What is Yeats' claim about the Second Coming?

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iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.