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William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming"

Updated on October 12, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

William Butler Yeats

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Second Coming"

While William Butler Yeats is without a doubt a great poet, who delved deeply into truth and tried to understand historical events, he was not always successful in understanding certain principles. He set out on a journey of study that led him to Eastern Philosophical and Religious thought, but he did not quite understand the Eastern concepts that he attempted to exploit in his poem.

Although not among his works that broach the Eastern philosophical concepts, "The Second Coming" is one of the most overrated and misunderstood poems of Western literary canon. The concepts in the poem are based on a tangle of misunderstood principles that result in a ludicrous scenario which is ultimately meaningless.

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,
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: 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 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.

Reading of "The Second Coming"

Commentary

If Yeats had just bothered to take his poem through one or maybe two more revisions, he might have saved his potentially great poem from the overrated, because misunderstood, work that it became.

First Movement: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre”

The speaker is sorrowing over the chaos of worldly events that have left many dead in their wake. Clashes of groups of ideologues have wreaked havoc and much blood shed has smeared the tranquil lives of innocent people, who wish to live quiet, prosperous lives.

The speaker likens the seemingly out of control situation of society to a falconer losing control of the falcon as he attempts to tame it. Everyday life has become chaotic as corrupt governments have spurred revolutions. Lack of respect for leadership has left a vacuum which is filled with force and violence.

The overstated claim that, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” should have alerted readers of the poem that they should take all that follows with a bit of skeptical grain of salt. Such a blanket, unqualified statement, even in a poem lacks the ring of truth: it simply cannot be that the best absolutely lack “all conviction.” It also cannot be that all the worst are passionate. Any reader should be wary of such all-inclusive, absolutist statements.

Second Movement: "Surely some revelation is at hand”

The idea of “some revelation” leads the speaker to the mythological second coming of Christ. So he speculates on what a second coming of Christ (or whatever) might entail. However, instead of “Christ,” the speaker conjures the notion of an Egyptian-Sphinx-like character.

Instead of a second coming of godliness and virtue, as is the purpose of the original Second Coming, the speaker wonders what if the second coming is more like an Anti-Christ. What if all this chaos of blood shed and disarray has been brought on by the opposite of Christly virtue?

Exaggerated Importance of Poem

William Butler. Yeats composed a manifesto to display his worldview and poetics titled, A Vision, in which he set down certain tenets of his thoughts on poetry, creativity, and world history. The work, although seemingly taken quite seriously by Yeats’ scholars, is of little value in understanding meaning of poetry and/or the world, for that matter.

An important example of Yeats’ misunderstanding of world cycles is his explanation of the cyclical nature of history, exemplified with what he called “gyres.” Two particular points in the Yeatian explanation demonstrate the fallacy of his thinking: (a) In his diagram, Yeats set the position of the gyres inaccurately; they should not be intersecting but instead one should rest one on top the other: cycles shrink and enlarge in scope, they do not overlap, as they would have to do if the Yeatsian model were accurate. (b) In the traditional second coming, Christ is figured to come again but as an adult, not as in infant as is implied in Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming."

Of great significance in Yeats’ poem is that the “rough beast,” apparently the Anti-Christ, who has not been born yet. And most problematic is that the rough beast is “slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born.” The question is, how can such an Anti-Christian creature be slouching if it has not yet been born? There is no indication the speaker wishes to attribute this second coming fiasco to its mother.

This illogical event is never mentioned by critics who seem to accept the slouching as a possible occurrence. On this score, it seems critics and scholars have lent the poem an usually wide and encompassing poetic license.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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