William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” opens with
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Published in 1920, this poem reflects the political and social upheaval of a world rocked by events like World War I, the Russian/Bolshevik Revolution, and civil war in Yeats’s native Ireland. The poem’s first two lines create a disturbing image of a falcon flying out of control. Falconry—as described by the North American Falconers Association—is the capture of wild prey “quarry in its natural state and habitat by means of a trained raptor” (e.g., the falcon). This ancient art requires years of training for both the falconer and falcon as well as adherence to ethical codes. Falconers must care for, treat, and utilize falcons with respect; the animals are not to be used as pets, prestige items, or entertainment, but for the “sportsmanlike pursuit of wild quarry.”
A falcon symbolizes vision, focus, protection, and victory, especially over difficult circumstances. Therefore, a falcon flying in an ever-widening path and seemingly out of its falconer’s control is particularly troubling. The theme of this poem is the disintegration of civilization and order, both natural and social; the falcon’s behavior portends and reflects this chaos. Is the falcon losing its sharp vision and focus like men are losing foresight, common sense, and caution? Are physical violence and irrational thought leaving mankind vulnerable and unable to behave rationally and maintain order? Can men no longer overcome and recover from conflict?
If read somewhat optimistically, the second line could mean that the falcon cannot hear the falconer due to external circumstances. Maybe the falcon cannot hear the falconer because the wind is too strong and noisy (like the chaotic world) or the falconer’s voice is too soft and lacks authority. Perhaps the falcon is flying too high (like men acting with self-destructive hubris).
If read less optimistically, however, this line could emphasize a reverse in natural and social order. Perhaps the falcon is purposely not listening to and willfully disobeying the falconer. Instead of flying in its usual, expected path, the raptor loses focus on its prey and breaks from its ever-tightening circles. Like men (especially those who lose sight of principles, morality, and goals) during war, revolution, and anarchy, the falcon spirals wildly out of control.
In either case—whether the falcon innocently or intentionally does not “hear” the falconer—Yeats pessimistically predicts the dissolution of mankind.