William Butler Yeats Questions and Answers

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Identify the elements of Symbolism in "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats. Thanks a million.

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There are many examples of symbolism in the poem.  Remember that Yeats is writing this as the First World War has ended.  Its shattering of Europe both physically and morally has left permanent scars on both landscape and people.  At the same time, Yeats possesses this unshakable feeling that it's not over, that something more sinister looms on the horizon.  The use of symbols in the poem helps to convey both.  The opening image of the "widening gyre" brings forth the idea that a vortex of some type, a black hole has descended upon humanity.  This lack of clarity and uncertainty is why the normally reliable "falcon cannot hear the falconer."  The idea of the center being unable to hold as "things fall apart" is another symbolic image which brings forth the idea that the political and moral structure that guided people has been broken and all that is left is the presence of "mere anarchy."  There is little certain in this setting other than "the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity."  These symbols in the opening stanza go very far in representing a world that is left with little in way of hope and redemption.

The symbolism of "The Second Coming" is the Christian belief that the reappearance of Christ is what will put right all that is wrong.  It is the moment of human absolution, and this vision of totality is addressed in the poem.  While Yeats open with a call that "some revelation is at hand," he also symbolizes this with a description of a rather horrific figure, which is meant to symbolize how individuals are prone to embrace nearly anything that might be disguised or concealed as hope even if it symbolizes the exact opposite of it.  The symbolism of this image acquires even greater significance when seen in the emergence of dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Fanco, and Mussolini throughout Europe.  As this figure, once seen to be symbolic of the Second Coming comes into view, the symbolism of it slouching "towards Bethlehem, waiting to be born" brings for the image of not a triumphant vision, but rather one that terrifies and strikes at the very essence of who we are and in what we believe.  This ultimate act of symbolism helps to bring forth the idea that we, as individuals, wait for something to not save us, but actually terrify us more.

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Some of the symbolism used by William Butler Yeats in the poem 'The Second Coming' relates back to the ideas of stability and instability. For example, the poet uses the words 'widening gyre.' Here he is talking about entire universes and harking back to images of our planet in time and space where only a certain delicate balance of forces keeps us in our right place in the universe and the scheme of things. The slightest thing can set an object off at a tangent to be thrown violently millions of miles off course. He has a similar preoccupation with the wind blowing things off course in other poems. He is of course referring to what dire consequences could arise if things are handled badly in the Irish Rebellion and beyond in WW1. Whilst valuing Irish uniqueness, Yeats was preoccupied with the dangers of upsetting the status quo too quickly - hence 'gyre.'

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epollock | Student


Yeats's "THE SECOND COMING" is vastly rich in symbolism. Diction such as "gyre, "falcon," "the blood-dimmed tide," "the ceremony of innocence," and "the worst who are full of passionate intensity" symbolize important aspects of Yeats’s theory of cycles in history.

Yeats also uses capital letters for the “Second Coming” because the term is connected to the putative second coming of Christ, which traditionally is to begin a thousand-year cycle of divine rule, after which there will be a Day of Judgment. The title is used ironically here because the second coming described in the poem is the ushering in of a period of war and rumors of war, with no salvation in sight.

In falconry, the falcon is controlled by the falconer, who symbolizes order and control. The “desert birds,” by contrast, are without order at all. They are opportunists who seek carrion, which symbolizes the qualities of the new and forthcoming age of war and violence.

The sphinx in the story of Oedipus, for example, was a creature that held the population of Thebes in check through violence. The significance and symbolism of the second coming of such a beast is that it will go to Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Christ, and be born to initiate an age of repression and violence, as was evidenced in the World War which had just concluded before Yeats wrote “The Second Coming.”

kc4u | Student

The symbolism in The Second Coming is manifold. The poem is as much as a religious allegory as it is a contemporary political allegory. Like Milton in Paradise Lost, Yeats in this poem uses a Biblical concept of Christ's second coming and the ensuing image of the apocalyptic day of Judgement which finds many historical parallels in French Revolution of 1789, Russian Revolution of 1917, Irish rebellion and most immediately at the time when the poem was composed, the First World War. Since then, the poem has become an iconic representation of all kinds of socio-political chaos, with people like Achebe using it as an epigraph as well as a title for his novel Things Fall Apart and thereby extending the symbolic import to an allegory of decolonization.

But even in religious terms, Yeats uses this image subversively. The second coming of Christ in the form of a ghastly winged beast is a piece of religious undercutting. What arrives is a Satanic image on the contrary. The creature is associated with Yeats's own fascination with the occult mythology which is another symbolic layer in the poem. The beast has also been associated with Jungian images in the 'collective unconscious'. That may unpack the psychological symbolism embedded in the poem.

The poem is also a symbolic contemplation on the progress of historical time with its see-saw movement and Yeats's idea of a historic dialectic in terms of gyration.