Donald Weeks (essay date 1948)

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SOURCE: "Image and Idea in Yeats's The Second Coming'," in PMLA, Vol. LXIII, No. 1, March, 1948, pp. 281-92.

[In the following essay, Weeks seeks to trace the images, thoughts, and associations alive in Yeats's mind while he was writing "The Second Coming. "]

There are poets whose art is an accumulating cluster of images that become more and more identified with specific ideas. I believe Yeats to have been such a poet, in whom a cluster of images grew in significance to produce the great poems of the period from the first World War to the second. Generally accepted as one of Yeats' finest lyrics is "The Second Coming." I believe that the poem gains in richness by being considered in the light of associations that had long preoccupied Yeats, and that are frequently found together in his writings: Shelley, and especially his Prometheus Unbound; the Great Memory; and the Second Coming.

Yeats came by his admiration of Shelley from his grandfather, who "constantly read Shelley,"1 and from his father, J. B. Yeats, who used to "read out the first speeches of the Prometheus Unbound" at a time when the father's influence upon the son's thoughts "was at its height." Yeats had already begun to play the rôle of the poet which he sustained all his life. He chose as his first model Alastor, "my chief of men and longed to share his melancholy, and maybe at last to disappear from everybody's sight as he disappeared drifting in a boat along some slow-moving river between great trees." His "mind gave itself to gregarious Shelley's dream of a young man, his hair blanched with sorrow, studying philosophy in some lonely tower, or of his old man, master of all human knowledge, hidden from human sight in some shell-strewn cavern on the Mediterranean shore."2 Because his father exalted dramatic poetry above all other kinds, Yeats began to write play after play in imitation of Shelley, and of Edmund Spenser. The result was that his poetry became "too full of the reds and yellows Shelley gathered in Italy,"3 a condition which Yeats then tried to cure by fasting and sleeping on a board.

Prometheus Unbound was the first book which Yeats in a mood of romance "possessed for certain hours or months" as the book he longed for. It became for him "my sacred book." When Yeats was twenty (1885), he proposed to the members of the Hermetic Society "that whatever the great poets had affirmed in their finest moments was the nearest we could come to an authoritative religion, and that their mythology, their spirits of water and wind were but literal truth. I had read Prometheus Unbound with this in mind and wanted help to carry my study through all literature."4 When Yeats wrote in 1900 his essay on the Philosophy of Shelley's Poetry, he was spending his fourth summer at Coole. The chief poem of this summer was the Shadowy Waters. Yeats says in his essay, "I have re-read Prometheus Unbound, which I had hoped my fellow-students would have studied as a sacred book, and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than I had thought, among the sacred books of the world."5 He was then thirty-five. It is a psychological cliché to say that any poem so profoundly admired by a man growing into a great poet himself has made an ineradicable impression.

In the same essay Yeats tell us when and where he re-read Prometheus Unbound: "I have re-read his Prometheus Unbound for the first time...

(This entire section contains 5377 words.)

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for many years, in the woods of Drim-da-rod, among the Echte hills, and sometimes I have looked towards Slieve-nan-Orr, where the country people say the last battle of the world shall be fought till the third day, when a priest shall lift a chalice, and the thousands years of peace begin."6 Here for the first time in Yeats I find the association of Prometheus Unbound with the second coming. In her Poets and Dreamers, published in the same year as Ideas of Good and Evil, Lady Gregory begins her essay on "Mountain Theology" with the same legend:

Mary Glynn lives under Slieve-nan-Or, the Golden Mountain, where the last battle will be fought in the last great war of the world; so that the sides of Gorteveha, a lesser mountain, will stream with blood. But she and her friends are not afraid of this; for an old weaver from the north, who knew all things, told them long ago that there is a place near Turloughmore where war will never come, because St. Columcill used to live there. So they will make use of this knowledge, and seek a refuge there, if, indeed, there is room enough for them all.7

This essay is not dated, but others in the book are, and none is dated later than 1902. It does not seem unreasonable to assume that here was a legend which Yeats learned when Lady Gregory took him, for the sake of his health and his art, collecting folklore among the neighboring cottages. Since Mary Glynn lived about ten miles from Gort, she was among the neighbor folk.

In the Philosophy of Shelley's Poetry Yeats for the first time associates Shelley with the idea of the Great Memory, which becomes so important in Yeats' work: "He seems in his speculations to have lit on that memory of nature the visionaries claim for the foundation of their knowledge." Later in the essay Yeats writes:

I imagine that, when he wrote his earlier poems, he allowed the subconscious life to lay its hands so firmly upon the rudder of his imagination, that he was little conscious of the abstract meaning of the images that rose in what seemed the idleness of his mind. Any one who has any experience of any mystical state of the soul knows how there float up in the mind profound symbols, whose meaning, if indeed they do not delude one into the dream that they are meaningless, one does not perhaps understand for years. Nor I think has any one, who has known that experience with any constancy, failed to find some day in some old book, or on some old monument, a strange or intricate image, that had floated up before him, and grown perhaps dizzy with the sudden conviction that our little memories are but a part of some great memory that renews the world and men's thoughts age after age, and that our thoughts are not, as we suppose, the deep but a little foam upon the deep. Shelley understood this, as is proved by what he says of the eternity of beautiful things and of the influence of the dead, but whether he understood that the great memory is also a dwelling house of symbols, of images that are living souls, I cannot tell. He had certainly experience of all but the most profound of the mystical states, of that union with created things which assuredly must precede the soul's union with the uncreated spirit.8

Previously Yeats had made an observation on Queen Mab which illustrates this passage and throws light on what happened to Yeats himself.

The passage where Queen Mab awakes 'all knowledge of the past,' and the good and evil 'events of old and wondrous times,' was no more doubtless than a part of the machinery of the poem, but all the machineries of poetry are parts of the convictions of antiquity, and readily become again convictions in minds that dwell upon them in a spirit of intense idealism.9

Neither Yeats' poetry nor his prose shows any special preoccupation with Shelley or the Great Memory from 1903 until January 1918, when Per Arnica Silentia Lunae was published. In a letter to his father, Yeats described Per Arnica as a "little philosophical book—60 pages in print perhaps—'An alphabet.' It is in two parts: "Anima Hominis" and "Anima Mundi" and is a kind of prose backing to my poetry. I shall publish it in a new book of verse, side by side, I think. Reviewers find it easier to write if they have ideas to write about—ideas like those in my Reveries."10 The essays were published with one accompanying poem, "Ego Dominus Tuus," the ideas in which are pertinent to "Anima Hominis." The prologue to Per Amica is dated May 11, 1917. The "Maurice" addressed in it must be Ezra Pound, with whom Yeats lived in Sussex during the summer of 1916. Yeats tells how on his return to London their conversations had so obsessed him that he had to write the book to have his say. The importance of Per Amica in the development of Yeats is that it shows the beginning of the dominant ideas of the later Vision, at this stage still general, still poetic.

"Anima Hominis" is dated February 25, 1917. The essay develops the ideas of the mask and the opposite. It explains the beginning of what is to be one of Yeats' most persistent images.

Many years ago I saw, between sleeping and waking a woman of incredible beauty shooting an arrow into the sky, and from the moment when I made my first guess at her meaning I have thought much of the difference between the winding movement of nature and the straight line, which is called in Balzac's Seraphita the "Mark of Man," but comes closer to my meaning as the mark of saint or sage. I think that we who are poets and artists, not being permitted to shoot beyond the tangible, must go from desire to weariness and so to desire again, and live but for the moment when the vision comes to our weariness like terrible lightning, in the humility of the brutes. I do not doubt those heaving circles, those winding arcs, whether in one man's life or in that of an age, are mathematical, and that some in the world, or beyond the world, have foreknown the event and pricked upon the calendar the life-span of a Christ, a Buddha, a Napoleon: . . .11

In "Anima Mundi" Yeats tells how he had experimented with dreams and visions and had come to believe in a Great Memory. He quotes much from Henry More's Anima Mundi. He cites Shelley, "A good Platonist," as having "set this general soul in the place of God," and as having said wise things about the nature of dreams. Later in the essay Yeats says, "When I remember that Shelley calls our minds 'mirrors of the fire, for which all thirst,' I cannot but ask the question all have asked, 'What or who has cracked the mirror?' I begin to study the only self that I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the perne again."12 Yeats had previously used this cracked mirror image in "Rosa Alchemica" (1897). Its appearance in the midst of a mystic experience makes it seem relevant at this point. The I of the story accuses Michael Robartes, who wants him to become initiated into the Order of the Alchemical Rose:

"You would sweep me away into an indefinite world which fills me with terror; and yet a man is a great man just in so far as he can make his mind reflect everything with indifferent precision like a mirror." I seemed to be perfectly master of myself, and went on, but more rapidly "I command you to leave me at once, for your ideas and phantasies are but the illusions that creep like maggots into civilisation when they begin to decline and into minds when they begin to decay."13

The speaker is angry. He is about to rise and strike Robartes with an alembic from the table when he is drowned in a wave of peacock feathers, a wave that becomes flame and is full of voices. He knows that he has struggled for hundreds of years and is now at last conquered. He hears a voice over his head crying, '"The mirror is broken in two pieces,' and a more distant voice cry with an exultant cry, 'The mirror is broken into numberless pieces' . . ." He swirls up through space, through forms caught in the eternal moment, until "All things that had ever lived seemed to come and dwell in my heart, and I in theirs . . ,"14 He then falls through a starry space, awakes, and says to Michael Robartes that he will go wherever Robartes wills. Whether the experience of "Rosa Alchemica" was fiction or reality, it seems related to Per Amica exactly as such early lyrics of Yeats as those on the rose are related to later lyrics like "The Second Coming." In Per Amica, after remembering that Shelley had called our minds "mirrors of the fire for which all thirst," Yeats goes on to describe personal experiences that suggest the episode from "Rosa Alchemica" and, it seems to me, the philosophy of Prometheus in the first act of Prometheus Unbound.

At certain moments, always unforeseen, I become happy, most commonly when at hazard I have opened some book of verse. Sometimes it is my own verse when, instead of discovering new technical flaws, I read with all the excitement of the first writing. Perhaps I am sitting in some crowded restaurant, the open book beside me, or closed, my excitement having over-brimmed the page. I look at the strangers near as if I had known them all my life, and it seems strange that I cannot speak to them: Everything fills me with affection, I have no longer any fears or any needs; I do not even remember that this happy mood must come to an end. It seems as if the vehicle had suddenly grown pure and far extended and so luminous that one half imagines that the images from "Anima Mundi," embodied there and drunk with that sweetness, would, as some country drunkard who had thrown a wisp into his own thatch, burn up time.

It may be an hour before the mood passes, but latterly I seem to understand that I enter upon the moment I cease to hate.15

As Yeats put the matter in the epigraph to his 1914 volume of poems, "In dreams begin responsibilities." In the epilogue to Per Amica, addressed to "Maurice," Yeats quotes Mallarme: "All our age is full of the trembling of the veil of the temple."16 "The trembling the veil" was to become not only the title of the second volume of Yeats' autobiography, but also the serious theme which was to lift to greatness Yeats' next two volumes of poetry, The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) and Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), in which "The Second Coming" appeared.

I do not know precisely when "The Second Coming" was written. It appears in print for the first time in the Nation and Athenaeum for November 1920, and in the Dial for the same month. That same autumn the poem appeared in the Michael Robartes and the Dancer printed at the Cuala Press. The poem which follows "The Second Coming," "A Prayer for My Daughter," is dated June 1919, but there is no way of determining the relation of "The Second Coming" to this date. From internal evidence which I shall discuss later, I believe Yeats must first have written the poem in the summer of 1918 at Ballinamantane House near Coole and Ballylee, or in the summer of 1919 at Ballylee. It is perfectly clear from reading the Collected Poems that "The Second Coming" is one of the group of poems which was written out of Yeats' Vision, several of which, as Yeats admitted, are unintelligible without the reader's knowing Michael Robartes and His Friends.

