribly complicated; but the question of what it should signify to a reader is another story entirely.
Yeats spent years crafting an elaborate, mystical theory of the universe that he described in his book A Vision. This theory issued in part from Yeats’s lifelong fascination with the occult and mystical, and in part from the sense of responsibility Yeats felt to order his experience within a structured belief system. The system is extremely complicated and not of any lasting importance—except for the effect that it had on his poetry, which is of extraordinary lasting importance. The theory of history Yeats articulated in A Vision centers on a diagram made of two conical spirals, one inside the other, so that the widest part of one of the spirals rings around the narrowest part of the other spiral, and vice versa. Yeats believed that this image (he called the spirals “gyres”) captured the contrary motions inherent within the historical process, and he divided each gyre into specific regions that represented particular kinds of historical periods (and could also represent the psychological phases of an individual’s development).
“The Second Coming” was intended by Yeats to describe the current historical moment (the poem appeared in 1921) in terms of these gyres. Yeats believed that the world was on the threshold of an apocalyptic revelation, as history reached the end of the outer gyre (to speak roughly) and began moving along the inner gyre. In his definitive edition of Yeats’s poems, Richard J. Finneran quotes Yeats’s own notes:
"The Second Coming" Yeats, William Butler
Irish poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, short story writer, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents criticism of Yeats's poem "The Second Coming."
Yeats is considered one of the finest poets in the English language. He was devoted to the cause of Irish nationalism and played a significant part in the Celtic Revival Movement, promoting the literary heritage of Ireland through his use of material from ancient Irish sagas. Magic and occult theory are also important elements in Yeats's work, as many of the images found in his poetry are derived from his occult researches. Such is the case in regard to Yeats's lyric poem, "The Second Coming." The work is generally viewed as a symbolic revelation of the end of the Christian era, and is one of Yeats's most widely commented-on works. Thought to exemplify Yeats's cyclical interpretation of history, "The Second Coming" is regarded as a masterpiece of Modernist poetry and is variously interpreted by scholars, whose principal concern has been to unravel its complex symbolism.
Yeats was born in Dublin to Irish-Protestant parents. His father was a painter who influenced his son's thoughts about art. Yeats's mother shared with her son her interest in folklore, fairies, and astrology as well as her love of Ireland, particularly the region surrounding Sligo in western Ireland where Yeats spent much of his childhood. Educated in England and Ireland, Yeats was erratic in his studies, shy, and prone to daydreaming. In 1884 he enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. There he met the poet George Russell, who shared Yeats's enthusiasm for dreams and visions. Together they founded the Dublin Hermetic Society to conduct magical experiments and "to promote the study of Oriental Religions and Theosophy." Yeats also joined the Rosicrucians, the Theosophical Society, and MacGregor Mather's Order of the Golden Dawn. In 1885 Yeats met the Irish nationalist John O'Leary, who was instrumental in arranging for the publication of Yeats's first poems in The Dublin University Review. Under the influence of O'Leary, Yeats took up the cause of Gaelic writers at a time when much native Irish literature was in danger of being lost as the result of England's attempts to anglicize Ireland through a ban on the Gaelic language. By the early years of the twentieth century Yeats had risen to international prominence as a proponent of the Gaelic Revival and had published numerous plays and collections of poetry. In 1917 Yeats married Georgiana Hyde-Lees. Through his young wife's experiments with automatic writing, Yeats gathered the materials on which he based A Vision, his explanation of historical cycles and theory of human personality based upon the phases of the moon. Yeats began writing "The Second Coming" in January 1919, in the wake of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. It was first published in November 1920 in The Dial and later appeared in his collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer, one of several works of the period that exemplify the rhetorical, occasionally haughty tone that readers today identify as characteristically Yeatsian. In 1922 Yeats became a senator for the newly formed Irish Free State. The following year he was honored with the Nobel Prize for literature. Ill health forced Yeats to leave the Irish senate in 1928. He devoted his remaining years to poetry and died in France in 1939.
"The Second Coming" is viewed as a prophetic poem that envisions the close of the Christian epoch and the violent birth of a new age. The poem's title makes reference to the Biblical reappearance of Christ, prophesied in Matthew 24 and the Revelations of St. John, which according to Christianity, will accompany the Apocalypse and divine Last Judgment. Other symbols in the poem are drawn from mythology, the occult, and Yeats's view of history as defined in his cryptic prose volume A Vision. The principal figure of the work is a sphinx-like creature with a lion's body and man's head, a "rough beast" awakened in the desert that makes its way to Christ's birthplace, Bethlehem. While critics acknowledge the work's internal symbolic power, most have studied its themes in relation to Yeats's A Vision. According to the cosmological scheme of A Vision, the sweep of history can be represented by two intersecting cones, or gyres, each of which possesses one of two opposing "tinctures," primary and antithetical, that define the dominant modes of civilization. Yeats associated the primary or solar tincture with democracy, truth, abstraction, goodness, egalitarianism, scientific rationalism, and peace. The contrasting antithetical or lunar tincture he related to aristocracy, hierarchy, art, fiction, evil, particularity, and war. According to Yeats's view, as one gyre widens over a period of two thousand years the other narrows, producing a gradual change in the age. The process then reverses after another twenty centuries have passed, and so on, producing a cyclic pattern throughout time. In the early twentieth-century Yeats envisioned the primary gyre, the age of Christianity, to be at its fullest expansion and approaching a turning point when the primary would begin to contract and the antithetical enlarge. Yeats wrote: "All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilisation belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash .. . of the civilisation that must slowly take its place." Thus, in "The Second Coming" scholars view the uncontrolled flight of the falcon as representative of this primary expansion at its chaotic peak, while the coming of an antithetical disposition is symbolized in the appearance of the "rough beast" in the desert, a harbinger of the new epoch.
The general relationship of A Vision to "The Second Coming" has been accepted by most critics, yet the elusive nature of Yeats's imagery has prompted varying interpretations of the poem. Many scholars have focused on its political character and especially on the sphinx-like beast of the poem's second half, seeing it as representative of the general forces of violence and anarchy, or more specifically of the Russian Revolution, World War I, the Irish Civil War of 1916, Fascism, or communism. Such views typically emphasize the horrific and ominous nature of the beast, and associate its appearance with the decline of western civilization. Critics who have used A Vision extensively in their interpretations of the poem, however, have occasionally noted that the sphinx is not necessarily intended as a negative image—and that Yeats himself was not displeased to witness what he viewed as the close of the Christian era. Commentators have also seen "The Second Coming" in the context of other poems by Yeats that elicit similar or parallel themes, such as "Leda and the Swan" and "A Prayer for My Daughter." Additional areas of critical interest concerning the work include study of the symbolic nature of the falcon, exploration of the lengthy process of revision undertaken by Yeats, and consideration of the poet's ironic use of religious allusion in the poem. Others critics have also observed significant influences on the work, which contains echoes of Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, and have examined its philosophical underpinnings, particularly in relation to the conception of alternating cycles of human history proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche. Overall, "The Second Coming" has been well-received as one of the most evocative visionary lyric poems of the twentieth-century and widely praised for its technical excellence and extensive symbolic resonance.