What imagery is present in the poem "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats?

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Two important images that occur early in William Butler Yeats’s poem concern the falcon and the gyre. The bird is in flight but separated from its handler. Later in the poem, another bird is reeling through the skies; the desert bird is “indignant,” perhaps referring to the sound of its call, which might be described as shrieking. The gyre, a geometric shape of a three-dimensional spiral (familiar to us as a tornado funnel cloud), is literally used for the falcon’s path through the air but figuratively used for the break-up of society: “mere anarchy.” The “centre” of the funnel separates into the flimsy air at the top: “things fall apart.”

Blood is another central image; both its color and liquid form are emphasized. Yeats’s words give the impression of a scene darkened (“dimmed”) by blood. While this seems an association with the “anarchy” of war, it may be ritual, as the ”ceremony of innocence” has been ended by drowning. The emphasis on the dark liquid is then contrasted with the bright desert scene that he builds up in the second stanza. He mentions the desert twice, along with the sun.

Yeats also plays the inversion of two images against each other. The “second coming” of the title clearly references the return of Jesus Christ, including the “twenty centuries” or 2,000 years since his birth, but no physical image of Christ’s return is presented. Instead, at the end, Yeats mentions the “rough beast.” This figure is likely the “vast image” of a sphinx that was just described: “A shape with lion body and the head of a man, . . . Is moving its slow thighs . . .” This figure also moves slowly and awkwardly (“slouches”) but paradoxically may be a disembodied spirit because it has not yet been born. The “stony” quality of the silence may also refer to the sphinx.

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