The story of Yeats' Vision is well-known: how four days after his marriage in October 1917 (Per Amica was written in the spring of that year) Yeats discovered his wife to be a medium, how out of the record of her communications came the Discoveries of Michael Robartes, which he later expanded into A Vision. It was dissatisfaction with what he called his earlier "unnatural story of an Arabian traveller"17 that led Yeats to the exposition called "Great Wheel." To me, the necessity for Yeats' exposition is clearly foreshadowed by the statement in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, "I do not doubt those heaving circles, those winding arcs, whether in one man's life or in that of an age, are mathematical. .. . "18 "The Great Wheel" is the mathematics of Yeats' vision; it was "finished at Thor Ballylee, 1922, in a time of Civil War,"19 Mrs. Yeats' exposition having ended in 1920. The additional books of the Vision were finished by 1925.

"The Great Wheel" is rich in suggestions of Shelley, especially in the chapter on the "Twenty-eight Incarnations," in which Yeats discusses the double personalities of many historical figures. Shelley appears under phase 17, the Daimonic man. But it is more important to keep in mind the theme of the Vision as Michael Robartes puts it in the Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends, "Have I proved that civilizations come to an end when they have given all their light like burned-out wicks, that ours is near its end?"20 Without elaborating unnecessarily Yeats' exposition of the Great Wheel, I want to point out two statements which Yeats makes about the Thirteenth Cone. He says:

The cone which intersects ours is a cone in so far as we think of it as the antitheses to our thesis, but if the time has come for our deliverance it is the phaseless sphere, sometimes called the Thirteenth Sphere, for every lesser cycle contains within itself a sphere that is, as it were, the reflection or messenger of the final deliverance. Within it live all souls that have been set free and every Daimon and Ghostly Self; our expanding cone seems to cut through its gyre; spiritual influx is from its circumference, animate life from its centre. "Eternity also," says Hermes in the Aeslepius dialogue, "though motionless itself, appears to be in motion." When Shelley's Demogorgon—eternity—comes from the centre of the earth it may so come because Shelley substituted the earth for such a sphere.21

There is an interesting footnote to this passage, which I think further demonstrates the point I have been making that Prometheus Unbound was always available to Yeats' mind for illustration of an argument: "Shelley, who had more philosophy than men thought when I was young, probably knew that Parmenides represented reality as a motionless sphere. Mrs. Shelley speaks of the 'mystic meanings' of Prometheus Unbound as only intelligible to a 'mind as subtle as his own'." I think the appeal of such a statement as Mrs. Shelley's to Yeats is obvious. He took her at her word.

Later in the Vision Yeats discusses the changes which came from the birth of Christ and the changes which will come with the Great Year—1927, as Yeats had figured it out. The Great Year must "reverse our era and resume past eras in itself; what else it must be no man can say, for always at the critical moment the Thirteenth Cone, the sphere, the unique intervenes."22 Yeats then quotes the five lines of "The Second Coming" beginning, "Somewhere in the sands—"

I hope I have shown that three ideas and their associated images remained in Yeats' mind for some thirty years: the Second Coming, the Great Memory, and Prometheus Unbound. I feel that these ideas gained intensity and complexity as they became part of Yeats' vision. Now I want to suggest the chain of associations that led to "The Second Coming." I think it is obvious that poems popped from Yeats in emotional excitement and were then subjected to that technical refinement of which he became a great master. What I am giving as possible successive steps in the creation of a poem must have been, with Yeats, lightning-swift associations that seemed simultaneous. Lest I have given the impression that "The Second Coming" was written while Yeats was working on A Vision, I will repeat the statement that Mrs. Yeats' exposition ended in 1920. Then Yeats began to examine the fifty some copy-books of automatic writing preparatory to writing the system. I have already said that "The Second Coming" was first published in November 1920. But in discussing poetry, I believe that when one has shown certain associations to be of long standing in the poet's mind, one may safely use to throw light on the poem the same associations in the poet's writing after the creation of the poem. I have at all times assumed the persistence of certain ideas and images in Yeats.

1. I begin with the fact that since his late teens Shelley, and especially Prometheus Unbound, had been of great interest to Yeats.

2. From 1916 at the latest Yeats was increasingly concerned with the decline of the west, the trembling of the veil, the Great Year, the Second Coming, and the warnings of the end which came to man from the Great Memory. I think these ideas gained greater intensity with Mrs. Yeats' exposition of the Great Wheel.

3. Among the fuses which set a poem off may be its dominant idea, its dominant image, or its first image. Since the first paragraph of the poem can be explained as having arisen from the first image, I assume the falcon to be the beginning of the creation of the poem. There are three possibilities here. The simple explanation that Yeats had recently seen a falconer and his bird is too simple, and not in accord with the richness of associations in Yeats' work of this period. The second possibility goes back to a practice of Yeats. In the "Cold Heaven" from the 1914 volume of poems, Responsibilities, Yeats speaks of staring into the "cold and rookdelighting heaven" until "imagination and heart were driven so wild" that only memories were left. In the third poem after, the "Magi," Yeats sees the wise men "in the blue depths of the sky." Yeats wrote in Per Amica Silentia Lunae of the desirability of passing into a slight trance to allow images and associations free play in one's mind. He himself had cultivated this practice. A poet dreaming on his tower, a bird across the sky, the memory of the "Magi"—here is a possible chain of associations.

The third possibility involves associations with the hawk. In the Cuala Press edition of the Wild Swans at Coole (1919) appeared one of Yeats' Noh plays, At the Hawk's Well. It was the third of a series linked psychically; the fourth of the series was Calvary.23 Among the lyrics in the Wild Swan is the "Hawk," in which the bird also will "not hear the falconer." Later in a note to "Meditations in Time of Civil War" written at Thor Ballylee in 1922, Yeats says of the seventh poem:

I suppose that I must have put hawks into the fourth stanza because I have a ring with a hawk and butterfly upon it, to symbolize the straight road of logic, and so of mechanism, and the crooked road of intuition: 'For wisdom is a butterfly and not a gloomy bird of prey.'—1928.24

That Yeats was not always consistent in his use of images is clear from a note on "Calvary" in Four Plays for Dancers: "Certain birds, especially as I see things, such lonely birds as the heron, hawk, eagle, and swan, are the natural symbols of subjectivity, especially when floating upon the wind alone or alighting upon some pool or river. . . . "25 The hawk as symbol of subjectivity seems less relevant to "The Second Coming" than the hawk as symbol of logic. Since the poem moves at once to a picture of the age of mechanism, the hawk seems not improbable as symbol of logic. But the three possibilities I have suggested are not exclusive.

Although I am not saying that these associations happened just so, I must insist that in a poet who treasured subtlety as Yeats did, there is a clear flickering of similar images from poem to poem in work of the same period.

4. The association of the hawk with mechanism and the phrase, "the widening gyre," may have brought into Yeats' mind a passage from the first act of Prometheus Unbound, with all the implications of "The Second Coming" which that poem has. I refer to the torture of Prometheus by the woeful sight of "a youth with patient looks nailed to a crucifix" (1, 585-586). The Fury taunts Prometheus with this emblem of those who endure wrong for man. He tells Prometheus (the italics are mine):

In each human heart terror survives The ruin it has gorged: the loftiest fear All that they would disdain to think were true. Hypocrisy and custom make their minds The fanes of many a worship, now outworn. They dare not devise good for man's estate, And yet they not know that they do not dare.The good want power, but to weep barren tears.The powerful goodness want; worse need for them. The wide want love; and those who love want wisdom;And all best things are thus confused to ill. Many are strong and rich, and would be just, But live among their suffering fellow-men As if none felt; they know not what they do.

[1, 618-631]

In "The Second Coming" Yeats wrote:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.


I find these passages alike not only in idea but also in rhythm. The superiority of Yeats seems demonstrated by the difference between the last line of the Shelley and the last line and a half of the Yeats, the passionate intensity of the worst having more terror than Shelley's "they know not what they do," in spite of the allusion here to Jesus' "Forgive them, for—"

5. If the unbinding of Prometheus can logically give rise to the thought of "The Second Coming," I think it likely that the idea of "The Second Coming" was reinforced by the sight or memory of "Slieve-nan-Or, the Golden Mountain, where the last battle will be fought in the last great war of the world." Since the memory would do as well as the sight, it makes little difference whether the poem was written at Ballylee during the summer of 1918 or 1919, or in London or Oxford during 1920.

6. The "vast image out of Spiritus Mundi" came, I think, from the last poem in the Wild Swans at Coole. It is the "Double Vision of Michael Robartes," a poem which John Aherne wrote Yeats accorded with Robartes diagrams.

On a grey rock of Cashel I suddenly saw A sphinx with woman breast and lion paw,

A Buddha, hand at rest, Hand lifted up that blest. . .

[II, 1-4]

Later in the Vision Yeats pointed out that he should have said Christ not Buddha, since Buddha was a Jupiter Saturn influence and therefore bad.26 Whether Yeats actually had this double vision I do not know. The poem says that he did.

Although I saw it all in the mind's eye There can be nothing solider till I die; I saw by the moon's light Now at its fifteenth night.

[11, 9-12]

And after that arranged it in a song Seeing that I, ignorant for so long, Had been rewarded thus In Cormac's ruined house.

[III, 17-20]

Cormac's house was the home of the Gaelic gods on the grey rock of Cashel.

But Yeats had had a single vision, the vision of the beast. Yeats explains in the introduction to "The Resurrection" inWheels and Butterflies the origin of this vision: "Had I begun On Baile's Strand or not when I began to imagine, as always at my left side just out of the range of the sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing ecstatic destruction?" Yeats wrote a footnote to the phrase brazen winged beast: "Afterwards described in my poem 'The Second Coming.'"27 This would indicate that Yeats kept the image in mind from about 1904, when On Baile's Strand was first produced, until 1918-19. He seems to have dropped in "The Second Coming" the laughter of the beast.

Of course the Book of Revelations has associations that might have enriched the meaning of the image "out of Spiritus Mundi." There is nothing in Revelations to suggest that the beast was a sphinx. Yeats changes the Greek female sphinx to the Egyptian male sphinx, more appropriate perhaps to the "sands of the desert." The beast of Revelations with its number, 666, has a history related to the Great Year, a history which Yeats must have known.

The image of the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem with which "The Second Coming" concludes needs no special explanation. It is quite plainly an association of the idea of the beast, the Anti-Christ, with the birthplace of Jesus. There may be some association with Yeats' earlier poem, "The Magi," in which the wise men, "by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied," hope to find again in Bethlehem the "uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor." The phrase, "the bestial floor," suggests a kind of uncontrollable mystery different from the Second Coming of Christ.

It is not easy to exaggerate the associations current in a poet's mind at the time of his finest work. "The Second Coming" belongs to such a period in Yeats' life. Although it is not possible ever to say that associations arose only in a certain order, it is possible to describe the ideas and images alive in the poet's mind at the time of the writing of the poem. I hope I have done this with "The Second Coming."

Finally, a note on Yeats and Prometheus Unbound.

