W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” was written in 1919, just one year after WWI ended. The beginning of this poem reflects on how evil has taken over the minds of good Christians, and the world has turned into chaos. It is apparent that Yeats believes that a Second Coming is at hand, and he spends the last half of the poem discussing what that Second Coming could look like.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre (line 1)
Yeats imagines the world in a cyclical sphere known a gyre (shape of a cone). In Yeats’ note on the text, he states that “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 its greatest contraction” (2036). Yeats believes that the two thousand years of Christianity will be coming to an end, and after a violent reversal a new age will take its place. The widening part of the gyre is supposed to connote anarchy, evil, and the loss of innocence.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; (2)
The falconer in this analogy is most likely God (or Jesus), and the falcon is the follower (or devotee). Humanity can no longer hear the word of God, because it is drowned out by all of chaos of the widening gyre. A wild falcon can symbolize an unconverted Gentile; someone who has sinful thoughts, and does sinful things. A tame falcon (one who listens to the word of God) is a Christian convert. In the Egyptian culture, the falcon is used to represent sky deities (or in Christian terms, God).
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, (3-4)
Everything will fall into chaos if there is not a guiding morality such as God. The world cannot stay at the center of the gyre, because it would mean complete destruction. There has to be a reversal so that things can once again come into balance. The world has to start at the tip of the cone again, which means there has to be a violent reversal in order to make this happen.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; (5-6)
The “blood-dimmed tide” could be referring to when Moses parted the Red Sea. The Pharaoh agreed to let Moses and his people leave Egypt, but then changed his mind. The Pharaoh and his men chased after them. Moses used his staff to part the Red Sea and lead his people to safety, and the Pharaoh and his army were drowned behind them. The word “ceremony” connotes something that is not real, is just a habit, or a façade. Innocence no longer exists in the world; it is all just a show put on by humanity. The Pharaoh ceremoniously let Moses and his people go, but after they left he went after them with the intention of either killing them or re-enslaving them.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity (7-8).
Humanity is already evil, but the ones who seem to be the least evil don’t have any convictions or beliefs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the most evil let their intense emotions rule them. Now is a good time to remember that this poem was written in the aftermath of WWI and the Russian Revolution, and just before the tensions came to a head in the Anglo-Irish War. The Anglo-Irish War is about the Irish wanting to separate themselves from English rule; this was a very intense time in Irish history, and Yeats being of Irish decent would have felt these tensions.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand (9-10).
Yeats is saying here that there has to be some reason why all the blood-shed from WWI happened; there has to be a rational reason why there is so much evil in the world. In the first book of John, it states “little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time” (Holy Bible, 1 John. 2.18). The second coming is to be preceded by an Antichrist and absolute chaos.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with a lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thights, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds (11- 17).
This section of the poem is Yeats’ version of the Second Coming. Spiritus Mundi is “a collective unconscious or memory, in which the human race preserves its past memories. Spiritus mundi translated from Latin means spirit of the universe.
The image is very large and hard for a person to take in all at once. The desert is either the Judean desert or Egypt. In this context, I tend to lean more towards Eygpt, but in the larger context of the poem the Judean desert is also plausible. The figure of the human head with a lion’s body is called a sphinx. Sphinx are said to be temple guardians; they guard royal tombs and religious temples. If the sphinx is guarding a royal tomb then the head on the sphinx is usually the head of the pharaoh buried within the tomb. The most widely known sphinx is the Great Sphinx of Giza. The head of that sphinx is said to be that of Pharaoh Khafra. The gaze of the sphinx has no mercy for humanity much like the desert sun as no mercy for those beneath its rays. It is moving “its slow thighs” toward Jersualem to be born again. Desert birds are hawks or falcons, which symbolize sky deities or God. They are indignant because they are extremely upset with what the world has become, and as the representations of the Egyptian deities they are guiding the sphinx to Jerusalem bring order to the world again.
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? (18-22)
Its highly unlikely that Yeats was referring to a literal sphinx going towards Jerusalem, but rather a figurative sphinx; something so huge that it will block out the sun forcing the world into a metaphorical darkness that will inevitably cleanse humanity. It has been two thousand years (or twenty centuries) since Jesus died for the world’s sins, and the metaphorical sphinx has been lying in waiting for its time to unleash its evils upon the world.
The rocking cradle is the image of Christ and his mother. It can also be used to represent the anti-Christ being rocked by his mother. The rough beast is the anti-Christ that will bring destruction and pain to the world. This unholy creature will be born in the holy birth place of Christ.
Some believe that the “rough beast” that Yeats foresaw is Hitler, and the atrocities that he inflicted upon the Jews were what was needed to reunite humanity and bring about peace.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 2036-2037.
Seawright, Caroline. 2001. 23 Mar. 2010