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The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
The Second Coming is a poem written by William Butler Yeats in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War and was first published in the American magazine The Dial in November 1920. Later on, it was included in the volume entitled Michael Robartes and The Dancer in the year 1921. It was written at a time when Yeats was puzzled by violence displayed by events like the Easter rebellion of 1916, the Irish civil war that followed it and the European great world war of 1914 to 1918 and in terms of his philosophy of history a new age in the world’s history was going to begin. He believed that a full circle of the wheel that is the moon corresponds in time to approximately 2,000 years. At the beginning of each one of such 2000 year period, a new dispensation is announced. This pattern could be seen in the history of the world from about the year 2000 BC in that year “the egg of Leda” is supposed to have been hatched.
In Greek mythology, Leda was the mother of Helen, Castor, Pollux and Clytemnestra. These were her children by her union with the great God’s Zeus who appeared to her and made love to her not in his own form but in the assumed form of a swan. From the date that Zeus appeared to Leda the first known age of the world began. This age was at its full maturity that is full moon by about the year 1000 BC when Homer sang about it. At about the time that Jesus was born another interference by God in human affairs that Leda-Zeus age was over and the Christian age began. In the 20th century that Christian age in its turn was coming to an end, the poet believed that a new age was therefore due. One may not agree with the poet’s system but without taking note of it some of his important poems will be unintelligible. One such poem is ” The Second Coming” written with the Irish troubles, the Great War and other troubles in mind and displaying his philosophy of ” A Vision” which he was to formulate and organize in 1925.
Background of the Poem
The poem is the outcome of a state of mind troubled with ominous forebodings. The title of the poem suggests a new manifestation of God to man. This powerful poem was born out of the poet’s conviction that the Christian civilization was nearing the end of its allotted span of 2,000 years and “A new face antithetical to it in nature was about to begin”. The conviction arose out of the deepening disintegration of Europe of which the first world war and the political commotion in Ireland were the explosive symptoms. Thus, the poet’s mind was filled with gloom in consequence of the wide-spread murder and bloodshed in Ireland in the course of the Easter rebellion of 1916. The Irish civil war that followed the great war of 1914 to 1918 and various other events in Europe added to that gloom. The poem is the outcome of a state of mind troubled with ominous foreboding.
Summary of The Second Coming
The poem expresses strong views of W. B. Yeats. The world is full of anarchy. All the fine, sacred and aristocratic values have been declined. The Christian concept of the second coming of God i.e. Jesus Christ is hardly seen in the modern age. Everywhere is confusion and disorder The future of modern man is full of darkness. There is no any ray of hope. The poet bitterly criticizes the Christian concept of Christ. He feels that instead of the birth of Christ, there is a birth of strange beast having the body of lion and head of man. The strange beast symbolizes the brutal tendencies of the modern man. The modern man has lost his tradition, custom and merit. The present civilization is on the verge of destruction. The modern man is facing a disastrous situation only because of his animal tendencies. His existence is nothing but a conflict between his intellect and bodily lust. His physical lust and animal tendencies are dominant. He lacks fine aristocratic values and good tradition of religion.
The Second Coming Explanation
The poem is of around 22 lines. It opens as if the poet were seeing a vision. Yeats saw great social troubles all around him and remarks on a world spinning out of control as if in a trance, the poet visualized agyre or corn circling swiftly around a fixed centre. Its circumference gets wider and wider and ultimately even the centre fails to control its movements which is given in the third line “things fall apart the centre cannot hold” and the second line says that the falconer has lost control over the falcon which does not hear his call. Falcon symbolizes the intellect and falconer the spiritual and emotional makeup of man. Intellect that science and technology and rationalism is too much with us and it is leading us to wholesale annihilation. As a result, sheer anarchy has been let loose upon the world as given in the fourth line. There is violence and bloodshed on all sides.
Line 2 hints at that technology progressing beyond mankind’s ability to control it. The problem was evident to Yeats 80 years ago, and as we all see the problem has worsened since then. Yeats shows his concern that technology has advanced to the point where mankind can do a great deal of harm with relative ease. The world had never seen destructions of the likes of World War 1 and most people were shocked at the extensive loss of human life during the war.
