The Second Coming
The Never Ending Cycle In the poem “The Second Coming” Yeats used Christian imagery from the Bible in regards to the Book of Revelations to describe what he feels as the Apocalypse and the second coming. “The Second Coming” is a poem written about how good and evil is in an eternal cycle; as one expands, the other contracts. This poem is a result of Yeats’ reaction to the future of his people after World War I.
He uses strong symbolisms in this poem that not only make you feel what he is feeling but it also depicts the transition and movement of good and evil over time using the gyre, falcon, blood-dimmed tide, ceremony of innocence, sphinx and the desert birds. The first stanza of the poem describes how things are falling apart after the war (the world is doomed, there’s anarchy everywhere) and then the second stanza is about the second coming but not of Christ, rather of an evil being. The gyre seems to be the main focus of this poem.
Yeats used gyres often in his poems to symbolize the cycles of life that he thought occurs every two thousand years. In this poem the eternal cycle/gyre is the representation of “the primary…and the antithetical…Christ Jesus was the primary dispensation and the coming now dispensation – not the covenant – will be antithetical” (Murphy 103). The falcon in the story is representing the expansion of the good being at its peak “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ the falcon cannot hear the falconer” (Yeats 1-2) and the coming of the beast is the new age.
The falcon straying from the falconer also symbolizes how Yeats felt about the future of his people after the war. Harrison best described this by saying that “the separation from man and bird offers a striking image of social and cultural disintegration, not from a single loss of communication, in itself redeemable and lacking the symbolic dimension required for the anarchic forcesit heralds, but from Yeats’ anguish at the disruption of the order and cohesion…of the society he so admired” (362).
Then “things fall apart; the Centre cannot hold” (Yeats 3) this symbolizes that the speaker feels as though chaos is to follow and order is collapsing. If you look all around us even today it feels as though whenever there is a shift in power, a “widening gyre” ( Yeats 1), things fall apart and the “moment which perceives the change which brings no fulfillment, event without meaning, is the instant in which tragic passion seizes men, and this moment, endlessly repeated, is the essence of tragic existence for Yeats” (Brunner 6). How any wars have brought on this kind of feeling, that there was no point to it at all just immaturity in an undeserving leader and this leads to devastating consequences for innocent bystanders whose lives are now chanced for the worst. People then feel as though all hope is lost and no good is to come of this. In Lines 4 through 6 Yeats says “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ the ceremony of innocence is lost” (4-6). He is speaking of the war that has just ended; the pure anarchy of violence and terror that affected the people of his country and this world.
He feels that this tragedy has drowned out how things were before the chaos of war. The citizens of his country once felt at peace throughout his childhood and now he fears that good times will never return. You can also link the word loosed to being let free, so this could be a preface to the symbolic releasing of the “rough beast” (Yeats 21). This leads to lines 7 and 8 that state “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats 7-8).
Yeats is trying to say that even though the good people are lacking faith that there is a bright future, the evil people of this world are rejoicing in the fact that they are winning. I could not imagine experiencing something so horrific and then feeling as if “the universe is inhuman, a frozen absurdity; the change which is not change, but only repetition…no hope” (Brunner 5) and that evil is going to consume us all. A lot of people even today feel as though the world is headed toward the Apocalypse and that the end is near.
In line 14 Yeats speaks of a Sphinx coming “out of Spiritus Mundi” (Yeats 12), meaning the spirit world, but refers to it by saying “a shape with lion body and the head of a man” (14) and not by its name. He feels that the Christian era is coming to an end and that this beast is going to take over the world in an Apocalypse era, he fears for the future of mankind. In reference to the beast and its part in this era Murphy says that “it is for one thing, not the last judgment of the Apocalypse which the beast will precede, but more a shifting and sifting from one level of being to another (106).
While the beast is moving slowly through the desert the “shadows of the indignant desert birds” (Yeats 17) are looming above. The birds seem as though they are angered by the presence of this sphinx, maybe they feel as Yeats does in the fact that they are all doomed. These birds in the poem remind me of how black crows fly over and feed upon anything that they find dead in the road. The sphinx that Yeats is talking about symbolizes the end of mankind and the birds are trying to stop it from reaping havoc on their land, but they are unsuccessful.
In this final stanza of the poem Yeats describes how “twenty centuries of stony sleep were vexed to nightmares by a rocking cradle” (19-20), twenty centuries of stony sleep to me refers to the fact that the beast has been haunting the dreams of the child that was born twenty centuries ago (Christ) and that it’s time of rapture has come and he is slowly heading towards the birthplace of Christ to be born himself. It amazes me sometimes because I know that people think of the possibilities of what is going to happen when the human race is taken over or extinct. How exactly it is going to happen?
Yeats is so descriptive that you can almost feel the incredible doom that he feels. There is always going to be a cycle, a struggle of good and evil and we all would like to believe that good is going to prevail. The symbolisms that Yeats uses in the poem; the gyre, falcon, blood-dimmed tide, ceremony of innocence, sphinx, and the desert birds all come from his imagination and what he feels they represent in his experiences. Work Cited Brunner, Larry. Tragic Victory: The Doctrine of Subjective Salvation in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats. Troy, New York: The Whitson Publishing Company, 1987.
Web. 26 Oct 2011. Harrison, John. “What Rough Beast? Nietzsche and Historical Rhetoric in “The Second Coming” ”. Papers on Language and Literature. 31. 4(1995): 362. Web. 26 Oct 2011. Murphy, Russell E. “ The Rough Beast and Historical Necessity: A New Consideration of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” ”. Studies in the Literary Imagination. 14. 1 (1981):101-110. Web. 26 Oct 2011. Yeats, William Butler. The Second Coming. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Edgar V Roberts and Robert Zweig. 10th edition. New York: Pearson Longman, 2010. Pg. 1002. Print.