The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats Essay - Critical Essays

The Second Coming Yeats, William Butler

Introduction

"The Second Coming" Yeats, William Butler

Irish poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, short story writer, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Yeats's poem "The Second Coming."

Yeats is considered one of the finest poets in the English language. He was devoted to the cause of Irish nationalism and played a significant part in the Celtic Revival Movement, promoting the literary heritage of Ireland through his use of material from ancient Irish sagas. Magic and occult theory are also important elements in Yeats's work, as many of the images found in his poetry are derived from his occult researches. Such is the case in regard to Yeats's lyric poem, "The Second Coming." The work is generally viewed as a symbolic revelation of the end of the Christian era, and is one of Yeats's most widely commented-on works. Thought to exemplify Yeats's cyclical interpretation of history, "The Second Coming" is regarded as a masterpiece of Modernist poetry and is variously interpreted by scholars, whose principal concern has been to unravel its complex symbolism.

Biographical Information

Yeats was born in Dublin to Irish-Protestant parents. His father was a painter who influenced his son's thoughts about art. Yeats's mother shared with her son her interest in folklore, fairies, and astrology as well as her love of Ireland, particularly the region surrounding Sligo in western Ireland where Yeats spent much of his childhood. Educated in England and Ireland, Yeats was erratic in his studies, shy, and prone to daydreaming. In 1884 he enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. There he met the poet George Russell, who shared Yeats's enthusiasm for dreams and visions. Together they founded the Dublin Hermetic Society to conduct magical experiments and "to promote the study of Oriental Religions and Theosophy." Yeats also joined the Rosicrucians, the Theosophical Society, and MacGregor Mather's Order of the Golden Dawn. In 1885 Yeats met the Irish nationalist John O'Leary, who was instrumental in arranging for the publication of Yeats's first poems in The Dublin University Review. Under the influence of O'Leary, Yeats took up the cause of Gaelic writers at a time when much native Irish literature was in danger of being lost as the result of England's attempts to anglicize Ireland through a ban on the Gaelic language. By the early years of the twentieth century Yeats had risen to international prominence as a proponent of the Gaelic Revival and had published numerous plays and collections of poetry. In 1917 Yeats married Georgiana Hyde-Lees. Through his young wife's experiments with automatic writing, Yeats gathered the materials on which he based A Vision, his explanation of historical cycles and theory of human personality based upon the phases of the moon. Yeats began writing "The Second Coming" in January 1919, in the wake of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. It was first published in November 1920 in The Dial and later appeared in his collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer, one of several works of the period that exemplify the rhetorical, occasionally haughty tone that readers today identify as characteristically Yeatsian. In 1922 Yeats became a senator for the newly formed Irish Free State. The following year he was honored with the Nobel Prize for literature. Ill health forced Yeats to leave the Irish senate in 1928. He devoted his remaining years to poetry and died in France in 1939.

Major Themes

"The Second Coming" is viewed as a prophetic poem that envisions the close of the Christian epoch and the violent birth of a new age. The poem's title makes reference to the Biblical reappearance of Christ, prophesied in Matthew 24 and the Revelations of St. John, which according to Christianity, will accompany the Apocalypse and divine Last Judgment. Other symbols in the poem are drawn from mythology, the occult, and Yeats's view of history as defined in his cryptic prose volume A Vision. The principal figure of the work is a sphinx-like creature with a lion's body and man's head, a "rough beast" awakened in the desert that makes its way to Christ's birthplace, Bethlehem. While critics acknowledge the work's internal symbolic power, most have studied its themes in relation to Yeats's A Vision. According to the cosmological scheme of A Vision, the sweep of history can be represented by two intersecting cones, or gyres, each of which possesses one of two opposing "tinctures," primary and antithetical, that define the dominant modes of civilization. Yeats associated the primary or solar tincture with democracy, truth, abstraction, goodness, egalitarianism, scientific rationalism, and peace. The contrasting antithetical or lunar tincture he related to aristocracy, hierarchy, art, fiction, evil, particularity, and war. According to Yeats's view, as one gyre widens over a period of two thousand years the other narrows, producing a gradual change in the age. The process then reverses after another twenty centuries have passed, and so on, producing a cyclic pattern throughout time. In the early twentieth-century Yeats envisioned the primary gyre, the age of Christianity, to be at its fullest expansion and approaching a turning point when the primary would begin to contract and the antithetical enlarge. Yeats wrote: "All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilisation belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash .. . of the civilisation that must slowly take its place." Thus, in "The Second Coming" scholars view the uncontrolled flight of the falcon as representative of this primary expansion at its chaotic peak, while the coming of an antithetical disposition is symbolized in the appearance of the "rough beast" in the desert, a harbinger of the new epoch.