In line 5, the blood-dimmed tide is suggestive of blind passion and visualizes the great biblical flood and the disaster which fostered purity and innocence which is everywhere threatened with extinction as given by the 6th line and then the line 7 and 8 say that the best, the wisest, the aristocratic have lost all faith and conviction and the worst masses and fanatical irrational beings are full of violence. In the time that hate speaks of the rulers of the world were caught up in imperialism and expanding circles of power to the point where they would do almost anything to accomplish their goals. The ruthless power mongers were outspoken and numerous and there seemed to be few who dared to speak out against them in the name of peace.
All this disastrous absurd of anarchic connotes that a new civilization is about to arrive. Just as God incarnated Himself in the person of Christ when the Grisha Roman civilization collapsed 2,000 years ago so also the second coming of God seems to be round the corner given by the first two lines of the second stanza. Let me read the lines once again, the first two lines of second stanza “Surely some revelation is at hand Surely the second coming is at hand “. No sooner does the idea flash across the poet’s mind than he sees the image of some bizarre form coming out of Spiritus Mundi a kind of storehouse of images in Yeats philosophy given by the lines 4, 5 and 6 of the second stanza. Here are the lines ” 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”. This grotesque form has the body of a lion and the head of a human being. It is seen coming out of some distant desert and advancing slowly and with clumsy and ungainly movement given by the line is moving its slow thighs towards Bethlehem- the birthplace of Christ. The last line of the poem slouches towards Bethlehem to be born yet sees the springs rising up to bring forth the end of the world. The springs slept in a world of nightmares for 2,000 years. The nightmares were caused by the turmoils of the human race. We find this in the last lines towards the end of the poem. The darkness drops again but now I know the twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.
The last few lines of the second stanza also tell us that the form is so frightful and terrible that the birds fly before it in utter alarm and fear. The monster has a cruel blank look as if it were the symbol of the pitiless and relentless destiny. It represents thoughtless and merciless violence and its birth is the death of existing civilization. Thus, Yeats reveals no hope for the continued existence of mankind.
The poem ‘The Second Coming’ was written in 1921. It is an outcome of Yeats inner gloom. He witnessed the widespread murder and bloodshed in Ireland, which was associated with the Easter rebellion of 1916 and The Irish Civil War and the various other events in Europe filled Yeats with gloomy forebodings. According to Yeats, the world is disintegrating and the new age in human history seemed to be taking birth. It was the Second Coming. He believed that the process of history was repeating. He compared it to the movement of rapidly rotating gyres. In fact, a gyre means a circle, cone or ring. The gyres spin swiftly round a fixed centre. The circumference of the gyre broadens as it rotates and finally disintegration sets in. The disintegration starts at the circumference and slowly reaches the centre. Yeats believed that the present cycle of history started two thousand years ago with the birth of Christ. Previously, there was the Grecio – Roman Civilization, which in its turn started in 2000 B. C. with the union of god Zeus with lead. The pagan civilization came to an end after a life of two thousand years. Then Jesus Christ came and a new civilization was born out of the ruins of the earlier one. Likewise, the Christian civilization has run its course of two thousand years. Therefore, Yeats believed that the second coming is at hand. The history repeats. The present wheel of history has come full circle and out of its ruin, a new civilization is taking shape. All ideas are put together in The Second Coming.
The theme of the poem is a spreading of disintegration all over the world. Yeats brings out a very disappointing picture of modern civilization. Disintegration is found in modern society as well as in human beings. The poet visualized the wicked circle in modern civilization. We all are trapped in the circle and there is no way out. The very idea is remarkably presented by the poet through the images of falcon and the falconer. There is no integration or a centre in the present society and so the things have fallen apart. We have gone far away from the traditional culture. The things are not related to the centre. The culture is shattered and disintegrated. The strong basis of meritorious culture is shaken. and consequently, there is anarchy. The falconer has lost his control over the falcon, which does not hear his call. The word falcon symbolizes the intellect and the other word falconer symbolizes the soul or the spiritual and emotional part of man. The intellect includes science, technology, and rationalism which is too much with us and it is taking us towards total destruction. As a result, there is anarchy in the world. There is bloodshed and violence everywhere. The phrase ‘The blood-dimmed tide’ indicates violence, blind passion and havoc. The traditional and aristocratic way of life was the merit of our culture which has always presented purity and innocence, is in danger and on the way of decline The best, the wisest and the aristocratic men have lost all faith and conviction. People have no fixed moral. They do not have any religious norm of behaviour. People have turned fanatical, irrational and violent.
