Yeats believed that human history could be marked in twenty-century intervals. As the birth of Christ ended the reign of Greco-Roman culture, Yeats prophesies in the poem the end of Christianity’s dominance over human philosophy and the Western social order in the twentieth century. Clearly, then, he uses the second-coming motif as a reference to a new incarnation other than Christ’s that will displace Christian civilization with something less beneficent and conducive to human progress.
Like many turn-of-the-century artists, Yeats felt some ambivalence toward this apparent change in the human order. Ostensibly restricting the artistic imagination with its legalism and fixed moral code, Christianity also provided the metaphors of creator, creativity, freedom, and order that allowed the poet the sense of power to shape the world through words. In the aftermath of Christianity’s reduction to mere theology or, worse, mere politics, the poet is forced to become simply one more observer, disarmed by social forces of his authority to address the issues of his times.
Though eccentric in his views of history, especially as set forth in the obscure and perplexing prose work A Vision (1925), Yeats was troubled by the overthrow of Czar Nicholas in Russia by the Marxist-Leninists and the apparent rise of Fascism in Europe. These events all portended to him a new “dark ages.” Thus, many commentators view the poem as Yeats’s prediction...
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