William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" can be quite confusing for readers who don't understand the poet's personal religious and philosophical leanings. Many readers familiar with Christian teachings equate the "second coming" of the poem with the second coming of Jesus Christ, when, according to Christian belief, he will return to earth from heaven to claim his followers. However, this was not the only idea Yeats was attempting to depict in this poem.
Like other English poets before him, including William Blake and Thomas Hardy, Yeats created a personal mythology that went beyond traditional religious teachings. His wife, Georgie Hyde Lees, whom he married in 1917, was his partner in developing his mythology. She practiced automatic writing and received messages that Yeats believed were dictated by spirits. Gyres, winding stairs, and spirals became important symbols that Yeats used to help explain the progress of history and the paradoxes of existence.
The gyre specifically figured into Yeats's understanding of historical epochs. He proposed that history consists of two-thousand-year cycles that can be represented as a gyre: a spiraling motion in the shape of a cone. As one gyre widened toward its culmination, it would spawn a new two-thousand-year spiral out of a violent countermotion. Yeats explained, "The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction."
With this in mind, it becomes much easier to interpret "The Second Coming." The twentieth century was the end of a two-thousand-year period, "the widening gyre." As such, it took on the character of the epoch to come. Yeats envisioned the coming two-thousand-year period as a sphinx-like creature with "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun." That creature now "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born." In this poem, Yeats implies that the horrors of the early twentieth century, namely World War I, foretold an unimaginably dire epoch that would come with the dawn of the twenty-first century.
The gyre is an imaginative visualization of Yeats's theory of history. Many thinkers, artists, and historians have represented historical development as a straight line; others have put forward a cyclical view of history. For his part, Yeats conceives of history as divided up into spirals, which come into being every two thousand years or so.
In "The Second Coming," Yeats heralds the imminent demise of the gyre that has existed since the birth of Christ: the Christian era. It will soon give way to a new, more frightening period of history, characterized by the undermining of the traditional aristocratic social order and its replacement by mob rule. There is a (deliberately) terrifying sense of inevitability about the arrival of the new gyre, the "second coming" of the title. In keeping with his thoughts on history, Yeats presents the impending era of violent social upheaval as something that cannot be stopped. Just as the gyre in which the first coming of Christ took place was always destined to happen, so too will be the gyre of the second coming. However, the second coming envisaged by Yeats will be of a radically different and altogether more ominous nature than that traditionally conceived by Christians.
The world "gyre" means spiral. In the first lines of the poem, the widening gyre is not just the circle or spiral the falcon makes flying in the air, but the idea that a cycle of history is ending.
Yeats conceived history as occurring in two thousand years spirals. According to his thinking, a new gyre or cycle of history began with the birth of Christ two thousand years ago. As he was writing the poem in 1919, it felt to him as if the spiral of Christian history had unwound to its farthest point and a new period was beginning.
The significance of this new cycle or gyre is that it is characterized by Yeats as full of darkness and violence. He sees civilization falling apart and writes that the "centre cannot hold." He imagines a Second Coming, not of Christ, but of a "pitiless" beast arriving at Bethlehem to be born.
Because of all the violence unleashed in the twentieth century, Yeats's poem was taken by many to be prophetic.