All this degeneration and disorder indicate that a new civilization is about to be born. When the ancient Greco-Roman civilization came to an end two thousand years ago, there was a birth of Jesus Christ. Then the Christian civilization has run its course of two thousand years. So Yeats believed that there is second coming at hand. When the very thought flashes across the poet’s mind, he sees the image of strange beast coming out of spirits Mundi which is a kind of storehouse of images as per the philosophy of Yeats. This huge beast has the body of lion and the head of a man. It is seen by the poet, which is coming out of some vast desert and moving slowly with a clumsy, awkward movement towards Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ and there would be a new course of civilization. The figure of the new beast is so monstrous, fearful, strange and frightening. It has a pitiless, blank look and it symbolizes pitiless destiny. It also symbolizes mindless and merciless violence. The birth of such a beast is the death of present civilization.
Further, the theme of disillusionment is very well expressed in the poem. The poet has no any hope of good religion. The Second coming of Christ is not promising and is without any bright future. Yeats has lost his hopes. People still believe that Christ will come to life and will look after the disturbed earth and protect all from the destruction. His second coming will protect the human beings from all the evils, and so people are waiting for rebirth of Jesus Christ. However, we do not see any sign of Christ’s arrival. There is no any ray of hope.
Yeats use of right words represents emotions. In the first line of the poem, the sense of inexorable movement of the wheel of history is explained by the repetition of ‘turning’. The poem expresses Yeats vision. The repetition of words, the simple and terrible images bring out concentrated and amazing vision of the poet. The strange beast having the body of a lion and the head of man explains the coming of evil into the world. The image of strange beast used by the poet is fantastic. It presents the disastrous situation of the modern man. The combined image of the lion and the man indicates the dilemma and conflict. It is a struggle between the ‘intellect’ and ‘body’. The head signifies intellect and body signifies human desire as well as lust.
The physical relations between men and women are turning dangerous and brutal. There is a disintegration. The phrase ‘things fall apart’. also signifies the disintegration in modern civilization. A couple of images like ‘things’ and ‘centre’ signify the parts and centre, which unite together to form a principle. When the centre binds all things together, there is harmony. But modern civilization has lost this harmony and so we see disintegration everywhere in the world. The phrase ‘second coming’ signifies the image of Christ, who had promised the world that he will have his rebirth on the earth. However, Christ has not fulfilled his promise. So there is no consolation to the suffering humanity. They are on the verge of destruction. In fact, it is the second coming of the strange beast having. no certain form.
Thus the poem is the expression of a universal experience. It expresses the utter reality of the world. It is on account of the modern facts. So the poem has become a part of the educated conscience all over the world.
Detailed Summary of the Poem
The Second Coming was written in 1919 and was published two years after and the initial title in the draft was The Second Birth and later he changed it to The Second Coming. It refers to the coming of Christ, that is, Christ will return to the earth as promised in the New Testament. There is an unconventional theme in the poem which has alluded many readers because of its oblique references and ambiguous images. Now, Yeats had lived through the tough times. He has written many poems in the shadow of World War 1. If you have read Prayer for My Daughter and then Easter 1916 and his many other poems are based on the same theme of war or an Irish revelation. So here also he had seen unprecedented slaughter. Several Irish nationalists had been executed in the struggle for freedom. So let’s understand the poem first.
There are two stanzas and let’s take up the first stanza. The poet in these lines describes a nightmare scene, the image of a falcon flying out of the hands of its human master falconer. Falcon is a bird ) hawk-like bird) and Falconer is the master. Thes takes the image from the medieval times when people would use Falcons or Hawks to track down animals at ground level. Now he says that this Falcon has gone out of the hands of his master. It is out of control and now it is not going to come back. So you can take this as the present situations which had gone out of the hand of man because of the wars. Anarchy, chaos all was there in abundance so much that the centre cannot hold things. It is so difficult to hold the centre that it has gone out of control. The cyclone of death and disaster is filed in the gyre. There is the spiral movement of the wind or the smoke which carries away everything in its force and destroys it. This word is very famous with Yeats. I mean it is his favourite word he had used it in Sailing to Byzantium also. So the centre is going out of control to things that fall apart. The civilization is breaking very fast. The devil evil has taken over the innocent spirits. The good are dying under the terror of the body. They have lost any faith in goodness. Their survival is in question. The bad destructive powers are becoming powerful and are helping to destroy this present civilization. Now, this is all in reference to the collapse of traditional social arrangement in Europe. A kind of apocalypse is shown through these lines. Another significant phrase in these lines is the ceremony of innocence is drowned. We all feel that good people are tortured more They have to face miseries and pains more than the people who are devilish. The evil who have tried to govern this world through bloodshed and all evil activities, the good they suffer at the hands of the bad people a lot. So, the poet is in a way being very personal here because maybe he being a good moralistic man had to suffer a lot in his own life.
