What is the basic theme of the poem "The Second Coming"?  

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In order to understand the basic theme of the poem "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats, it is important to put the work into historical context. Yeats wrote it in 1919, just after witnessing the devastating carnage of World War I, the violent 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, and the bloody Russian Revolution of 1917. The poem draws upon the despair brought on by the horrors unleashed upon the world by these terrible conflicts.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .

The basic theme of the poem is the death of the old world, to be followed by the rebirth of a new one. It draws upon Biblical symbolism of the apocalypse and the second coming of Christ to make its point. However, Yeats poses the question of what will be born out of this overwhelming chaos. In Bethlehem, the Christ child was born, which, according to Christians, represented the birth of peace and salvation for humankind. However, in "The Second Coming," a different, horrifying, Sphinx-like creature rises out of the desert, indicating that the destruction of this world may not be followed by peace and prosperity, but rather by further chaos and despair.

In fact, this poem proved to be prophetic in the context of world history, because after World War I came worldwide economic ruin, the rise of Hitler and fascism, and the even more horrifying conflict of World War II.

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Key to understanding this poem is the way that the poet uses irony to challenge our expectations. The title, "The Second Coming," leads us to believe that this poem concerns the traditional belief of the Second Coming of Jesus, a time of peace and justice for all humanity. However, the second coming of this poem will, by contrast, be associated with a new era of warfare of savagery, characterised in the following lines:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The poem ends with an ominously ironic tone as the "rocking cradle" at Bethlehem in which Jesus the baby was born is placed next to the arrival of a "rough beast" that seems to symbolise the advent of the grim epoch that humanity will face in the future.

Thus the poem points towards a horrendous future. It is important to remember that this poem was written in the aftermath of World War I, which was a historical event that shocked so many people. Thematically therefore, Yeats uses this poem to express his distrust in the comforting belief of the Second Coming. For Yeats, looking at history only reveals how, more and more, "the ceremony of innocence is drowned" and mankind is characterised by darkness, warfare and violence, as in the First World War. Looking ahead, Yeats sees no light at the end of the tunnel, but an ever more marked collapse of society.

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