Yeats stayed at Coole during Lady Gregory's last illness. Here in the winter of 1931-33 Yeats read again Balzac and Prometheus Unbound, "for the third time," Hone says, a statement which seems meaningless to me.28 The reading apparently inspired Yeats to write his essay, "Prometheus Unbound," in which Yeats acknowledges that Shelley "and not Blake, whom I had studied more and with more approval, had shaped my life. . . . " But the shaping was not altogether good: " . . . and when I thought of the tumultuous and often tragic lives of friends or acquaintances I attributed to his direct or indirect influence their Jacobin frenzies, their brown demons." Yeats decided that Shelley was nightmare-ridden, afraid of death, and therefore not a true mystic, because "his system of thought was constructed by his logical faculty to satisfy desire, not a symbolical revelation received after suspension of all desire." Yeats concludes his essay with a tribute to Balzac:

When I was thirteen or fourteen I heard somebody say that he changed men's lives, nor can I think it a coincidence that an epoch founded in such thought as Shelley's ended with an art of solidity and complexity. Me at any rate he saved from the pursuit of a beauty that seeming at once absolute and external requires, to strike a balance, hatred as absolute.29

The reader, while glad that Balzac had such influence, may also agree with Yeats that "we are never satisfied with the maturity of those whom we have admired in boyhood; and, because we have seen their whole circle—even the most successful life is but a segment—we remain to the end their harshest critics."30


1 Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1943), p. 7.

2The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1938), pp. 58, 150.

3Ideas of Good and Evil (New York: Macmillan, 1903), p. 4.

4Autobiography, pp. 273, 78, 80.

5Ideas of Good and Evil, p. 91.

6Ibid., pp. 110-111.

7Poets and Dreamers (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, 1903), p. 104.

8Ideas of Good and Evil, pp. 105, 112-114.

9Ibid., p. 105.

10 J. B. Yeats, Letters to His Son W. B. Yeats and Others (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), p. 238.

11Per Arnica Silentia Lunae (New York: Macmillan, 1918), pp. 45-46.

12Ibid., pp. 66, 90.

13Early Poems and Stories (New York: Macmillan, 1925), pp. 476-477.

14Ibid., p. 477.

15Per Arnica, pp. 91-92.

16Ibid., p. 95.

17A Vision (New York: Macmillan, 1938), p. 19.

18Per Arnica, p. 46.

19Vision, p. 184.

20Ibid., p. 50.

21 /Z7/J., pp. 210-211.

22Ibid., p. 263.

23 Hone, op. cit., p. 362.

24The Collected Poems (London: Macmillan, 1935), p. 448.

25Four Plays for Dancers (London: Macmillan, 1921), p. 136.

26A Vision, pp. 54, 207-208.

27Wheels and Butterflies (London: Macmillan, 1934), p. 103.

28Op. cit., p. 455.

29Essays 1931 to 1936 (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1937), pp. 61-62, 58, 62.

30Autobiography, p. 211.

Edward A. Bloom (essay date 1954)

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SOURCE: "Yeats's 'Second Coming': An Experiment in Analysis," in The University of Kansas City Review, Vol. XXI, No. 2, Winter, 1954, pp. 103-10.

[In the following essay, Bloom analyzes "The Second Coming" in light of Yeats's philosophical writings, calling the poem "a masterpiece of complexity. "]

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?1

It is truistic that all of the best poets use symbols of one kind or another to represent attitudes or emotions or situations. Now the reading of poetry is a matter of skill as well as of taste. Most poets presuppose a certain amount of skill in reading and even knowledge of some allusions, be they topical, mythical, or religious. Enjoyment comes, in Wordsworth's phrase, from "the sense of difficulty overcome." There is pleasure in recognizing a challenge and then satisfactorily answering it. Some poets, like Blake, or Yeats, or Eliot, find artistic advantage in the use of symbols frequently designated as "private." The word "private," however, is inaccurate when, with the passage of time and through critical clarification, the symbols become clear enough to discriminating readers. Private symbolism becomes even less of a charge when a poet like Yeats creates works that have a satisfying meaning regardless of the reader's knowledge of his philosophical, introspective processes. To understand these processes, of course, is to enlarge the connotative value of what he has said. But even with knowledge derived only from a close reading of the individual works, we may still derive enjoyment from his poetry.

Assuming that we have never read Yeats' philosophical system, "The Second Coming" will lend itself to interpretation for the average trained reader who desires to understand. First let us see what paraphrase reveals. The poem opens with concrete statement: The falcon, a savage hawk trained to aid in hunting, flies in increasing circles or spirals (gyres). A difficult bird to keep in captivity, the falcon responds to a primitive urge to return to its savage state. Despising civilized restraint, it kills for the joy of killing. In the second stanza Yeats makes a prophecy couched in the more abstract language that marks the concluding lines of the preceding stanza. He prophesies that the falcon is a harbinger of a revelation, of a Second Coming. Now the Second Coming, we know, is an orthodox concept of the reincarnation of Christ. But the specific details which conclude the stanza and the poem anticipate not the coming of Christ, even as avenger, but of a monster which, like the falcon, suggests destruction; at the same time it suggests something mysterious or unknown. This knowledge comes to the poet in a vision as an omen—in which the Egyptian Sphinx rises to life and Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.

The image evokes terror: If the falcon returns to a state of wild nature we can understand that it is responding to certain instincts, subhuman though they be. But the Sphinx, a thing of sand and stone, having had no existence—at least as we would understand existence during the recorded history of mankind—is now incarnated. The vision is all the more terrifying because the Sphinx has come to life for some grotesque, unknown purpose, and because, unlike the falcon, it is of such monstrosity that we feel it can never be held in check by any human agency. Upon the evidence of the poem itself, we might be inclined to interpret Yeats as saying that Christianity has failed to sustain mankind and that an ominous, larger principle is about to replace it. Barbaric paganism of which the Sphinx is mutely symbolic (it might be construed from the details immediately available to us) was restrained by the birth of Christ. Paganism, however, never really died; it was merely kept in check by an abiding principle which, temporarily, was stronger than it, and under which it chafed, awaiting an opportunity to rebel. Continuing from the surface evidence of the poem, we might interpret Yeats as arguing that the Christian principle has meaning only while its tenets are in operation. But as soon as Christianity breaks down, permitting mere anarchy to be loosed upon the world, there can be no restraining of this monstrous symbol of seeming evil, since evil can be subjugated only by good. Later in this analysis, however, we shall introduce additional testimony by Yeats that must cause some qualification of these statements.

The word gyre is an uncommon one and consequently captures the attention at the very beginning of the poem. Not only does it fit the metrical objective more easily than, say, circle or spiral, but it also lends at least a subconscious preparation for some unusual occurrence or thought to follow. In the same line, also, we find three polysyllabic words, turning - turning - widening, whose denotations of slow movement and gradually increasing distance are enhanced by vocalic repetition and by the identical -ing suffixes. There is further significance in the i- assonance, which closely reinforces the linkage between widening and gyre, and in the consonantal association between turning and gyre; the metrical relations are essential to the full meaning of the line. The thought runs on to the second line, where the effect is enlarged by the completed clause. Here the slow-motion pattern is maintained by the repetition of falcon and falconer, with the addition of cannot, whose vowels are in assonance with the vowels of the two nouns. (This relationship, however, is essentially visual rather than auditory, because falcon is generally pronounced faulkon or faukon.) Up to this point we are thoroughly clear about the nature of the image, which is self-sufficient: the bird is escaping its captor. Yeats demands no further knowledge of his readers. The image, nevertheless, takes on an even more intensive connotation if we have read other works by Yeats and have some understanding of his attitudes.

This is not the place for an intensive examination of Yeats' philosophic system, but an outline of the major features will provide the key to his intention. In a work called A Vision Yeats recorded two pertinent ideas. One is that the human life goes through phases of subjectivity and objectivity, at one time or another the two qualities merging, and then the one or the other becoming predominant. The second is that history, comparably, goes through phases or cycles—each of 2,000 years duration—in a regular, deterministic manner. Both human life and history are represented by double cones or gyres operating in contrary directions. The narrow end of each cone illustrates the subjective and the wide end the objective phases of life and history. Yeats demonstrated this notion—not original with him—in unpublished notes to "The Second Coming."2 "The mind whether expressed in history or in the individual life has a precise movement which can be quickened or slackened but cannot be otherwise altered, and this movement can be expressed by a mathematical form," the double cone. The discovery of "a fundamental mathematical movement" which marks each mind leads to an ability (by those properly qualified, of course) to prophesy "the entire future of that mind." Yeats explains the mathematical figures thus:

.. . the human soul is always moving outward into the objective, or inward into itself and this movement is double because the human soul has consciousness only because it is suspended between contraries, the greater the contrast the more intense the consciousness. The man in whom movement inward is stronger than the movement outward, the man who sees all life reflected within himself, the subjective man reaches the narrow end of a gyre at death which is always . . . preceded by an intensification of the subjective life. . . . The objective man on the other hand, whose gyre moves outward receives at this moment [of death] the revelation not of himself seen from within .. . but of himself as if he were somebody else.

The same is true of history. When one age is coming to an end "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." Yeats uses the gyre in other poems, such as "Demon and Beast," which appeared in the same volume as "The Second Coming" (Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921), "Sailing to Byzantium" (in The Tower, 1928) and "The Gyres" (in Last Poems and Plays, 1940). Its specialized consistency and its explication by Yeats himself preclude suspicions of accident or eccentricity and, hence, merits such application as we may later be able to include in the meaning.

Following the almost languorous introduction, Yeats provides a sharp, shocking contrast in the third line by use of two abrupt clauses. This is the culmination of the physical action. The statement is now more general, even abstract, so that we know the falcon image is only a symbol for a larger philosophic idea. It is the bursting of the floodgates which leads to submergence of identity and to absolute objectivity. In this confusion we have the highly impersonal, objective, even ineffable Things. While he was restrained by man, the falcon flew in a regularly described circle or spiral, his widening gyre still limited by an invisible axis or center. But with the inevitable bursting of bondage the arbitrary limitation becomes impossible, since the act is deterministically inevitable. In other words a phase has ended and man once more has succumbed to savagery and mere anarchy. Each cycle of civilization must come to a disastrous close. As Yeats writes in A Vision:

Each age unwinds the threads another age has wound, and it amuses me to remember that before Phidias and his westward moving art, Persia fell, and that when full moon came round again, amid eastward moving thought, and brought Byzantine glory, Rome fell; and that at the outset of our westward moving Renaissance Byzantium fell; all things dying each other's life, living each other's death.

The implication, of course, is that each new cycle—if the pattern is repetitive—opens barbarically and without order. Mere, on the surface, is an ambiguous reference. Its connotation is slighting or trivial, as though Yeats were saying ironically, anarchy doesn't amount to much. But mere also has an obsolete denotation, which is more clearly the one intended by Yeats; that is, absolute, sheer, and unqualified anarchy.

To impress his point Yeats lengthens and emphasizes line 5, resorting to both consonance and assonance, which are paralleled (at least the assonance is) in line 4, where the new action has begun. Notice, also, the return to concrete statement, the poet wishing to dramatize the issue which now clearly relates to mankind: anarchy, after all, is human not animal violation of order at the end of one cycle and the beginning of a new one. The situation, then, obviously warlike, provokes an attack upon established morals and, more exactly, upon established order. Yeats, in delicate syntactical counterpoint, returns to expository and then abstract statement. Throughout the poem he has used Christian symbols because he considers himself a specific part of the present Christian cycle—now coming to a close.

Christianity, however, is only typical of all the other historical cycles. Thus, the ceremony of innocence has an immediate Christian reference that is paradoxical: an orthodox purifying symbol is the sacramental rite of baptism, but the purification is washed away by the blood of war. In another sense, however, the ceremony of innocence may be said to apply to similar rites in non-Christian cycles when sacrificial blood was let for religious purposes and when, again, wars negated the meanings of those rites. There is also in this phrase an implicit irony. If the above interpretation of the ceremony of innocence is acceptable, then Yeats seems to say that as man grows more mature and civilized, he grows more beastly. The ceremony of innocence should suggest purity and beginning, but the purity and beginning are negated by a collapsing civilization.

