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The Poets

May 25, 2009

The Second Coming: Yeats Poem



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?



Of the Poem:

Yeats was heavily influenced by a mysticism whose theological content derived from a hodgepodge of deep Eastern ideas. Although Yeats was certainly not a Christian, he would throughout his life employ Christian language and themes to convey this or that particular idea. In his apocalyptic poem, The Second Coming, such use is made evident.

Yeats began to work on this poem in January of 1919, during a time when the political atmosphere was highly turbulent: the first World War just ended; the Russian Revolution- to which Yeats was heatedly opposed- had begun (not to mention the festering internal divisions of Ireland’s religious and political communities).

Like the philosopher Hegel (too a mystic minded man), Yeats believed there’s a dialectical process underlying historical events, and further believed that humans have the ability to glimpse it as they all have access to a ‘common consciousness’ not unlike the ‘world soul’ of the Transcendentalists. Note how Yeats derives his poetic vision from it when he says in line 12: a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight (where the Spiritus Mundi is the common medium).

The ‘gyre’ of line 1 is probably the most important individual word in the whole poem. This is a Yeatsian term that contains abstract geometrical figures whose superimposed movements work as a scale to determine a particular historical state or time (it’s essentially his crystal ball to historical events). For more on the gyre see comments area.

The repetitious use of words in the poem seem meant to produce within the reader a sort of nervous perception of impending danger or dark times (words like ‘turning’ in line one, ‘loosed’ in 4 and 5, and, along with the title of the poem, lines 10 and 11’s ‘Second Coming’).

Lines 7 and 8 are essentially a paraphrase of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. The ‘stony sleep’ of line 19 is borrowed from William Blake’s somewhat Gnostic myth, The Book of Urizen:

But Urizen laid in a stony sleep
Unorganiz'd, rent from Eternity.
Chapter III. Verse 10

The ‘rocking cradle’ of line 20 coupled with the reference to ‘Bethlehem’ in line 22 is clearly an allusion to the nativity of Christ, which would seem to suggest that the ‘rough beat’ slouching toward that holy city is an entity holding a particular hostility with regards to Jesus and Christianity. My personal take is that the reference is toward an antichrist figure very much similar to the one mentioned in John’s first letter (this despite the many interpretations which seem to rule that conclusion out).

The poem seems to depict a period in history (Yeats’ history to be clear) where a gloomy paradigm shift is at hand; where authority in the highest spiritual sense of the word is on the verge of abrogation (and this by the manifestation of that personae whom Yeats equates with that stony figure: the Sphinx).

If ever there were a poem one could deem as dark and riddled with dreadful prophetic imagery, would it not be this one? Top ten for creepiness for sure. What does it for me is that this poem was not for Yeats a hypothetical narrative or story… no, I am utterly convinced that he expected fulfillment of it.

There’s so much that can be elaborated on here with regard to this poem (and perhaps in time I’ll come back to it). I decided to post it- along with a brief biography from Poets.org- because Yeats was one of the first poets I actively began to read, and this particular poem was one of the first that … well, I’ll say it … really creeped me out.

4 comments:

John W. May said...

As I was saying, the religious concept of the ‘gyre’ is somewhat abstract, but picture the ‘falcon’ in line 1 as flying upward in small concentric circles that gradually widen and widen until finally the bird seems to be flying around no central spot, then imagine the conical shape of that bird’s widening flight… that single cone is a gyre.

If you can further imagine two horizontal cones with the apex of each touching the base of the other, and trace a timeline directly through the middle, then you’ve come closer to understanding how Yeats sees historical cycles. The widened aspect of the base indicates the culmination of a period, while the apex indicates the beginning of another. For Yeats, a period lasts ‘twenty centuries’ (as line 19 of the poem seems to suggest).

The point, I think, is that Yeats utilized a working theosophical concept as a real world premise for this poem- a concept that was not for him mere fancy.

Anonymous said...

Thats cool no one does poetry anymore.
http://www.allmylittlewordsonline.com/

John W. May said...

As a side note:

Yeats' The Second Coming is a beautiful poem because it's 'story' is so ugly- ugly in the sense that it's content moves the reader's imagination to anxious grief (the only words I can think of now).

Also, for clarity's sake: The Second Coming as imagined by Yeats has NOTHING to do with Christianity's Second Advent.

Doug P. Baker said...

John,

I've enjoyed The Second Coming simply for its sounds, while the imagery has been slightly disturbing and mostly ignored. Now I understand it much better, and I thank you! Your putting it in context both of world events and Yeats' philosophy is highly enlightening!

As of April 9th, 2010