Critical Reception

The general relationship of A Vision to "The Second Coming" has been accepted by most critics, yet the elusive nature of Yeats's imagery has prompted varying interpretations of the poem. Many scholars have focused on its political character and especially on the sphinx-like beast of the poem's second half, seeing it as representative of the general forces of violence and anarchy, or more specifically of the Russian Revolution, World War I, the Irish Civil War of 1916, Fascism, or communism. Such views typically emphasize the horrific and ominous nature of the beast, and associate its appearance with the decline of western civilization. Critics who have used A Vision extensively in their interpretations of the poem, however, have occasionally noted that the sphinx is not necessarily intended as a negative image—and that Yeats himself was not displeased to witness what he viewed as the close of the Christian era. Commentators have also seen "The Second Coming" in the context of other poems by Yeats that elicit similar or parallel themes, such as "Leda and the Swan" and "A Prayer for My Daughter." Additional areas of critical interest concerning the work include study of the symbolic nature of the falcon, exploration of the lengthy process of revision undertaken by Yeats, and consideration of the poet's ironic use of religious allusion in the poem. Others critics have also observed significant influences on the work, which contains echoes of Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, and have examined its philosophical underpinnings, particularly in relation to the conception of alternating cycles of human history proposed by Friedrich Nietzsche. Overall, "The Second Coming" has been well-received as one of the most evocative visionary lyric poems of the twentieth-century and widely praised for its technical excellence and extensive symbolic resonance.

Criticism

Donald Weeks (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Image and Idea in Yeats's The Second Coming'," in PMLA, Vol. LXIII, No. 1, March, 1948, pp. 281-92.

[In the following essay, Weeks seeks to trace the images, thoughts, and associations alive in Yeats's mind while he was writing "The Second Coming. "]

There are poets whose art is an accumulating cluster of images that become more and more identified with specific ideas. I believe Yeats to have been such a poet, in whom a cluster of images grew in significance to produce the great poems of the period from the first World War to the second. Generally accepted as one of Yeats' finest lyrics is "The Second Coming." I believe that the poem gains in richness by being...

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Edward A. Bloom (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Yeats's 'Second Coming': An Experiment in Analysis," in The University of Kansas City Review, Vol. XXI, No. 2, Winter, 1954, pp. 103-10.

[In the following essay, Bloom analyzes "The Second Coming" in light of Yeats's philosophical writings, calling the poem "a masterpiece of complexity. "]

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
...

(The entire section is 3940 words.)

Bernard Levine (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Vision and 'Responsibility'," in The Dissolving Image: The Spiritual-Esthetic Development of W. B. Yeats, Wayne State University Press, 1970, pp. 81-101.

[In the following essay, Levine considers "The Second Coming" in the context of several earlier poems by Yeats, seeing the work " as proof of the speaker's journey toward psychological equanimity" and humankind's imaginative acceptance of responsibility.]

The heroic quest for Yeats was a perdurable subject for poetry, explored first in the longest and one of the earliest of his poems, "Oisin" (1889). Almost immediately after "Oisin," love, the longing for everlasting union with the beloved, became the poet's...

(The entire section is 9116 words.)

Russell E. Murphy (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The 'Rough Beast' and Historical Necessity: A New Consideration of Yeats's 'The Second Coming'," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 101-10.

[In the following essay, Murphy turns to Yeats's A Vision for an indication of the meaning of "The Second Coming. " Murphy contradicts typical readings of the poem by focusing on its positive qualities when viewed in this context.]

On April 8, 1938, William Butler Yeats, commenting on the world political scene in a letter to his friend Ethel Mannin, wrote:

If you have my poems by you, look up a poem called "The Second Coming." It was...

(The entire section is 4444 words.)

James Lovic Allen (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "What Rough Beast?: Yeats's 'The Second Coming' and A Vision," in REAL: The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, Vol. 3, 1985, pp. 223-63.

[In the following essay, Allen interprets "The Second Coming " as a political poem associated with the rise of communism.]

"The Second Coming," one of Yeats's three or four most famous poems, is also one of his most frequently explicated or analyzed. It is, furthermore, one of the most variously interpreted, perhaps the most variously interpreted. There is no generally accepted reading or any significant degree of consensus about meaning or meanings. One reason for this situation is that the...

(The entire section is 17686 words.)

Jewel Spears Brooker (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Second Coming' and The Waste Land': Capstones of the Western Civilization Course," in College Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 240-53.

