Yeats’ Week – The Second Coming

The Second Coming

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
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
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
Wind 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?

Welcome to the Apocalypse. The Second Coming is appropriate for 2012, viewed by some as the End Time.

This is my favorite of Yeats’ poems, less for its dark view of history than its amazing language and imagery. I also interpret it as a metaphor for the conflict within an individual personality in the modern world.

The word gyre in the poem’s first line comes from a theory of history and metaphysics Yeats claimed to have received from spirits. (I love that!!)  It centers on a diagram composed of two conic helixes (“gyres”), overlapping each other, so that the widest part of one cone occupies the same plane as the tip of the other cone, and vice versa.

Yeats claimed that this image captured contrary motions inherent within the process of history, and he divided each gyre into different regions that represented particular kinds of historical periods (and could also represent the psychological phases of an individual’s development).

The poem was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War. Yeats believed that in 1921 the world was on the threshold of an apocalyptic moment, as history reached the end of the outer gyre and began moving along the inner gyre. A good argument can be made that he was correct, in light of the subsequent rise of Hitler and the Second World War.

The Second Coming of Christ referred to in the Biblical Book of Revelation is here described as an approaching dark force with a ghastly and dangerous purpose. Yeats’s description of a ‘rough beast’ has more in common with The Beast (Revelation) than the Christian concept of the Second Coming of Christ. This image points rather to the sinister figure of Antichrist that precedes the Second Coming of Christ.

The manticore or sphinx-like beast described in the poem had long captivated Yeats’s imagination. He wrote, “I began to imagine [around 1904], as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast which I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction”, noting that the beast was “Afterwards described in my poem ‘The Second Coming”.

This is the end of Yeats’ week. I hope I have included a few of your favorites!

15 thoughts on “Yeats’ Week – The Second Coming

  1. shafiqah1 says:

    This is by far the strangest Yeats poem and the best, it is startling in its world view and challenging for the time it was written it! I could go on forever, but I have used this poem as a springboard to discuss Colonialism, Wars of Aggression, Egyptian History, Blacks in America and around the globe, Third World Countries, Imperialism…. 😀

  2. shafiqah1 says:

    Reblogged this on shafiqah1 and commented:
    This is by far the strangest Yeats poem and the best, it is startling in its world view and challenging for the time it was written it! I could go on forever, but I have used this poem as a springboard to discuss Colonialism, Wars of Aggression, Egyptian History, Blacks in America and around the globe, Third World Countries, Imperialism….

  3. Fascinating info behind the poem!

  4. jmgoyder says:

    Gosh this is so interesting!

  5. Food Stories says:

    A thought provoking piece indeed. It personifies Modernist poetry and is quite complex, thanks for sharing and giving details about its meaning.

    • You’re welcome, but I barely scratched the surface. I just know that the words of this poem come to me in times of crisis and stress. Yeats is a guiding spirit for me, somehow. 🙂

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