How does William B. Yeats connect to Western civilization in "The Second Coming"?
In this poem Yeats connects to both modern and ancient aspects of Western civilization. The first stanza characterizes what was happening in the West during the first years of the 20th century. The poem was written in 1919, and the devastation of the Great War (which we now know as WWI) was fresh in everyone's mind. Thus he describes the recent state of Western civilization as being one in which "things fall apart," and "mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Certainly through the war, which killed or wounded almost three million of England's best and brightest young men, "the ceremony of innocence" appeared to be drowned for soldiers and their families. They would never view life or the world the same again. Beyond the devastation of the war, political unrest in Ireland and Russia was also brewing. No doubt it seemed that leaders had lost their conviction, their commitment to the good of their citizens.
The second and third stanza look forward into the future and backward into the past. Yeats believed in 2000-year cycles of history. His references to "a rocking cradle" and "Bethlehem" refer to the birth of Christ, which he believed inaugurated the present cycle he was living in. However, his cycle was winding down, and a new cycle would be birthed soon. He believed the final years of one cycle took on the characteristics of the next; therefore, the unprecedented blood-letting and carnage of the Great War was a premonition of the "rough beast" who waited to gain control of the coming 2000 years. If the influence of Christianity, with its message of salvation and peace, served only to "vex to nightmare" the current cycle, the prospects of the coming age were too gruesome to be imagined, in Yeats' view. Thus he characterizes the ancient time of Western civilization as "stony sleep," and the recent years as a nightmare; neither could compare, however, to the grim outlook of what could be expected of Western civilization in the coming years.