The passionate intensity of the first stanza appears at first to signify both exposition and physical action which bring the poet to his prophetic thematic conclusions in the second stanza. Such collapse of moral order, the poet intimates, must have far-reaching spiritual consequences. Ever since Christ, in the present cycle, there has been a theological premise that at some future time man will be called upon to account for his sins. But this assumption has had something of optimism in it for the virtuous, the belief being that judgment will be rendered by a God of justice and mercy. Now, however, we are prepared to look for a more esoteric meaning in this phrase. Christianity, as Yeats sees it, is simply one historical phase, and when he says

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

he may be speaking in general terms of the overt attitudes which precipitate the collapse of a civilization. This, of course, is also an ironic reversal of values as well as a realistic attitude. In his notes, however, Yeats says that it is a supreme act of faith to fix the attention upon the gyre (apparently to determine the degree of subjectivity or objectivity)

until the whole past and future of humanity or of an individual man shall be present to the intellect as if it were accomplished in a single movement. The intensity of the Beatific Vision when it comes depends upon the intensity of this realization.

It is a temptation to ignore this statement, a seeming contradiction of the idea as stated in the poem. If we relate passionate intensity to Yeats' philosophy, however, it seems to celebrate his notion of the reconciliation of opposites. While "the worst" are fanatically bent on pressing the destruction of civilization, the visionary philosopher is endowed with an insight denied to ordinary people. The widening gyre is the state of objectivity just prior to the completion of the cycle. The passionate intensity is the human action that accelerates the completion of the wheel, but it may also be interpreted as the Beatific Vision of the subjective philosopher who has reached his most subjective, introspective state, when he is most profoundly capable of prophesying the impending catastrophe. We can argue, of course, that the catastrophe, according to Yeats' philosophy, is inevitable. But Yeats impresses upon us in the first stanza that man has also had an active hand in the collapse. Any justification for this notion is provided by Yeats himself, since the last two lines of the first stanza become a transition to the second prophetic stanza, which states the vision and the resolution.

With the flagrant rejection of humanitarian conduct, Surely some revelation is at hand:/Surely the Second Coming is at hand. Repetition of Surely and the virtual identity of the two lines establishes an urgent, inescapable mood and a warning tone. So imperative is the poet's feeling that he repeats The Second Coming! sharply, and then pauses for the most emphatic caesura in the entire poem in order to enforce consideration of this crucial idea. In familiar orthodoxy the Second Coming would be the reincarnation of Christ for the purpose of rendering judgment on man. Yeats' philosophy, however, complicates this interpretation. Now he seems to say that a Second Coming takes place at the conclusion of every cycle. It is easy to over-emphasize the Christian elements of the poem, but the Christian symbolism—even if only representative—is too consistent to be dismissed. It is perhaps no distortion of Yeats' thinking to infer his condemnation of those who precipitate a collapse, inevitable though that collapse may be. The thought seems to come to Yeats that chaos which is urged out of a former moral state can hardly be rewarded by the mercy of a Christ. Thus he envisions a monstrous substitute for Christ, one that has some divine (Spiritus mundi) but foreboding source, and that has been sent to render harsh judgment on man.

The Sphinx is the symbol for a transformation from known to frightening and unknown values. Supposedly inanimate, this shape with lion body and the head of a man has merely lain dormant since a previous cycle, nursing its latent capacity for evil destruction and biding its time. The horror is enforced by its objectivity and merciless singleness of vengeful purpose. Yeats creates a terrifying and hypnotic image through the use of understatement as he envisions the awakening of the beast-god. The desert birds are indignant rather than terrified because they have no rational understanding of what is happening. Lacking insight, they associate only a temporal consequence with this action and are annoyed by an unaccountable change in their tranquillity. They are a symbol for those men who likewise fail to comprehend and who regard the disruption of an established order as an unwarranted personal inconvenience. They represent also those innocents who must be affected by crimes which they have not committed, and by the inevitable cyclical course of history. The image is particularly good because of the contrasts it provides. These birds are wilder than the falcon; yet their flight, too, is circular, as the word reel connotes. But the word also suggests an unevenness, the chaos and disorder that have already begun; whereas widening gyre suggests that there is still regularity, that it is the moment before disintegration. The movement of the desert birds also provides a striking contrast with the sluggish, implacable progress of the Sphinx.

The conclusion comes with the poet's emergence from the dream-state. He has returned to reality, but, paradoxically, the only reality is the vision which has just hypnotized him. The world of which he is part is not one of illumination but of enveloping, hopeless darkness and disaster. Only when Yeats awakens does he understand the reality. The barbarism has been quelled by the Christian phase during twenty centuries of stony sleep since the birth of Christ (represented by the rocking cradle), but it has never expired. Its own period of quiescence has been disturbed into a nightmare by some other passionate yet temporary force of salutary faith. Now with man himself turned barbarian, it is time for the God of barbarians to reassert himself. Once again it is necessary to turn to the unpublished notes for clarification, for there is more to the association than the twenty centuries since the birth of Christ. Generally, according to Yeats, all the gyres complete their historical cycles in 2,000 years. At the moment of writing the gyre is attaining its widest, hence more objective expansion, unlike the period preceding the birth of Christ, in which the gyre was narrowing. The new phase, we may assume, will last approximately another 2,000 years, even as the phase which opened with the creation of the Sphinx and ended with the birth of Christ lasted 2,000 years. The new phase, furthermore, promises to be a barbaric one at its inception. Hence, Yeats conceives of an ironical transvaluation in which a cruel beast-deity will supplant a humane and just deity at Bethlehem, the source of Christianity.

We have already witnessed how the poem's meaning, though enlarged and enriched by the additional information about the gyres, supports interpretation without it. But that information, we have also seen, proves essential for a really satisfactory interpretation. Now it is pertinent to incorporate one more allusion, this time a topical one, for "The Second Coming" owes much of its creation to the Irish struggle for independence. The Easter Rising of 1916 took Yeats by surprise, when the Irish nationalists rebelled against English rule. Although his sympathies were for a free Ireland, he disliked the Bohemian society of Dublin and the revolutionary political beliefs which motivated the uprising. He revered the "big houses" of the country aristocracy, whose society was for him an achievement of civilization which symbolized for him an absolute of which he approved. The mob, as he wrote in "The Leaders of the Crowd," would Pull down established honour; and yet he felt compelled to support their action, however passively, for the future hopes of Ireland. Practically, also, he recognized that the execution of the rebel leaders, the "Sixteen Dead Men," had made martyrs of them and that the purpose of the Rising could not be discussed dispassionately. So torn by his conflicting sentiments, Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" as the culmination of a series of political poems: "September, 1913," "Easter, 1916," and "The Rose."

Considered from this point of view, "The Second Coming" is an indication that for Yeats the noble aspirations of the Easter Rising had degenerated into the aimless brutal warfare of the Blacks and Tans and that, in turn, into the fight between the Free-Staters and the Republicans. Ultimately, political ideologies seemed to have little significance. The poem, thus, may be read as a prophetic commentary upon the decay of modern civilization. But it may also be read for its historical-topical significance as it reflects the blood-letting of civil upheaval. Note, then, that the widening gyre may be related to the sanguinary events in Ireland, because in Yeats' philosophy objectivity also applies to the moment in the historical cycle when political activity denies the integrity of the individual. We are now able to see that Yeats protests against the dissolution of order in Ireland as Mere anarchy, and that The blood-dimmed tide may be interpreted with reference to that conflict. Supplemented by our new information, The ceremony of innocence may be read as a direct allusion to political grievances; in this phrase is encompassed the notion that the innocent as well as the guilty are sacrificed. The somber closing lines lead to the conclusion that a new absolute—the rough beast—perhaps not so salutary as the old established order, is coming to dominate the next cycle of man's history.

Both the "private" and supplementary details have immediate topical bearing only upon the first stanza, which is expository and dramatic, and which sets the mood and tone; they also clarify the intention of prophetic warning. To re-emphasize the point, the poem has no absolute dependence of meaning on these augmenting details. Knowledge of these matters, however, ultimately becomes indispensable, since it gives the poem tremendous depth and exploits the imagery to its fullest. With these elements in mind, further, we come close to the full meaning of "The Second Coming," which is a masterpiece of complexity.


1 "The Second Coming" (from Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921) is reproduced with the kind permission of The Macmillan Company. The present text is from The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York, 1940).

2 Yeats' previously unpublished notes and other illuminating data about the gyres are available in W. B. Yeats, Man and Poet, by A. Norman Jeffares (London, 1949), pp. 196 ff. See also T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower (London, 1950), pp. 182ff.

Bernard Levine (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: "Vision and 'Responsibility'," in The Dissolving Image: The Spiritual-Esthetic Development of W. B. Yeats, Wayne State University Press, 1970, pp. 81-101.

[In the following essay, Levine considers "The Second Coming" in the context of several earlier poems by Yeats, seeing the work " as proof of the speaker's journey toward psychological equanimity" and humankind's imaginative acceptance of responsibility.]

The heroic quest for Yeats was a perdurable subject for poetry, explored first in the longest and one of the earliest of his poems, "Oisin" (1889). Almost immediately after "Oisin," love, the longing for everlasting union with the beloved, became the poet's principal concern; and after that Yeats dealt with the lover's anguish and disillusionment (1897-1905). This in turn became the basis for reaffirmation of an heroic discipline, evidence in poems which made the immortal beloved an epical rather than an ethereal figure, the personification of a martyred ideal, noble and solitary in her ways (1908-1915). The lover's adoration of the beauty of the Rose of Ireland had given way to a worshipful respect for the fading beauty of a latterday Helen, the "phoenix" whose country betrayed her romantic zeal and whose defeat seemed to her admirer only to increase her stature.

From about 1910 the speaker himself (with his "Helen" as an example) adopts the heroic pose, sounding the clarion call of "joy in defeat," learning to exult in spite of the seemingly insurmountable opposition of the petty and frenetic world around him. The magnetic core of Yeats's poetry deepens as the poet's horizons broaden. The social and political world is taken on as a challenge to the soul, and if conflict leads to defeat, that is what strikes the spark of enlightenment, the spiritual reserve that holds against violence and destruction. Personal hatred and bitterness are best exorcised, Yeats suggests, by making the self "the world's servant" (P, 376), through self-surrender becoming "selfpossessed" (E, 524). Yeats's poetry in this respect can be read as a "sacred book," reflecting in its highest moments the Self-illuminating process.

In the present [essay] we shall consider Yeats's, "public poetry" from 1910 to 1921, concentrating on the way in which the speaker transforms his identity in the course of addressing himself to his social "responsibility." We shall consider first those poems in which the speaker makes "Helen" the paragon of nobility, and then the several poems of "exultation." "The Second Coming" will serve as our terminal point of reference.

In the "Helen" poems the old image of the immortal beloved has been replaced by the image of a woman whose mystery braves the crassness and injustice of this world. Her majestic bearing, despite her having fallen from favor, is what commends her to the speaker; and he memorializes her heroic quality while confirming his own sense of solitude. It is as though the unrequited lover had recouped his loss by sympathetic avowal of the beloved's innate dignity.

The speaker in the "Helen" poems seems to be what Yeats in A Vision calls "The Daimonic Man." He is a person in search of his transpersonal Self, but someone who has tried sharing the awareness of his spiritual counterpart (potentially his daimonic being) with the woman he loves. In renouncing his desire for the woman, therefore, he finds himself better able to realize his own destiny. What he is deprived of he can accept as "proof of spiritual gain. Because he substitutes for the object of his desire a Self-inspired image, "The Daimonic Man" is obviously endowed with creative insight; but because he is in a state of transition his convictions may not be expressed with the greatest possible intensity.

