What are the binary oppositions in W.B.Yeats's "The Second Coming"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Part of what makes Yeats' poem so powerful is that he plays into and yet rejects the binary opposition that is so much a part of Western intellectual currents.  Had Yeats taken the traditional approach to binary thought, he would have presented it as "either or."  He undermines this by presenting a vision where pain is inevitable in either realm.  It is "either and or" as human suffering is present in either case.  From the opening lines, we can see this.  When the "falcon cannot hear the falconer" or when "the center cannot hold/ mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," we are given binary oppositions ("falcon" and "falconer" or "center" and "anarchy.")  Yet, in both settings, there can be no refuge taken because of what lies ahead.  When Yeats describes the figure that arises in front of him, it is a vision that eliminates the binary opposition in the first stanza.  What ends up becoming horrifying is that this vision crushes everything in its path, eliminating any hope of sanctuary that binary opposing thought could or had provided.  In this light, Yeats plays with and evokes the binary oppositions that had become a part of our identity and replaces it with a vision that forces reckoning as it eliminates them.  In this light, the poem moves from a modernist work to something that foreshadows the post- modernist movement.

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