William Butler Yeats' The Second Coming Poem analysis

The Second Coming Poem by William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats
'The second coming' is a poem written by William Butler Yeats in 1919. It is a poem of powerful imagery and symbolism. The following is an analysis of the poem 'The Second Coming'.
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), a modern English poet who is regarded by many as the greatest poetical figure of the age; a transitional age, as it may come to be regarded, between Morris and Pound, Swinburne and Eliot, being himself responsible for much of the ease of the transition.

W.B.Yeats was born in Dublin and was profoundly influenced by the Irish myth, tradition, and folklore. He is rightly regarded as the national poet of Ireland, and the Irish background forms the very crux of his poetry. His poems have a curious passion for generality. The themes and masks with which his work is littered are really a form of imperfect abstraction that he uses to put across his point of view. The poetry of Yeats has a curious mixture of aestheticism and dreamy nationalism, with an undercurrent of moralism. This moralism is one which has come to him through a long course of aestheticism, and his attitudes are more akin to those of the great Victorian poets. His early poems remind one of a Victorian tapestry, with plenty of adjectives and a romantic subject, having an airy grace. They generally deal with imaginative, ideal love, and are written in a smooth, simple manner which contrasts strangely with the vaporous subtlety of the matter. It is only in his later poems that Yeats outgrows this fondness for decoration and moves to compose spare line drawings, composing a poetry that can be called more masculine, more intellectual.

Yeats's poetry has an air of deliberation that makes him appear to be claiming for his work a certain sort of protection. He impresses one as the man in the poet's mask. He always seems to demand to be listened to on his own terms. And that is why perhaps most of his poems strike up a prophetic note, warning humanity itself to pay attention and heed. His important poetic works are The Rose (1893), The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), In the Seven Woods (1904), The Green Hamlet and the Other Poems (1910), Responsibilities (1914), Michael Roberts and the Dancer (1921), The Tower(1928), The Winding Stairs and Other Poems (1933), and The Full Moon in March (1935).

W.B.Yeats owed much to Ireland, as Ireland owed much to him. But that he was a world poet as well as Irish was recognized in 1923 when he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature and again on his death in 1939, which inspired verses by Auden in America, A.J.M. Smith in Canada, George Barker and Kenneth Allot in England.

The Second Coming Poem Text

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,
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.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Trouble my site: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, 
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, 
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


The Main Gist of the Poem The Second Coming

In this poem, Yeats talks about the coming of a new spirit. The poem speaks of the disintegration of modern society with the spread of anarchy and the consequent violence and bloodshed.  Modern man is shown here as uncontrolled and uncontrolling. The time for divine intervention has come, and another Saviour is needed. But the rough beast that moves towards Bethlehem to be born is a terrible thing with the head of a man and the body of a lion.

The Second Coming Poem Analysis

'The Second Coming' speaks of the coming of a new spirit, and the image presented is of a brazen-winged beast which Yeats considered to be always at hand but just outside his field of vision. The Christian doctrine of Christ's second appearance on earth forms the basis for the poem, and the title is obviously derived from Christianity. It is important to remember here that this poem was written in January 1919, and therefore shortly after the First World  War and the Russian Revolution, during the Black and Tan War in Ireland, and just before the rise of Fascism (Mussolini came to power in 1922). Thus the poem is generally concerned with the disintegration of modern society-with the spread of anarchy and the consequent violence and bloodshed.

The poem 'The Second Coming' opens with an analogy. The falcons' spiralling flight is a gyre at the centre of which is a whirling centrifugal force which is about to cause total disintegration,  to precipitate a catastrophe. While some critics see the falconer as man who can no longer impose a discipline or his power over nature, which is therefore falling apart, other critics see the falcon as man losing contact with Christ or more generally with ideals which enabled him to control his life--religion, philosophy, poetry--and with all traditional ties. Whatever the exact connotation, modern man is presented as uncontrolled or uncontrolling.