The Body of Fate [the outcome of circumstance] . . . is "loss," and works to make impossible "simplification by intensity." The being, through the intellect, selects some object of desire for a representation of the Mask as Image, some woman perhaps, and the Body of Fate snatches away the object. Then the intellect (Creative Mind,) which in the most antithetical phases were better described as imagination, must substitute some new image of desire; and in the degree of its power and of its attainment of unity, relate that which is lost, that which has snatched it away, to the new image of desire, that which threatens the new image to the being's unity. (V, 142)

Unlike the speaker in Yeats's poems of exultation, the speaker in the "Helen" poems finds himself at cross purposes. He cannot rejoice in his vision without first arguing with himself, or with the insensitive world, for her sake. His grasp of his subject and its conceptual core is thus weakened because his point of view is divided. Indeed it would seem the speaker in these poems is looking for his proper subject. Consider this poem called "Words," published in 1910:

I had this thought a while ago, 'My darling cannot understand What I have done, or what would do In this blind bitter land.'

And I grew weary of the sun Until my thoughts cleared up again, Remembering that the best I have done Was done to make it plain;

That every year I have cried, 'At length My darling understands it all, Because I have come into my strength, And words obey my call';

That had she done so who can say What would have shaken from the sieve? I might have thrown poor words away And been content to live.

In his diary for January 22, 1909, Yeats, in talking about his twenty-year relationship with Maud Gonne, accounts for his having written this poem. "How much of the best that I have done and still do is but the attempt to explain myself to her. . . . If she understood I should lack a reason for writing and one can never have too many reasons for doing what is so laborious."1

Is it for her sake, for his sake, or for the sake of writing that the speaker in "Words" makes poetry of his thoughts? Each stanza turns upon a different aspect of this leading question. In stanza 1 the speaker makes ready to reassure "my darling" that he has learned to live in a country where people are "blind" and "bitter"; in stanza 2, he suggests that simply clarifying his position should be enough, making it clear to himself and her that he accepts his unequal relationship with others; and yet in stanza 3 he is dismayed that, no matter how well he reconciles himself to his situation, "my darling" will never be able to understand—him or the means by which he is able to put up with the world.

The three-way problem, then, is only partially resolved: the speaker finds strength in being able to express his thoughts about a land that otherwise would seem alien to him; but he cannot quite reconcile himself to the fact that he must live alone with this redeeming insight. In stanza 4 he copes with the irony only by redoubling it. Because the one person that inspires him cannot really understand him, he thinks himself cut off from life; and he thinks himself cut off because of his continuing need to express himself. He is caught in a trap of his own making, thinking that "words" would finally release him from any obsessive concern he had for those he loved or hated. But in the end "words," indeed, are all he has left, the ability to make poetry of his discontent.

When the speaker says "I might have thrown poor words away / And been content to live," he does not imply he will be satisfied living alone; he wants to be alone with his beloved, who at last would understand him. And yet the poem is not actually addressed to the beloved, as were the early love lyrics (see P, 157), or as was "Adam's Curse." "Words" is a discursive poem, ostensibly about a man's relationship to a woman, his compatriots, his art; but it strikes our attention more for its manner than for its specific content—the gentle, meditative tone that shows us a man struggling with his own understanding, being made to acknowledge a fate he had never asked for.

In "Words" and in other of the "Helen" poems the speaker nonetheless looks to the figure of Helen to resolve his quarrel with country and countrymen. He makes of Homer's paragon a personal example—the image of a woman who is noble enough to disregard the slights, the abuse, the intolerance, and forgetfulness of those who once held her in esteem. She is the model for the tragic joy the speaker soon after comes to feel in his own right. And from her image he soon learns to fashion a mask for himself, in the process growing more flexible in his manner of expression.

In "No Second Troy," the earliest of the "Helen" poems (1908, written, as Hone observes, after Yeats had visited Maud Gonne in Paris) the speaker takes "ignorant men" to task for not being equal to his heroine's zeal. Indignant at their common perversion of her gospel, he lauds her "most violent ways," investing her image with a nobility—"That nobleness made simple as a fire"—which consequently makes what she does of epical import.

Why, what could she have done, being what she is? Was there another Troy for her to burn?

The speaker shows self-righteous anger on her behalf, not blaming her even "that she filled my days / With misery" nor attentive to that more cautious voice of the poet: Yeats himself disapproving of Maud because she gave assent to violence.2 The speaker embraces Helen's cause with the conviction of a man who has shared her experience; and his own feelings echo as a paean to her passionate, Dianesque aloofness.

What could have made her peaceful with a mind That nobleness made simple as a fire, With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind That is not natural in an age like this, Being high and solitary and most stern.

(P, 256-57)

In the poem "Peace," published in series with "No Second Troy" but written a year and a half after the latter (again in relation to Yeats's visit to Maud Gonne, this time in Normandy3), the speaker takes a reverse stand. Instead of his headlong devotion in the earlier poem, the speaker is entirely circumspect in "Peace." He views his heroine with a more penetrating eye, modifying what he supposes to be the heroic ideal.

Ah, that Time could touch a form That could show what Homer's age Bred to be a hero's wage.

The speaker is considerably more deliberate in his testimonial to the modern-day Helen. He is not as straightforward as he might be in his appraisal of her, but it is quite obvious that he does not condone her stormy involvement in life. It may have been that Helen's fiery temperament had been at one time commensurate with her beauty. But when Time preys on her beauty the external effects gradually are shed and what then would remain is her radiant composure. Had she indeed been as the speaker imagines, she would have served him, and those like him, as someone to emulate. Even in her youth, he conjectures, some painter might have foreseen her overwhelming virtue: her "'delicate high head / All that sternness amid charm, / All that sweetness amid strength'" until (as was expressed in a line later deleted) "'they had changed us to like strength. .. . '"

The speaker is no mere worshipper of feminine beauty. He is strong-willed enough to conceive of Helen as the image of what he himself would become. Worth noting in this respect is his attempt to identify Helen as "half lion, half child," (a therianthropic image which with "The Second Coming" becomes a correlative for the speaker's own, transpersonal solitude and visionary insight). This composite image, as first used in "Against Unworthy Praise," describes the unspoiled virtue of a woman whose ideals have been misread, distorted, by unconscionable "knaves." The speaker argues away his indignation by claiming to share with his heroine a secret placing them above the ordinary run of men.

O heart, be at peace, because Nor knave nor dolt can break What's not for their applause, Being for a woman's sake. Enough if the work has seemed, So did she your strength renew, A dream that a lion had dreamed Till the wilderness cried aloud, A secret between you two ["her" and his "heart"], Between the proud and the proud.

The speaker communes with this woman because he is assured they are, together, in touch with the heroic world of the imagination. Their lion's dream thus gives them strength to render ineffectual the everyday world around them.

But just how convincing is the speaker's claim to be privy to an abiding mystery? He does not, cannot, focus squarely upon eliciting an image from Anima Mundi, because his attention is divided: he is more intent on reconciling his own differences with the world and trying to establish at the same time the spiritual ascendancy of his heroine. The speaker does not concentrate with the intensity of the speaker in "The Second Coming" upon creating, or invoking, a transformational image. The dual image of the woman—" she, singing upon her road, / Half lion, half child"—becomes a unitive symbol only because of a juxtaposition of words, not because of any profound poetic process. As a result the terminal figure in the poem seems merely a by-product of the imagination and not a direct, daimonic source of inspiration.

In the sequence of poems addressed to Helen, the titular heroine is meant to be a symbol of inner strength for having suffered defeat in the external world. But so long as the speaker cultivates that image in its own right, independent of his own being, and without primary emphasis upon the change he undergoes contemplating that image, he will be able to make only minimally effective his use of image as symbol. The burden of the poem is not to prove itself a moment of stasis or to crystallize a sequence of images, but rather to suggest the poem's dynamic inscape—the power of the word to draw in toward a single symbolic center.

"The Second Coming" does this. And it appears that the transformation symbol in that poem (the sphinx) is anticipated in the "Helen" poems. "Against Unworthy Praise," written in 1910, ends with a pristine form of such a symbol. "His Phoenix" (P, 353-54) written four and a half years later (January 1915) makes use of an intermediate figure, a cross between the "child" and the "sphinx": "I knew a phoenix in my youth," reads the refrain; she has "the simplicity of a child. / And that proud look as though she had gazed into the burning sun [cf. "The Second Coming," 1. 15], / And all the shapely body no tittle gone astray." The speaker mourns, he says, "for that most lonely thing." There is regret mixed with admiration as he recalls her untainted beauty. She had her heyday when she was young. Now she is a victim of "that barbarous crowd," isolated and alone. But her "proud look" and indomitable eye still haunt the speaker.

However, it does not seem the person speaking has gone through too great an effort to picture his phoenix. She is an image out of the immediate past,4 not out of the larger context of Anima Mundi. She seems to have been born whole, not evolved through the process of the poem. Only slightly does she share in that elemental world from which the "rough beast" in "The Second Coming" originates. This latter image derives from an in-felt psychological matrix; in "His Phoenix" the speaker looks back in time, more intently than he looks within, for his controlling image.

Most of the "Helen" poems, no less than "The Second Coming," show the speaker attempting to maneuver the central image in such a way as to make it serve as a buffer between himself and his outrage—a solvent for the indignant attitude he has toward "the barbarous crowd." In "The People" (P, 351-53), written at about the same time as "His Phoenix," and published together with that poem and five others in Poetry, February 1916, the speaker engages his transfigured heroine in a dialogue concerning the people. Unlike other of the "Helen" poems, this is a poem of self-reproof. The man who has spent a good part of his life working for "this unmannerly town" questions the value of his sacrifice. He might as well have given in to his tendency to withdraw from the thankless world, he says, and move instead "among the images of the past / . . . unperturbed and courtly images" of Quattrocento Italy "where the Duchess and her people talked / The stately midnight through until they stood / In their great window looking at the dawn." But that kind of intellectual and esthetic isolation is only a halfway house, his twentieth-century lady tells him. There are those, of course—the "drunkards, pilferers of public funds"—who thrive upon dishonesty, but do they constitute "the people," she asks, do they make up the real body of the country? Despite what wrong had been done her, she tells him, "'never have I, now nor at any time, Complained of the people.'" He counters the simplicity of her faith. She is ruled by her heart, he says, riot by any "analytic mind." And then he recoils from his words. Meeting his indignation head-on, her generosity puts him to shame. He suddenly recognizes the truth of her words.5

The "Helen" poems contrast markedly with the early poems of exultation, in that the latter are more directly concerned with the self-illuminating intensity of the speaking voice. They seem indeed the antithetical counterparts of the "Helen" poems—visionary rather than devotional in manner. Let us examine now the poems of exultation and determine in what way they, like the "Helen" poems, anticipate the premonitory tone of "The Second Coming."

"Life is not lived," Yeats wrote in 1907, "if not lived for contemplation or excitement" (E, 252). Visionary excitement indeed may be induced by contemplation. The contemplative mind is able to symbolize, intensify by simplifying its comprehension of reality, and as a result grow free of nonessential impressions. It is different from the "analytic mind" which multiplies by dividing in that it tends to magnify partial aspects of reality into representations of the whole: coloring what it sees with its own bias.

Tom O'Roughley, the titular figure of a poem Yeats wrote in 1918, focuses upon the differences between the two states of mind: "Wisdom is a butterfly," he says, "and not a gloomy bird of prey." The analytic mind feeds upon rather than frees itself of the world—imposes meaning, sets goals, establishes rules, in short, perpetuates by delimiting its range of reference. "Logic-choppers rule the town" is how Tom sums it up. But Tom does not bank upon the wayward world for his direction in life: "'An aimless joy is a pure joy,'" he says. And to show his joyous indifference, he turns a lively heel upon all speculation concerning life and death:

'If little planned is little sinned But little need the grave distress. What's dying but a second wind? How but in zig-zag wantonness Could trumpeter Michael be so brave?' Or something of that sort he said, 'And if my dearest friend were dead I'd dance a measure on his grave.'

