Study Guide

The Second Coming

by William Butler Yeats

The Second Coming Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The continual broadening of Yeats’s scope as a poet and thinker is demonstrated by “The Second Coming.” This poem was first published in what was one of the most important literary magazines of the day, The Dial, in November, 1920, and first appeared in book form the same year in Michael Robartes and the Dancer.

Some technical knowledge is required in order to understand the opening line of the poem. The “widening gyre” (pronounced with a hard “g”) describes not only the circular, ever-widening course of the falcon’s flight. It also refers to an important aspect of Yeats’s theory of history. Influenced by Giambattista Vico and Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophies of eternal recurrence, Yeats sees history as a cycle of declines and regenerations. Each historical era is replaced by its opposite. Gyres describe the interacting and conflicting eras.

In “The Second Coming,” the end of the Christian era is thought to be at hand. The poem’s title is intended, first, to bring to mind the Second Coming of Christ. Yet this association, with its promises of salvation, gives way to the monstrous image of the “rough beast,” suggesting barbarism. In the New Testament, the Second Coming rescues the faithful from the dreadful conditions that accompany the end of the world. In the poem, the second coming means being condemned to those dreadful conditions. The fact that the “rough beast” is to be born in Bethlehem underlines the enormous changes that the poet believes to be on the way.

Yeats was not the only early twentieth century...

(The entire section is 654 words.)