What literary devices has Yeats used in "The Second Coming"?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Literary devices in "The Second Coming" include the following:

antithesis: Antithesis is when two contrasting ideas or images are put together. A central motif of this poem is that the second coming Yeats envisions contrasts sharply with the second coming promised in the Bible. This is not Jesus the savior returning to earth to establish the kingdom of God. It is the exact opposite, a second coming of a primal evil loosed upon the world. Imagining the pitiless beast coming to Bethlehem to be born is also antithetical to the idea of that location as the birthplace of Jesus, who is understood as the prince of mercy and peace. 

aphorism: An aphorism is a short, pithy statement of universal truth. When Yeats writes 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity
he is communicating a central truth about his time.  
imagery: Yeats leans heavily into imagery in this poem, as most poets do. Images are words that convey what we can experience with the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Yeats uses the image of a gyre turning round and round in the first stanza. He focuses on visual imagery in the second stanza, as he paints a picture of a beast with the body of a lion and the head of a man moving slowly towards Bethlehem. 

repetition: While the poem doesn't use a conventional rhyme scheme, Yeats builds a sense of rhythm, especially in the beginning of the poem, by repeating words such as "turning," "surely," and "Second Coming." 

simile: Simile is a comparison using like or as. Yeats writes that the beast has "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," which conveys the sense of a blinding, relentless stare. 

understatement: When Yeats writes "mere anarchy" is loosed, the word "mere" devalues something important. Loosing anarchy on the world is not inconsequential, so the statement  functions as a form of irony by saying the opposite of what is meant. Yeats wants to jolt us into the understanding that this anarchy is important and is not something to shrug off. 

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator


The title of Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," is a Biblical allusion to the return of Christ in the Book of Revelations and the judgment of man.  Particularly in the second and final stanzas of the poem, Yeats also references the rise of the Antichrist and the beast, two figures who are prophesied to rise during the Great Tribulation, especially in the final lines "what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" 


Yeats uses the metaphor of sleep in these lines:

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

to compare the two thousand year span of time between Christ's original appearance and the second coming.  Yeats' metaphor reveals that the 'sleep' has been uneasy through his diction and the use of the word "stony" which has the connotation of hardness and general lack of comfort.


Yeats uses the falcon in the first stanza as a symbol for order and civilization.  Falconry was a genteel practice, usually for noblemen, in the Middle Ages, but the fact that the falcon can no longer hear the falconer suggests a disruption in the connection between man and nature.  Moreover, the lack of connection between the two reinforces the speakers' belief that "things fall apart" and the old traditions of man, like falconry, have no place in these new turbulent times.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Yeats uses many different literary devices in his poem "The Second Coming." One that is a hallmark of his poetic style is half-rhyme, which we see in "gyre/falconer" and "hold/world". He uses many metrical variations, especially initial trochaic substitutions. He uses alliteration in several places, most dramatically in "beast ... Bethlehem ... born" and "darkness drops". The end of the poem is technically a rhetorical question. There are several places in the poem where Yeats uses metaphor , especially in the opening:


     Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;


where the falcon stands as a metaphor for humanity which has lost its direction and is unable to "hear" the voice of the divine. The figure of the beast which heralds the Biblical apocalypse is also used metaphorically by Yeats in this poem.