(P. 337-38)

The linear movement of the poem, accelerating to its final statement by rhetorical questioning, accords nicely with Tom's startling final gesture, his gay dismissal of any speculative faith. His attitude is not unlike that of Yeats writing in 1907: "That we may be free from . . . sullen anger, solemn virtue, calculating anxiety, gloomy suspicion, prevaricating hope, we should be reborn in gaiety" (E, 252). Tom envisions his own transformation: and his espousal of a "zig-zag wantonness" seems a felicitous correlative of the speaker's visionary excitement.

Tom has the last word, but we wonder if the author has not after all been overly deliberate in structuring the poem, in writing about his sense of exultation and in using the too mindful indirection of a persona. The more characteristic of Yeats's poems feature the first-person narrator, who makes us feel the immediacy of his subject.

In "The Dawn," similar in theme to "Tom O'Roughley," the speaker contemplates directly his subject and then rises to the full strength of his controlling image. The ironic first eight lines, telescoping the world he takes exception to, prevent any progressive concentration of mood; but the lines nonetheless seem to provide a springboard for his excitement, as reflected in the culminating image.

I would be ignorant as the dawn That has looked down On that old queen measuring a town With the pin of a brooch, Or on the withered men that saw From their pedantic Babylon The careless planets in their courses, The stars fade out where the moon comes, And took their tablets and did sums; I would be ignorant as the dawn That merely stood, rocking the glittering coach Above the cloudy shoulders of the horses; I would be—for no knowledge is worth a straw— Ignorant and wanton as the dawn.

Again (zxcf. "Tom O'Roughley") the speaker expresses his desire to be free of that peddling intellect which can "measure a town" or reduce to a piece of slate the incalculable mystery of the cosmos. The speaker holds thumbs down on products of the analytic mind, himself having recourse to the larger, yet self-contained, world of the imagination.

I would be ignorant as the dawn That merely stood, rocking the glittering coach Above the cloudy shoulders of the horses. . . .

His insight takes the form of an image of static intensity, signifying, as he hopes, his would-be transformation.

Yeats used over and again the images of animals and "dawn" to express the consecrated energy of the moment of vision. It is not until the very late poem "High Talk" that the speaker blends these images into the perfect climax for a poem of exultation . . . : but we may profitably pause, I think, over the use of these images in the earlier poems. In "The Dawn" the conjunction of horses and sun is perhaps the most memorable composite image of transfiguration in Yeats's early poetry. In three other poems, all written before "The Dawn"—"At Galway Races" (1908), "Upon a House shaken by the Land Agitation" (1909), and the poem to which Yeats gave his longest title, "To a Wealthy Man who promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if it were proved the People wanted Pictures" (1912)—we have the visionary images of horse and sun dealt with separately. We might look at these three poems before passing on to the more emotionally ambivalent poems of exultation.

Unlike the narration in "Tom O'Roughley," "The Dawn," and other later poems describing the speaker's elation, the narrator in these three early poems rides dauntlessly high because of his sense of aristocratic pride. "At Galway Races," the first of Yeats's poems of exultation, shows the narrator boldly articulating his triumphal vision. The spectacle of the race is regarded as the spirit of the country as a whole, the brave riders setting an example for the people to follow:

There where the course is, Delight makes all of the one mind, The riders upon the galloping horses, The crowd that closes in behind. . . .

There is not a bit of scorn in the speaker's words. His optimism rings with the sense of noblesse oblige. With "horsemen for companions" he may look down on "the merchant and the clerk," but nonetheless holds out some hope for their redemption. All life, he supposes, can be refashioned from the vision of "men / That ride upon horses." And their concerted response to an apocalyptic trumpeting is what sustains the imagination of such men:

Sing on: somewhere at some new moon, We'll learn that sleeping is not death, Hearing the whole world change its tune, Its flesh being wild. . . .

No feeling of separation or defeat here. The vibrant tread of horsemen is meant to be felt in this stirring image of a world potentially transformed.

In "At Galway Races" there are foreshadowings of "The Second Coming," but the buoyant tone of this early poem is a far cry from the probative vision of the speaker in the later poem. For all his gallantry the speaker in "At Galway Races" cultivates too broad a view, extending himself without sufficient check upon his imagination: he seems hellbent on a vision of unity-of-being among all men. And this vision, the poet realizes later, is impossible (A, 235-36). The relation of man to men is too problematic to allow the visionary anything finally but the promise of his own solitude.

A new note is sounded in a poem Yeats wrote a year after "At Galway Races": it is addressed to Lady Gregory, who numbered among the last of Ireland's landed aristocracy. Quizzically the speaker asks:

How should the world be luckier if this house, Where passion and precision have been one Time out of mind, became too ruinous To breed the lidless eye that loves the sun?

The speaker is concerned with the problem of preserving from destruction the invaluable emblems of nobility. The external effects (the material dwelling) may become common property, he says, but that will never endow the new owners with the character of the people the dwelling once housed; and how can the actual possession ever compare with the spiritual resolve of those who had lived there? Yet, however much the speaker regrets the fall of the physical structure, he wonders if its demolition will really keep the tradition from being perpetuated. It should, he supposes, serve only to inure the spirit, allow the self-liberating mind to discover above all else "gradual Time's last gift," what no man of mean wealth can ever understand: "a written speech / Wrought of high laughter, loveliness and ease." The noble mind finds in lofty repose enduring strength: "sweet laughing eagle thoughts that grow / Where wings have memory of wings, and all / That comes of the best knit to the best." The proud heights inherited by "the best" are those "eagle thoughts" signified by the hieratic symbol of the "eye that loves the sun."

In "To a Wealthy Man ... " the sun's eye is a symbol for those aspiring to be remembered among "the best."

Let Paudeens play at pitch and toss, Look up in the sun's eye and give What the exultant heart calls good That some new day may breed the best Because you gave, not what they would, But the right twigs for an eagle's nest!

"Eagle" and "sun" are matched in dignity, symbols of an aristocratic pride. But they are not symbols entirely pared of reference to the material world; the speaker is asking the wealthy man to give money (in spite of the moneyminded Paudeens) in order to further the cause of art. Art, "whose end is peace," would presumably set the proper tone for the city and, in its conspicuous stillness, would seem to triumph over the rankling crowd.

It was a year before the speaker would address another patron of the arts and assure her that noble souls are "Bred to a harder thing / Than Triumph." He advised her to "take defeat": "turn away / And like a laughing string / Whereon mad fingers play / . . . Be secret and exult, / Because of all things known / That is most difficult" (P, 291).

The speaker comes around to acknowledging that the real challenge for the beleaguered soul is to evolve a discipline of laughter, feeding elation not on splendiferous visions or bright arrays of possibility but on the more salient issue of broken hopes and unrealized dreams. What's desired is the free feeling that comes of having been purged of personal bitterness, indignation, and pride. It is a humbling and a revelation, the shock of illumination in the wilderness, a stigmatic release of emotion. The three poems which most aptly convey the mixture of pain and elation, "Paudeen," "The Cold Heaven," and "Demon and Beast," contrast therefore in tone with the three "aristocratic" poems of exultation. And they contrast as well with "The Dawn" and "Tom O'Roughley," poems in which the innocence and quicksilver quality of the speaker prevail.

In the three, what we may call "stigmatic" poems of exultation, the speaker traverses an emotional spectrum from pain, indignation, or hatred, to self-enlightenment.6 He is lifted, it seems, in the process of transcribing his vision. In "Paudeen" and "The Cold Heaven" the cumulative excitement of the words virtually imitates the ecstatic heightening that the speaker professes to undergo. With the culminating moment in each poem something flashes upon the mind's eye of the speaker, an image shivering with visionary intensity. The image of the sun, evident in most of the poems we are considering, in these two poems seems to show through an inner light, refulgent with the speaker's own articulate energy.

Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite Of our old Paudeen in his shop, I stumbled blind Among the stones and thorn-trees, under morning light; Until a curlew cried and in the luminous wind A curlew answered; and suddenly thereupon I thought That on the only height where all are in God's eye, There cannot be, confusion of our thought forgot, A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

(P, 291)

... And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason, Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro, Riddled with light.7

(P, 316)

In both poems, as well as in "Demon and Beast," the image of the birds helps bring about a catalytic change in the speaker. It is significant that in none of these poems do we get the proud image of hawk or eagle. They are common birds—the curlew, the rook,8 the gull or "some absurd / Portly green-pated bird"—which touch upon the speaker's emotions, filling him at once with remorse and joy; for him the sight of them, their freeflying and yet humble forms, induces tears that are gladly shed, feelings which whelm up when grievance gives way to forgiveness and pride dissolves in benediction. "Being no more demoniac / A stupid happy creature / Could rouse my whole nature" (P, 400).

The conflict described in these three poems is the conflict between a man's demonic and daimonic natures. The speaker's quarrel with the world can result only in disdain or hate, or else erupt in some act of violence; but if the quarrel is contained and the self becomes the principal target of the speaker, then the latter is able to project over and beyond any demonic assertion the mystery of his spiritual Daimon.

The stigmatic poems are the outcome of this recurrent struggle, the moment of poetic vision translating the emotional experience. The speaker can celebrate his triumph because he has found momentary release from his shadow—the selfish, delimiting aspect of his being. The dissociated images of beast and bird are thus used to describe an unwinding, "contraconic," experience: the way antipathetic (animal-spiritual) elements are resolved through enlightened understanding of the self and others. The idea is expressed in the opening lines of "Demon and Beast"—

For certain minutes at the least That crafty demon and that loud beast That plague me day and night Ran out of my sight; Though I had long perned in the gyre, Between my hatred and my desire, I saw my freedom won And all laugh in the sun.

This first stanza ends with reference to the sun as an image of unfettered happiness; the next stanza is concerned with the manifestation of an inner light.

The speaker finds himself in the "sweet company" of dead men, portraits that speak out to him the vital wisdom of Anima Mundi. Having comprehended those nodding and smiling figures on the wall—"glittering eyes in a death's head"—he is able to rout the blatant "beast" and thereby feel the spiritual purity which makes him at one with all men: "For all men's thoughts grew clear / Being dear as mine are dear." His understanding now is of the heart as well as the head, and presumably he resolves for the moment that antinomy which, in "The People," keeps the speaker from realizing the possible "purity of a natural force" ("his phoenix's" unconditional belief in "the people").

The speaker's humanity is not proved until a pervading joy is able to make him surrender his intellectual and egotistic pride. That done, his example might serve the people: for "never yet had freeman / Right mastery of natural things." For the speaker freedom is evidenced by passionate self-control, and once the demon has been exorcised, that freedom allows a more profound sensitivity. His entire being is engaged by two "stupid happy creatures"—a gyring gull splashing down beside a floating duck. The birds express for him "aimless joy" and bring "a tear-drop" to his eye. Apparently he feels the release that comes from a sudden conjunction of opposites, the felicitous melding of instinct and insight. For the moment his "whole nature" responds to the world around him with primordial innocence.

The speaker thus discovers the exquisite "sweetness" of life, having "no dearer thought / Than . . . [to] find out a way / To make it linger half a day." A man's life, though, is necessarily bound by a self-conscious existence; as a result the natural world is seen at its purest only when death is regarded, not as an ironic or absurd fate, but as a means of spiritual release—

O what a sweetness strayed Through the barren Thebaid, Or by the Mareotic sea When that exultant Anthony And twice a thousand more Starved upon the shore And withered to a bag of bones! What had the Caesars but their thrones?