[In the following essay, Brooker examines "The Second Coming" and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as these poems confront the decline of western civilization.]

"The Second Coming" by W. B. Yeats and The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot are ideal companion poems to use as a capstone experience in a course in Western Civilization. Both poems deal powerfully with the state of civilization in the twentieth century; both suggest that civilization is falling apart and each in its own way reveals the cause of the...

(The entire section is 6171 words.)

Robert F. Fleissner (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "On Straightening Out Yeats's 'Rough Beast'," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, December, 1988, pp. 201-8.

[In the following essay, Fleissner speculates on the nature of the "rough beast" in "The Second Coming."]

The bestial image at the tail end of William Butler Yeats's "The Second Coming" is described there as a "rough" one indeed and so deserves some critical straightening out. Hence yet another note on this famous poem may be justified.

I

As a starter, let us consider a surprising, recent news release, which was boldly captioned, at least in the local papers, as follows: "Move Over, Tarzan: Anthropologist says...

(The entire section is 2668 words.)

Edward Proffitt (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Yeats's The Second Coming'," in The Explicato r Vol. 49, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 165-6.

[In the following essay, Proffitt contends that the "rough beast" of "The Second Coming" refers to the offspring of the sphinx-like desert creature in the poem.]

Yeats's "The Second Coming" must be one of the most widely explicated and paraphrased of poems. Still, its closure remains a mystery. If the "rough beast" spoken of at the end is the sphinx-like creature of lines 13-17, how can it be going to be born in Bethlehem when it has already been born in the desert? Indeed, how could any creature slouch toward the place where it is to be born?

Readers of...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Seamus Deane (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Second Coming': Coming Second; Coming in a Second," in Irish University Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1992, pp. 92-100.

[In the following essay, Deane studies "The Second Coming" in relation to the accompanying poems of Michael Robartes and the Dancer, concentrating on its combined sexual and historical themes.]

Yeats's famous poem "The Second Coming" is concerned with an ending and a beginning, both of them so interfused that it is scarcely possible to say where the distinction between them can be found.1 The poem does indicate the moment when they appear to disengage. "Hardly are those words out / When. . . . " The phrase "The...

(The entire section is 3763 words.)

A. Raghu (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Yeats's The Second Coming'," in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 224-5.

[In the following essay, Raghu addresses Edward Proffitt's 1991 explication of "The Second Coming." Raghu argues that the "rough beast" of the poem is a mental image or vision, and that the final lines of the poem should not be read literally.]

Edward Proffitt's very original thesis, that the rough beast mentioned in the penultimate line of Yeats's "The Second Coming" is the offspring of the sphinx-like creature of lines 13-17, which was propounded in his note on the poem (Explicator 49.3, spring 1991), definitely makes sense but does not seem to be as wholly...

(The entire section is 771 words.)

Karen Marguerite Moloney (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Re-envisioning Yeats's 'The Second Coming': Desmond O'Grady and the Charles River," in Learning the Trade: Essays on W. B. Yeats and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Deborah Fleming, Locust Hill Press, 1993, pp. 135-47.

[In the following essay, Moloney reads Desmond O'Grady's poem "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River" as a response to the ideas expressed in "The Second Coming."]

In "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River" (Contemporary Irish Poetry 260-62), the narrator, Desmond O'Grady as a young Harvard graduate student, engages in conversation one April afternoon with John Kelleher, professor of Celtic Studies. Nearby runs the gentle but...

(The entire section is 4125 words.)

Nathan Cervo (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Yeats's 'The Second Coming'," in The Explicator, Vol. 53, No. 3, Spring, 1995, pp. 161-3.

[In the following essay, Cervo explores the prophetic implications of "The Second Coming" with regard to Christian millennarianism.]

Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" was published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), a few years after Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West, which appeared just after the close of World War I and the Balfour Declaration (1917). In a long note on the widening "gyre" (line 1) mentioned in the poem, Yeats observed: "All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre...

(The entire section is 1024 words.)

John R. Harrison (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "What Rough Beast?: Yeats, Nietzsche and Historical Rhetoric in The Second Coming'," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 362-88.

[In the following essay, Harrison focuses on Nietzschean suggestions in the language and imagery of "The Second Coming. "]

In the absence of a thorough examination of the impact on "The Second Coming" of Yeats's historical thought, it is arguable that the meaning the poet intended has not only been consistently overlooked, but that in general the poem has been taken to mean the opposite of what he intended. This essay offers a reassessment of the thought and imagery, of the response Yeats wished to...

(The entire section is 8853 words.)