At the time of ‘The Second Coming’ being written, much of the world had grown disillusioned with the turn of the century. From ushering in new and wonderful inventions – the motorcar, small aircraft, and others – it had gone to fray apart. In different parts of the world, revolution brewed and broke out: the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Easter Uprising of 1916, and, of course, the First World War (1914-1918), the most horrific, bloody battle that anyone in Europe had ever seen, totaling a death rate that had since been unmatched in history. With all these events behind, it was no wonder that poets, writers, and artists of all kinds felt as though that there was a great shift in the world happening, and that it would soon come to an end.
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Summary of The Second Coming
‘The Second Coming’ was William Butler Yeats’ ode to the era. Rife with Christian imagery, and pulling much inspiration from apocalyptic writing, Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ tries to put into words what countless people of the time felt: that it was the end of the world as they knew it and that nothing else would ever be the same again. The First World War had shaken the foundations of knowledge for many, and scarred from the knowledge of the ‘war to end all wars’, they could no longer reconcile themselves with a time before the Great War. This poem is the literary version of that: a lack of ability to think of a time before the war.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
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.
Much has been written on the apocalypse, and many of those writings focus on the harbingers of the event: it is always bloody and massive, a vicious explosion that shakes the world to its foundation. In Yeats’ poem, the apocalypse is a much quieter, more understated, affair. It opens up with the disturbance of nature.
‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer’.
Falcons were used as hunting animals since the medieval era. They are incredibly smart, and dedicated to their trainers, responding immediately to any noise that their handler makes, thus for the falcon to have flown so rapidly out of the reach of the falconer shows us how the delicate balance of the world has been upset. It’s a particularly Shakespearian tactic to reflect evil in the way that nature behaves. In Macbeth, when the villainous Macbeth murders the good king, a lowly porter recognizes that the horses have started to eat each other and that there was a great and thunderous storm. This is the same manipulation of imagery, using the innocent vision of nature to imply a great warping in the fabric of things as they should have been. We see it throughout the first stanza: Yeats’ words take on an edge of doomed and destroyed innocence (‘things fall apart, the center cannot hold’). The very world as he knew it – here no doubt represented in the immediate world as Yeats knew it, which was Europe – has started to crumble. The Great War is still fresh on his mind, and the phrase ‘the centre cannot hold’ can also represent the battles that were fought in France, battles that left the country scarred beyond repair, and struggling in the aftermath of the war. ‘Blood-dimmed tide’, also, can reference the same war, but aside from the historical link, there is again that idea of nature warped by man – blood-dimmed tide, water corrupted by spilled blood, by war, by an encroaching and violent end.
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
Troubles my sight: 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 around 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?
In the second stanza, the Biblical imagery takes over the visions of corrupted nature. From the start, Yeats ties his poem to religion by stating ‘the Second Coming is at hand’, and conjuring up a picture of a creature with a lion’s body and a man’s head, much like the sphynx, and a gaze as ‘blank and pitiless as the sun’. By comparing it to the very nature that Yeats spoke about in the first part of the poem, he brings out the almost infallible quality of this beast: like nature, it feels nothing for the suffering of man. It is and will be when man has turned to ash and dust in its weak.
It is worth noting that Yeats believed that poets were privy to spiritual ‘after images’ of symbols and memories recurring in history, and especially available to souls of a sensitive nature such as poets. Here, the Spiritus Mundi is the soul of the Universe, rattling in the wake of the coming apocalypse, delivering to Yeats the image of the beast that will destroy the world, and him with it. The beast will come, Yeats is assured of this, but not yet; by the end of the poem, the veil has dropped again, the monster is no longer, and Yeats writes that ‘twenty centuries of stony sleep / were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle’, implying that whatever is coming for the world, whatever monster, will be here soon. It is not yet born, but the world is right for it, and waiting for it, and Yeats is certain that the rough beast ‘its hour come round at last’ is only a few years away from wracking the world into a state of complete destruction.
W.B. Yeats was an Irish poet born on the 13th of June, 1865. He is considered a largely Irish poet, although he ran in British literary circles as well, and he was a big part of the resurgence of Irish literature. In 1923, he was to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetry, as the first Irishman. This was shortly after Ireland had finally gained independence from England.
Yeats died in France in 1939, and his remains were moved to Sligo on his wishes in 1948.