The life of Saint Anthony is interpreted by what Yeats in "Phase 27" of A Vision calls the "Emotion of Sanctity," the realization of a "contact with life beyond death." "It comes," Yeats maintains, "when synthesis [of facts and ideas] is abandoned, when fate is accepted" above the strictures of reason and intellect.

The vision of Anthony exulting at his death consummates the sequence of images (i.e., light-sight-liquid images) in this discursive poem. It completes the experience of the speaker whom we see first "laughing in the sun," then communing with "glittering eyes in a death's head," finally feeling "a tear-drop start . . . up" as he watches a bird by "the little lake . . . take / A bit of bread. . . . " Like the saint of "Phase 27" the speaker seems to allow "the total life, expressed in its humanity, to flow in upon him and to express itself through his acts and thoughts." What the speaker sees, thinks, and does thus makes for a composite emotion, reflecting his understanding of that extraordinary scene "by the Mareotic sea."

The poem, worked out in terms of this daimonic vision of Saint Anthony, is the last of Yeats's three stigmatic poems of exultation. It is a fitting conclusion to the cycle. The contritional intensity of "Paudeen" and "The Cold Heaven" is relaxed in "Demon and Beast"; the moment of revelation is extended in such a way as to allow the speaker to comprehend the human condition, the "total life" clarified for him in the emotion aroused by a sympathetic, because transpersonal, awareness.

We have considered thus far groups of poems which describe a progressive internalization of image. The "Helen" series, which succeeds the adorational and apocalyptic love lyrics of the early years, projects the heroic ideal of the poet in the image of a woman; the heroine has an almost divine nobility, and is endowed with spiritual beauty. In the poems of exultation it is the speaker himself who commands our attention; and the key images in the poem are those which reveal the nature of his spiritual state. Like "The Gift of Harun Al-Raschid," the last of the marital love poems, the early poems of exultation conclude with the figurai representation of a mysterious (daimonic) reality. The stigmatic poems differ from the other poems of exultation, as well as from the "Helen" poems, the marital love poems, and the spiritual and sensuous love lyrics, in that they express a more embracing, human love; the speaker is shown struggling to overcome the daimonic pride and hatred that plagues the soul; and, as we have seen, he emerges from the struggle with a more charitable vision of mankind—a brand of social "responsibility" which allows him to "respond" to, and by this means accept, the human condition as a measure of his personal effort at Self-fulfillment.9

A man's actions, Yeats realized, should relate to his social "responsibility." If hatred is "the common condition of our life," as he says in the essay "Anima Mundi" (M, 365), then it must be consciously controlled. The demon cannot be thought merely to have run away in a moment of enlightenment. The struggle for self-mastery is wholly internal, and it continues as long as there is one's self to think about.

The ideal that makes life livable cannot be conceived to lie outside the human mind. It is a self-sustaining force. "When I remember that Shelley calls our minds 'mirrors of the fire for which all thirst,' I cannot but ask the question all have asked, 'What or who has cracked the mirror?' I begin to study the only self that I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the pern again" (M, 364). It is when the mind fastens upon some reality beyond itself that the "thread" is likely to snap and thereby scotch the vision of life. Unlike Shelley, Yeats learned to take the living world for proof of his own intensity, and not consider it merely a perversion of reality. Because, as Yeats claimed in his essay "Anima Mundi," a poem could be its own revelation (once the imagination burned free of self-consciousness), then the world itself, from which the poem is drawn, would seem a revelation: it would be allowed its own rhythm, coexisting, curiously enough, with the unresolved images of Anima Mundi, the "soul of the world" which haunts the visionary mind.

The vision for Yeats is its own solvent, reducing to a common denominator seemingly disparate images. "I look at the strangers near," Yeats reports in describing this state of mind, "as if I had known them all my life . . . : everything fills me with affection, I have no longer any fears or any needs." And he goes on to explain, in the essay "Anima Mundi," that this affection makes him susceptible to the intelligence of some higher being, casting for him a mysterious image. (The kind of autochthonous love Yeats describes here, one may note, is the antithesis of Shelley's ethereal, Platonic love.)

I have something about me that, though it makes me love, is more like innocence. I am in the place where the Daimon is, but I do not think he is with me until I begin to make a new personality, selecting among those images, seeking always to satisfy a hunger grown out of conceit with daily diet; and yet as I write the words 'I select,' I am full of uncertainty, not knowing when I am the finger, when the clay. Once, twenty years ago, I seemed to awake from sleep to find my body rigid, and to hear a strange voice speaking these words through my lips as through lips of stone: 'We make an image of him who sleeps, and it is not he who sleeps, and we call it Emmanuel.' (M, 365-66)

The image Yeats talks about, no less than the condition attending its inception, anticipates the visionary image effected in "The Second Coming." "Emanuel," Hebrew for "God be with us," is meant by Yeats to signify not the messianic figure of a man, as the Old Testament tradition would have it, but an unconscious presence. At the critical moment between sleeping and waking, when the subconscious weighs in often precarious balance with the conscious mind, the ghostly voice all but paralyzes personal will, and projects upon the subliminal imagination the unsatisfied will of the dead; the body becomes a suspended form, transfigured momentarily by atavistic images impressed upon the mind.

"The Second Coming," written about eighteen months after "Anima Mundi," objectifies an autohypnotic state, showing the speaker in the process of eliciting from Spiritus Mundi the transformational image. More so than any previous lyric, even the three stigmatic poems, "The Second Coming" demonstrates what Yeats meant by "responsibility." The speaker "responds" transpersonally to the threat of destruction. A cool intensity replaces the "wild" excitement and elated agony of the early poems of exultation. Anarchic events are accepted as manifestations of man's impending fate; they are not regarded simply as a challenge to the speaker's defense of an heroic order. Aristocratic pride, personal bitterness, indignation toward the ungovernable crowd no longer are the vital issues. Prophetic insight has more than offset the prospect of social upheaval.10

There is an apparent reversal in the point of view of the poem. The dissolving center of the phenomenal reality gives way to a startling image of concentration so that, as a result, the centrifugal demon seems to have been brought under control of a daimonic intelligence. The animal form that slowly evolves in the mind's eye—an organic, yet entelic, energy—heralds, therefore, the watchful release of the body. The speaker may thus be said to have struck a radical balance, evoking the symbol of a potentially interchangeable (physical-spiritual) reality.

That unformed image of the beast was formerly contained by the unconscious, confined by—but now, under the aspect of violence—ready to break from, any rational order.11 And from the cultural devotion of the past twenty centuries, it would appear, will emerge for the uninitiated a subterranean terror; for the visionary that terror, however, is subliminal, and may be brought to light not in fear but out of a complementary, immanent wisdom. The manifestation of force would seem to breed a vision of final destruction; but for the speaker it becomes an occasion for spiritual revelation, bringing on a flash of insight which intimates a change, gradual and deliberate, as natural as the mystery of any emerging form. It is a psychogenic emancipation. And it is made possible through metamorphosis, not through any retaliatory exchange of power. Any action in the external world, as Schopenhauer claimed, will have served to mirror back upon the doer the extravagant energy of his own will, forcing the individual to recognize the self, and not some outside power, as the unpurged source of evil in the world.

The contemplative vision results from surrender of the will. It leads to dissolution of the energy of the self by dissolving into daimonic symbol images which have taken hold on the mind and whose assertive force has not yet been exhausted. Symbolic form results from a concentration which purifies by relaxing the conscious mold of organic form: breaking up (without destroying its reticulate core) any rigidified, specific pattern of thought. Under the influence of its own generative power, mind and body operate more equally upon each other, re-forming the self, making it progressively less insistent upon proving its will upon other selves, other forms of being. Once circumstances in the surrounding world can be accepted as its own fate, then the self enlarges its capacity for being.

In this consists the commanding mystery and solitude of the visionary. In "The Second Coming" the speaker appears to have let himself be overshadowed by his image of the sphinx, allowing it to proliferate, by religious and historical association, while converging toward an instinctive unity, the elemental ground of the imagination. The living-stone is assigned no specified locale; the sands of the desert, suggesting the slow passing of time, become a correlative for the ineffectual world the stone image will displace; but that image takes shape as a phantasmagoria, calculated to rephrase the historical question in the form of a spiritual enigma: "what rough beast . . . ?"

It is curious that none of the existing critiques of "The Second Coming" have focused squarely upon the state of mind of the speaker. What the poem says about the world and beast is not meant as simply a projection of the formidable state of affairs today, and the prospect of some equally formidable antidote. With the above discussion I have been suggesting that the poem be read as proof of the speaker's journey toward psychological equanimity. The images, while certainly gathered from the real world (history and culture), reflect control of an inner world, the untried recesses of the self. And again, unlike previous critics of the poem, I take for my verifying text "Phase 22" of A Vision: the pivotal point in the transition from the subjective to the ghostly self.12 In "Phase 22," Yeats muses, "we seem to have renounced our ambition under the influence of some strange, far-reaching impartial gaze." The evolving image of the sphinx returns just this kind of impartial gaze—"blank and pitiless as the sun" (the most memorable perhaps of Yeats' eye-sun images): its indifferent wisdom seeming to confront us with the inherent justice of man's fate. However the world mayfare, a man's acceptance of his "responsibility" makes available to him the redeeming strength of his imagination. He may "use the Body of Fate to deliver the Creative Mind from the Mask [Yeats describes this as "self-immolation"] . . . , so using the intellect upon the facts of the world that the last vestige of personality disappears." At this point "the desire to dominate has so completely vanished, 'amalgamation' [the resolving power of the imagination] has pushed its way into the subconscious, into that which is dark, that we call it a vision." The man of action is the antithesis of the visionary; he cannot internalize his sense of mission, he cannot amalgamate through art or language what he feels must be expressed. Action, Yeats observes, "is a form of abstraction that crushes everything it cannot express." "Men will die and murder for an abstract synthesis, and the more abstract it is the further it carries them from compunction and compromise; and as obstacles to that synthesis increase, the violence of their will increases. . . . Before the point of balance has been reached" [the moment of vision] a man who is "out of phase" (yet identified with "Phase 22") may "become a destroyer and persecutor, a figure of tumult and of violence." The imaginative mind confronts such a demonstration of self, opposing to license and havoc a spiritual vision which is ominous, appalling. But before some actual Armageddon, it is visionary insight which is most instructive: "life, the balance reached, becomes [for men of "Phase 22"] an act of contemplation. There is no longer a desired object, as distinct from thought itself, no longer a Will, as distinct from the process of nature seen as fact. . . . Intellect knows itself as its own object of desire; and the Will knows itself to be the world" (V, 157-63).

Individuation triangulates itself into self, spirit, world; it is the conscious separation of a spiritual whole. Not until the self foresees its identity with the world and can so refine its desire as to understand the troubled soul of the world—the residual consciousness of "Anima Mundi"—not until then will the imagination be able to conjure any embracing vision of reality.

The sphinx may offer only a glimpse of the underlying truth, but its momentary appearance is sufficiently edifying. The poet submits his will to the innervating fire of his imagination. No longer is he content with the prefigured beatitude of heroic Helen, "his phoenix," "halfchild," fit to be despoiled, perhaps, by a centaur; nor, after 1913, is he moved to scale terrestrial heights, raising his voice in the peine et joie of illumination. In "The Second Coming" the poet's imagination is felt to move through the image, the speaker's voice vibrant with the intimation of something a part of, though mysteriously removed from, himself.

The unconscious is rendered in "The Second Coming" in terms of common experience, half-revealed, but shared on our part by some twinge of recognition. Coupled with that strange, lurking image of the beast is the guiding hand of the speaker, holding in counterpoise the claims of personal assertion and social violence. The speaker braces with the threat of utter destruction a petrifying construct of the psyche—so that as a result the cause of man's inhumanity is made over into a millennial symbol of transformation. That symbol for the moment obliterates all attention to the images which circumscribe it—images of blood, water, sun, stone, sand. The trompe l'oeil of the sphinx moving impresses itself upon the mind with the sudden curtain-drop, followed by the speaker's unresolved question at the end. And the shadow of that harrowing beast seems to linger after the last words in the poem are spoken.