In the first stanza (made up of eight lines), Yeats talks of an abandonment of the ceremoniousness which he believed essential to a life of true dignity. For the soul to be 'innocent', it must be protected from the vulgarity of the market-place by ritual, or ceremony, and by custom hallowed by tradition. It will be appropriate here to discuss briefly what Yeats means by the "gyre" in the first stanza. According to Yeats, as with the incarnations of the soul, the growth, maturity, and decline of a civilization are divided into the twenty-eight phases of the lunar month. History, therefore, is a process conceived of as turning on a Great Wheel―a three-dimensional figure, or sphere―which Yeats refers to as gyres. Moving in this sphere, are two inter-locking cones formed by the motions of gyrating points. From a place in an axis, one point moves spirally in ever-widening gyrations until it reaches the circumference of the sphere, and thus its movement is in the shape of a cone. From the plane which forms the base of this cone another point moves in the same way but in the opposite direction―as if unwinding the thread. These whirling, interpenetrating cones are an image of the principle of conflict: one expands as the other contracts; there is an opposition between natural and supernatural, love and hate, war and peace, subjective and objective.

It is important to observe here that according to Theosophical belief, every cycle of history has its special deity so that a new god comes regularly to replace the old. A time of upheaval, therefore, such as has been depicted, would seem to denote the end of one such cycle and to imply the coming of some new deity. The first stanza, therefore, presents a certain determinism. The end of an age which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of the greatest contraction. Something disastrous has happened in modern civilization. Through the falcon, Yeats suggests the element of cruelty and terror found in modern times. The falcon is not a pet but is meant for killing, and thus symbolizes death. The second line of the first stanza suggests that in the modern times this control has been lost and murderous instincts cannot be kept under control. There are complete chaos and no restraint. The first three lines present an oblique indirect statement through this image of the falcon. Then suddenly comes the powerful imagery of the "tide" which is "blood-dimmed". This age is such that even the best cannot do anything, even the noblest are futile. It is indeed a sheerly destructive age. Thus the first stanza gives the picture of a particular age by suggesting the character of the age with the help of two images the "falcon" and the "tide". Something is disastrously wrong in the present day civilization.

The second stanza presents hope (emphasized by the repetition of "surely"). The point of saturation has been reached. It is time for divine intervention. Another Saviour is needed. There will come a rescuer. The second stanza begins with a proclamation 'Surely some revelation is at hand'; and the repetition, with the change from 'revelation' to 'Second Coming', itself repeated in the third line, may remind you of Christ's prophecy in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Chapter 24. You may still wonder whether the expected revelation is to be of some glorious deity ushering in a new era of peace. Disquiet is soon felt, however, when the "vast image" is presented as troubling the poet's sight. Yeats's vision has the authority of Spiritus Mundi.

It will be important to understand at this point what is meant by Spiritus Mundi. W.B.Yeats is supposed to have believed that the souls of the dead could communicate with writers and artists, and in so doing they were drawing in a general storehouse of images, a kind of corporate imagination which is Spiritus Mundi. The man whose imagination can fuse with it can thus draw on all the images ever conceived by man, and he can also create new ones. This 'vast image' is not so much an image conjured by the poet as one almost forced on him, and it is then revealed as a terrifying beast which recalls St. John's vision of Antichrist, the beast of the Apocalypse, and is at the same time an image of the Egyptian Sphinx. This powerful image, with the head of a man and the body of a lion, even reminds one of Narasimha of the Hindu mythology. It will be important for us to remember that Yeats was deeply influenced by Hindu philosophy. In Hindu cosmology the idea of an age of destruction following an age of construction was obvious. In this poem The Second Coming, Yeats propounds a theory of civilization analogous to the Hindu idea. Dread increases as more details follow the blank and pitiless gaze and the desert birds. The "desert birds" symbolize the higher reaches of man's aspirations. But here these birds are angry and are falling down. These birds of prey are indignant perhaps because they cannot overwhelm and eat the monster. With this, the poet's vision ends, but he proclaims that now he knows. What he knows seems to be that the beast, having spent the two thousand years of the Christian era in 'stony sleep' has been roused by a nightmare. The image of the 'rocking cradle' is an imagery of birth, urging the monster to be born, and the fact that it moves lazily towards Bethlehem points at the horrifying contrast between the birth of Christ and that of the "shape". The poet's uncertainty, despite the seeming assurance "now I know", appears to be expressed by the fact that the poem ends not with an assertion but a question: what is the nature of the slouching brute about to be born?

The poet is indeed in a mood of bewilderment. The ideas which the sphinx stood for are being reborn. The animal in man is again being awakened. The suggestion is that if Christ refuses to come, probably the second deity/monster will be born. The vision of the creature about to be born may be prophetic. The prophecy is, in fact, a curious blending of Christian association with the bestial, as the beast moves towards Bethlehem―perhaps as a terrible corrective to the world in which the poet finds himself.

Reference: Understanding Poetry, Indira Gandhi National Open University School of Humanities.

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