Now let’s take the second stanza. In this stanza, the inevitable collapse of systems and society is predicted. A big revelation something soon seems to be coming up. It is seen in the store. The present conditions have aroused or instigated the storm now announcing the second coming in the New Testament. This phrase ‘” the second coming” says that Christ will return to redeem the sins of man. Once again when this world will be full of mysteries of man. Christ will be forced to walk in again on this earth but as he speaks this phrase the spirit of this world that is the Spiritus Mundi makes Yeats feel as if a monster has arisen from its sleep and had started coming towards them. It is like Phenix or the monster with it lion’s body and a human face which is slowly advancing with the blank gaze and with no pity and the comparison is made to the Sun, that means the Sun also doesn’t have pity on humans so similarly this monster is coming without any pity or sympathy for the humans. So these are quite disturbing thoughts indicating the collapse or total degeneration of civilization. The darkness is here and so the terror, chaos, world war all responsible to arouse this monster will witness the end of this world. It’s almost been 2,000 years since Christ came to earth in human form and was crucified but now a rough beast will reveal itself these times are not for Christ in human form. Things have changed and this disastrous time cannot be controlled by any human spirit. It needs a monster to wake us up from our 2000 years of deep sleep. It will rock us shake us from our deep slumber. It has already started its journey towards Bethlem where it will be shown first. The phrase slouches towards Bethlehem imparts the visual through words the biblical reference of Bethlehem when Christ was born there. The poem ends with a question mark, “will this be his mystical belief that history repeats itself in cycles? This, it is very obvious with the images of a tire which is widening and moving apart from the point of origin losing control of the centre maybe Yeats is trying to decenter Christianity. The faith is lost. The centre cannot hold things, therefore, the second coming will be from another deity, some other religious philosophy. So it is coming to fulfil the prophecy from the Biblical Book of Revelation. It is the new Messiah coming either to redeem or to destroy.
Structural Style of the Poem
The poem consists of 22 lines as you can see in two verse paragraphs. The first is of eight lines and the second is of 14 lines. This renders a rather imbalanced feeling of the poem giving more importance and pouring more information into one than into the other. This fact acquires more relevance when we acknowledge that Yeats structures his poems in a definite stanza pattern. It is a masterpiece of artistic maturity marked by the careful selection of precise details and images of exact words with their reverberation and a solemn rhythm to create the terrifying atmosphere of the Apocalypse, appropriate to the vision of violent destruction and equally monstrous rebirth.
The Second Coming is written in a blank verse pattern in a very rough pentameter but the meter is so loose and the exceptions so frequent that it actually seems closer to free verse with frequent heavy stresses. For instance, the third and fourth lines have a consonant rhyme only 14 of 22 lines consist of near 10 syllables which means that up to 8 lines out of 22 are different enough to disrupt the pattern. The lack of structure is reinforced by the existence of 8 enjambments. For example, fifth line, seventh line 11th line and eighth caesuras as in the 11th line. 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 son. Yeats also makes use of special sound devices such as the three stressed syllables in a row in line 21 “what rough beast”. The repetition of words as in the first two lines of the second stanza at the beginning and the end of them “surely at… hand”.This causes great confusion in the mind of the reader as the poem is constantly ignoring the structure which adds to the complexity and the shock that the metaphors generate in the readers’ mind when it is read. This, Yeats poem is much more confusing not conforming to the structures and mixing patterns increasing the sense of chaos and loss of control that the poem gives metaphorically.
