What is Yeats's claim about the Second Coming?

Yeats's claim about the Second Coming is that it will not be a day of peace and salvation, but rather one of fear and reckoning. According to Yeats, it will be a day when nature is disturbed, when good people are apathetic, and when evil comes home to roost.

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As you might have noticed, William Butler Yeats’s poem is not replete with positive imagery or allusions. In Yeats’s poem, it seems like things are falling apart. In fact, Yeats says that in the third line of the poem: “Things fall apart.” Perhaps that’s a good place to begin to try and understand Yeats’s claim about the Second Coming. It doesn’t appear to be a good omen. It’s not Jesus coming back to redeem certain people; it’s a world of continuous chaos and lethal division.

You could argue people don’t deserve to be saved in Yeats’s world. He says the “best” people “lack all conviction” and insists the “worst” people are “full of passionate intensity.” You could link the “passionate intensity” of the worst people to the intensity of the poem. The frenzied, threatening ambiance of the poem underscores the outsized influence of these bad human beings.

Yet I don’t think you should let the “best” people off the hook. If the best are good, perhaps they should put their purportedly good intentions and aims into practice. You might argue that the “best” people aren’t really the “best.” If they were good, they would try harder to stop the bad people.

Anyway, in the second stanza, Yeats seems to double down on his sinister interpretation of the Second Coming. As you might remember, what emerges from the desert isn’t a graceful god, it’s more of a monster. It’s a creature with a lion’s body and a human’s head. This “nightmare” seems to best represent the Second Coming. Once again, Yeats seems to claim the Second Coming has more to do with indefinite violence and destruction than a final, finite moment of possible redemption.

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Yeats had a theory of history that saw it as existing in cycles or gyres, wide circles like those made by a falcon as it flies. One gyre began with the birth of Christ 2,000 years ago, ushering in a period of growing love and peace. Traditionally, according to the Bible, this cycle of history ends with the Second Coming of Christ. Heaven and earth merge in harmony, and God rules humankind himself. All tears are wiped away.

In his poem, Yeats replaces that utopic vision with a far darker and more foreboding prophecy about a Second Coming. He believes that World War I shattered hope and ushered in a new gyre of history that has left the Christian cycle behind. Instead of growing progress towards the humane, we have entered a cycle of cruelty, evil and barbarism, what he calls a "blood-dimmed tide." He writes that:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Instead of the birth of Christ, evil creatures are being set loose on the world. Christ has been replaced with the Second Coming of a beast who "slouches towards Bethlehem to be born."

Yeats's vision reflects the trauma that followed World War I. Many Europeans had thought the world was on a path of progress to peace, rationality, and prosperity, only to have that illusion shattered by the senseless bloodbath of the war.

The poem has been seen as prophetic, with the beast heading to be born as Adolph Hitler, who, though already born, would soon emerge as Germany's evil leader.

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While the Bible creates an image of the Second Coming as a wondrous day of peace and salvation, Yeats's take on the event portrays a violent day to be feared.

With the words "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," Yeats creates an image of chaos, disorder and strife. There are many images of nature being disturbed, such as the falcon being unable to hear the falconer and a tidal wave containing not water but blood. Yeats claims that the good people respond to what his happening around them with apathy, while it is the bad people who are fired up and seemingly eager to act.

The second stanza contains disturbing images, such as a creature with a man's head and a lion's body disturbing the peace that has existed for two-thousand years. Fear is invoked at the thought of some type of beast being on its way to Bethlehem to be born. The reference to Bethlehem links the coming of this creature to Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and who, according to Christian portrayals, could not be further from a beast.

Yeats has taken the story of an event meant to be of great comfort to Christians and turned it into something sinister. Given that this poem was written in the immediate aftermath of World War I, the bleak portrayal of the world and of humanity begins to make sense.

Ultimately, Yeats's claim about the Second Coming and about the end of the world is that they will be nothing like what any Christian has been expecting.

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In "The Second Coming," W.B. Yeats explores the Second Coming, a traditional Christian idea that prophesies the return of Christ and the salvation of all true believers. However, Yeats turns this idea on its head by claiming that the Second Coming will be a violent apocalypse, rather than a sign of salvation.

To understand Yeats' main claim in "The Second Coming," it's first important to understand the historical context in which the poem occurred. The poem was published in 1920, a significant year for all Europeans, and especially for the Irish. The chaos of World War I had recently ended, leaving Europe in a state of previously unimaginable ruin. To make matters worse, Ireland was in the middle of a war for independence that began in 1919 and would last until 1921. As such, it's easy to imagine that, for an Irishman like Yeats, the world must have appeared to be crumbling.

When Yeats envisions the Second Coming, he imagines a "blood-dimmed tide" (5) and a monstrous, beastly "nightmare" (20), a "rough beast" (21) slouching "towards Bethlehem to be born" (22). This vision is a far cry from Christianity's traditional vision of peace and salvation. Indeed, Yeats is basically claiming that the Second Coming will embroil the world in a bloody, apocalyptic event. In the face of the unprecedented chaos and violence of Yeats' day, such a grim assertion would have made sense, as it must have seemed as if the world was ending.

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