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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is one of the most profound poems imaginable.  It takes a great deal of patience and deliberation to explicate.  However, upon doing so, I guarantee that it will be a poem whose words and thoughts will remain in the mind's eye.  Context is needed in order to fully grasp it. Yeats is writing in the aftermath of World War I, where he had seen so many fine youth of a nation go out in the belief of nation, government, and spiritual identity and fight in a war where there were really no winners.  No European nation could claim victory with the large amount of death and destruction.  They say that the orphans from World War I amassed more than anyone could imagine. It is in this setting where Yeats composes his poem.  The opening lines of the poem set this mood of complete loss and disenchantment with what is.  The "widening gyre" helps to bring to light that some uncontrollable vortex is encompassing all consciousness.  In this black hole, inversion reigns supreme.  There is the idea that what was intended is not meant to be.  The "falcon cannot hear the falconer" and "things fall apart" while "the center cannot hold."  These images help to bring to light a world where there is no central or guiding force or authority, and a sense of looseness in identity and focus has emerged.  What was once believed no longer applies.  This is especially poignant when considering the millions of soldiers who fought in believing in nationalism, militarism, spiritualism, paternalism, and any other "-ism" one can find.  (Alongside of this poem, might I suggest reading Pirandello's short story, "War.")   This condition continues until the first stanza's closing couplet, revealing a world where terror is the only adjective to describe:  "The best lack all conviction/ while the worst are filled with passionate intensity."  With such a conclusion, the sense of despair looms large in the poem. The second stanza appeals to the Christian hope of the title.  The belief is that Jesus Christ will emerge at the point where salvation is most needed and redeem humanity.  Yet, in true Modernist form, Yeats inverts such a totalizing and transcendent image.  As the stanza opens with notes of hope in that the "Second Coming is at hand," Yeats describes what he sees with a mixture of fear and even more horror than the first stanza.  What ends up appearing in sight according to Yeats is not the redeemer, but actually an Anti- Christ vision that he suggests emerges because individuals have been "vexed to stony sleep."  The combination of being plunged into despair by the events of World War I and the hope that redemption will surely happen help to allow traction to this beast, who Yeats says, "Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born."  If you throw the word, "waiting" in between "towards" and the Holy City, you can make a nice comparison to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."  The poem is even more meaningful when considering that Yeats writes it about a decade before the rise of Hitler, and the description of the Nazi leader as the "beast" might be highly appropriate.  Yeats' closing vision reminds the reader that while the First World War was horrific, it will be nothing in comparison to what lies ahead.   Yeats never pretended to be a political scientist or a political advisor, but what he writes in 1920 proved to be more politically prophetic than what any other thinker of the time period could have envisioned.