Critical Appreciation of The Second Coming
Because of its stunning violent imagery and terrifying ritualistic language, The Second Coming’ is one of its most famous and most anthologized poems. It is also one of the most thematically obscure and difficult to understand. Structurally the poem is quite simple. The first stanza describes the conditions present in the world by words like things falling apart, anarchy etc and the second stanza 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 Springs rousing itself in the desert and lumbering toward Bethlehem. The Second Coming was intended by Yeats to describe the current historical moment. The poem appeared in 1921. So, Yeats describes the current historical moment in terms of these jives. 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’ poems, Richard J Finneran quotes its own notes the end of an age which always receives the revelation of the character of the next stage is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to its place of greatest contraction. The revelation approaches will take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre. In other words, the world’s trajectory along the gyre of science, democracy and heterogeneity is now coming apart like the frantically widening flight path of the falcon that has lost contact with the falconer. The next age will take its character not from the gyre of science, democracy and speed but from the contrary inner gyre which presumably opposes mysticism, primal part and slowness to the science and democracy of the outer gyre. The rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem is the symbol of this new age. The speaker’s vision of the rising strings is his vision of the character of the new world.
Towards the concluding part, The Second Coming is a magnificent statement about the contrary forces at work in history and about the conflict between the modern world and the ancient world. The aesthetic experience of its passionate language is powerful enough to ensure its value and its importance in Yeats’ work as a whole.
gyre – spiral
anarchy – disorder
indignant – angry
vexed – to puzzle, annoy
Questions and Answers of The Second Coming
1. What is the purpose of the poem’s first stanza?
Answer. The first stanza aims to describe the world in its present state. Keep in mind that it was written around the time of the first World War (1921).
2. What is the significance of the poem’s mention of the Sphinx myth?
Answer. The Sphynx serves to contrast the modern and ancient worlds.
3. In the second stanza, the speaker describes his image of the Second Coming. Historically, what is meant by the Second Coming? What does the speaker imagine it will be like?
Answer. The Second Coming is a reference to the Christian belief that Christ will come again to the Earth to save those who have been true to God and to punish all sinners. The speaker believes that part of the Second Coming will include a giant creature that will ravage the Earth with its “lion body and head of a man.”
4. Explain the allusion found in the phrase “vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.”
Answer. The allusion here is to the cradle that held Christ after he was born. This allusion is reinforced in the next line when the speaker tells the reader he envisions the creature “Slouching towards Bethlehem,” where Christ is said to have been born.
5. The poem was written in Europe in 1919. How would you describe the historical context of the poem? Does this context help you understand it?
Answer. The poem was written after World War I, during a time of great instability in Europe. Yeats may have been expressing his and others’ fear of their world “spinning out of control,” as the poem describes.
6. Does the poem have meaning outside this context?
Answer. Yes, we can understand and feel the poet’s warning in the aftermath of World War I in a variety of contexts. Indeed, the many ways the poem can be applied to episodes in world history show the universality of the sentiment – the fear that man has wrought his own destruction, that mankind, in need of a savior, will be judged harshly.
7. Is what Yeats describes inevitable (impossible to avoid) in any society? Will generations in time always be like a “widening gyre,” with people growing further and further away from the teachings and principles that bind their communities together?
Answer. Accept reasoned answers.
8. What are some ways that ideas or inventions may progress outside of man’s ability to control them? Can you think of any recent artistic expressions (e.g. books, movies, songs) of this idea?
Answer. In addition to the ideas students generate, you may wish to add: theories of government such as communism or socialism (which have led in China, the USSR, Venezuela, etc.) to human rights violations and countless murders); ideas about the supposed superiority of one race over others (for example, Nazi Germany); technological weapons (nuclear bombs or chemical weapons); artificially intelligent machines; surveillance tools used by government, and others.
9. The poem is entitled “The Second Coming.” Is the “rough beast” approaching Bethlehem a savior, or something else?
Answer. The “rough beast” or desert sphinx appears to be an Anti-Christ figure, bringing not salvation, but destruction.
10. Why do you think Yeats chose to use a biblical title and theme in his poem?
Answer. Students may suggest that he personally connected with this theme, and/or that he believed such a theme would be understood widely, and/or that the imagery in, for example, the book of Revelations, provokes awe in readers that Yeats wishes to provoke. Accept additional reasoned answers.