1 Jeffares, Yeats, Man and Poet, p. 141.

2Ibid., pp. 59-60.

3 Hone, Yeats, 1865-1939, p. 252.

4 Yeats first makes reference to the "phoenix" in his diary for January 1909. He is greatly agitated when he writes about the uncertain terms of his relationship with Maud Gonne. "Of old she was a phoenix and I feared her, but now she is my child more than my sweetheart. . . . Always since I was a boy I have questioned dreams for her sake—and she herself always a dream and deceiving hope . . . the phoenix nesting when she is reborn in all her power to torture and delight, to waste and to ennoble" (Moore, The Unicorn, pp. 202-203). In the poem he wrote in 1915 Yeats no longer suggests her cruelty or her transforming, redemptive power.

5 Thomas Whitaker traces her words to those of Coventry Patmore and Plutarch—Swan and Shadow: Yeats 's Dialogue with History (Chapel Hill, 1964), pp. 159-60.

6 The poems suggest the process of enlightenment as undergone by a saint or Christ, contracting pain or stigmata ("riddled with light") as an antidote to pride and as a means of inducing a sense of charity, or love.

7 I would agree with Peter Ure in saying that the phrase "riddled with light" is "the highest point to which the poem mounts in its restless rush of movement and rising rhythms" (Yeats, p. 58). The word "riddled" suggests both the ecstatic—stigmatic—pain of physical transfiguration and the speaker's dumbfounded questioning of self-justifying motives, his faculties having momently been transfixed by the enigmatic disclosure of his own, absolute self-enlightenment.

8 T. R. Henn contends that "The Cold Heaven" "has the clarity and vehemence of a visionary moment: made credible and vivid by the epithet rook-delighting. The stark visual impression of the black rooks, in the wild acrobatics* [Henn's note: *Rooks and green plovers are among the few birds which seem to do this, in a kind of ecstasy] in which ... they sometimes revel..." ("'The Green Helmet' and 'Responsibilities,'" in An Honoured Guest, p. 51).

9 My reading of Yeats's word "responsibility" as deriving from the earlier connotation of "respond," "responsiveness," is not the reading applied by any critics, so far as I am aware, who have dealt with the volume Responsibilities. Stephen Spender's reading comes closest to my interpretation in that he relates the conventional sense of the word to the poet's awareness of his inherent, imaginative response to reality: "What does Yeats . . . ultimately feel responsible towards? The answer is, perhaps, to an abstraction, to the imagination which creates. But nevertheless this abstraction is a quality within ourselves"—"The Influence of Yeats on Later English Poets," Tri-Quarterly, IV (1965), 89. Compare also Priscilla Shaw's statement: Yeats was "both moral and responsible, and the surface irresponsibility or 'aestheticism' of some of his poems is clearly a reaction to the impossibility of adequate moral action, rather than some unthinking impulse" (Rilke, Valéry and Yeats, pp. 218-19).

10 The proleptic intent of the poem, to paraphrase a remark of Hart Crane's, is best construed with regard to poetic or psychopoetic, not historical, necessity—"Modern Poetry," in Collected Poems of Hart Crane, ed. Waldo Frank (Garden City, 1958), p. 182. Compare Thomas Parkinson's remark about one of the five possible "modes" in which the narrator in Yeats's poems speaks: "poems of pure revelation—what Yeats himself would have considered pure poetry—are possible only within the impure content of the life of the divided self struggling through successive nightmares of deceptive lures"—W. B. Yeats: The Later Poetry (Berkeley, 1964), p. 54. Is it necessary to conclude, therefore, as does R. P. Blackmur (among others) that the "magic" of revelation in "The Second Coming" "promises . . . exact prediction of events in the natural world" ("The Later Poetry of W. B. Yeats," in Permanence of Yeats, p. 49)?

11 Johannes Kleinstück has dealt in greatest depth with the psychological implications of the poem: " . . . der Bezugspunkt, um es so zu sagen, war der Mensch in seiner Gottebenbildlichkeit; das Unmenschliche am Menschen war zwar nicht ohne Wirkung und Wirklichkeit, aber man erkannte es nicht als Ideal an. Jetzt ist es, als ob sich das Unmenschliche für diese Nicht-Anerkennung rächen wollte; was unterdrückt war, kommt nach oben." ["The point of relation, as it were, has to do with man in his likeness to God; the unhuman man was not indeed without consequence or reality, but it was not recognized as an ideal. Now it is as if for this lack of recognition the unhuman would take revenge; what was repressed comes to the surface."] Suppression of brutish qualities, Kleinstück implies, before the elevated ideal of God, is symbolized in Western consciousness by obeisance of the three kings from the East ("grausamsten Tyrannen") before Jesus; and the reverse movement would be symbolized quite naturally by the figure of a beast slouching, ready to spring—"W. B. Yeats: The Second Coming. Eine Studie zur Interpretation und Kritik," Die Neuren Sprachen (July, 1961), 306. John Unterecker also takes cognizance of the unconscious tendency in men to make their own mortality reason for wishing upon the world universal destruction (A Reader's Guide to Yeats, pp. 164-65).

12 Cleanth Brooks makes the puzzling statement that the poem is seen in the context of "Phase 23"—offering no substantial argument for his proposition ("Yeats: The Poet as Mythmaker," in Permanence of Yeats, p. 72). T. R. Henn, regarding what the poem describes rather than the state of mind of the narrator, assigns "The Second Coming" to the "primary" phases 2 to 7, The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London, 1949), p. 190.


A. The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, Consisting of Reveries over Childhood and Youth, the Trembling of the Veil and Dramatis Personae, Garden City, 1958.

E. Essays and Introductions. London, 1961.

M. Mythologies. New York, 1959.

P. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell Alspach. New York, 1957.

V. A Vision. (A reissue with the author's final revisions.) New York, 1961.

Russell E. Murphy (essay date 1981)

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SOURCE: "The 'Rough Beast' and Historical Necessity: A New Consideration of Yeats's 'The Second Coming'," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 101-10.

[In the following essay, Murphy turns to Yeats's A Vision for an indication of the meaning of "The Second Coming. " Murphy contradicts typical readings of the poem by focusing on its positive qualities when viewed in this context.]

On April 8, 1938, William Butler Yeats, commenting on the world political scene in a letter to his friend Ethel Mannin, wrote:

If you have my poems by you, look up a poem called "The Second Coming." It was written some sixteen or seventeen years ago and foretold what is happening. I have written of the same thing again and again since. This will seem little to you with your strong practical sense, for it takes fifty years for a poet's weapons to influence the issue.1

"The same thing" was the emergence not only in Nazi Germany, but in Italy, Spain, Russia, and China of strongman dictators, all of them potential avatars for that "rough beast" whose own impending appearance in a desperate and chaotic world Yeats's "The Second Coming" had not so much prophesied as anticipated in that note of questioning dread on which the poem concludes: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"2

By now those fifty years and more have elapsed since that poem's original publication in November, 1920 (Variorum, p. 401n.), and history has provided numerous candidates in answer to the question, not the least among them the figure of Adolf Hitler, who visited his own demonic wrath upon any ethnic, religious, and political group which did not fit into his concepts of racial purity or share his vision of a thousand-year Reich. While those various candidates for the distinction have hopefully proved themselves to the world-at-large to be sufficient answer to Yeats's question (and no doubt would have been sufficient proof of the poem's predictive powers for Yeats himself, had he lived to see World War II), they have not proved to be answer enough for the critics of the poem. Rather, attempting to read the poem on more cosmically apocalyptic levels than the mere mundane of heinous atrocities and intolerable tyrannies and oppression, and seeing as well the obvious potential for a connection to be made between Yeats's "rough beast" and the Beast of Revelation 13, they would have us face ultimate meanings and answer the question with our own worst fears. Thus, Morton Irving Seiden can write that Yeats "concludes his poem with a warning that the Second Coming of Western tradition is to be not the expected return of Christ, but the Second Coming of the Antichrist"; and that "we are profoundly stirred not so. much by Yeats's joy as by his horror and his fear . . . [in the face of] the terror of anarchy, the burden of nightmare, and the tragedy of a hope so far removed from the discordant present as to be almost meaningless."3 For Richard Ellmann, meanwhile, "'The Second Coming' gives no hint of the redeeming or even salutary qualities of the new dispensation,"4 and "the final intimation that the new god will be born in Bethlehem, which Christianity associates with passive infancy and the tenderness of maternal love, makes its [the beast's] brutishness particularly frightful" (Ellmann, p. 260). Finally, although Harold Bloom identifies "the Egyptian Sphinx . . . [as] the rough beast who slouches toward Bethlehem to be re-born, not born, in place of the rebirth of Christ," he at least has the good sense to admit that that would occur "not literally, but [as] . . . what would actually be a demonic epiphany."5

Even those critics who regard Yeats's beast on less cosmically awful levels have to concede that any positive values assigned to its coming are matters of faith, while all of the negative associations are supported by historical actualities. For Frank Tuohy, then:

The identity of the "rough beast" is part of a question which the poet leaves unanswered. Anarchy brings forth its antithesis, which may be exceedingly nasty, but for the poet, who looks at history aesthetically rather than morally, may also be exciting and stimulating and not necessarily unwelcome. If the "rough beast" suggests the Black and Tans or the Fascists, this is a piece of good fortune that Yeats could not have foreseen.6

John Unterecker, though he, like Bloom and Ellmann, focuses on the poem's cosmic implications, admits likewise some positive value to the concluding vision:

Yeats . . . explicitly prophes[ies] the reversal of the world's gyres, the birth of a new, violent, bestial anti-civilization in the destruction of the two-thousand-year Christian cycle. His rough beast, compounded from Christ's Matthew 24 prediction of His future return and St. John's vision of the coming of the Antichrist, the beast of the Apocalypse, gives a double meaning to the "revelation" that is at hand.7

Unfortunately, Unterecker does not go on to explicate the nature of that "double meaning," assuming, apparently, that it is all too obvious.

Oddly enough, many of the critics refer to the cosmology which Yeats expounded in A Vision to support their readings of the threatening dimensions of the beast, since "The Second Coming" with its opening image of the falcon "turning and turning in the widening gyre" makes use of a key symbol from that cosmology, i.e., the gyres or intersecting cones. As we have already seen, Unterecker makes specific reference to "the reversal of the world's gyres" in his discussion of the beast's significance, while Ellmann, in his discussion of the same topic, in addition to quoting from a pertinent note to the poem, merely notes that " A Vision paint[s] a pleasanter picture of the new god than might be expected, and . . . [is] not wholly consistent with the poem" (Ellmann, p. 258). Finally Bloom legitimately, albeit parenthetically, gripes at a key juncture in his own treatment of the poem that he does not know "how to keep A Vision's terms out" (Bloom, p. 323). What is odd, however, is that they all seem to have missed the point, for, as I shall demonstrate in the remainder of this paper, not only do A Vision's terms clarify the dimensions of Yeats's rough beast, but they give that otherwise cryptic utterance a resoundingly positive value compatible with other relatively contemporary evaluations of the direction in which mankind is moving.

Put simply, all that the gyres mean is that human history can be symbolized in two continuously intersecting cones, one primary or solar or objective (e.g., Apollonian), the other antithetical or lunar or subjective (e.g., Dionysian). In those terms, Christ Jesus was a primary dispensation, and the coming new dispensation—not covenant—will be antithetical. Read "antithetical" as Antichrist and the source of much of the confusion—including Yeats's own from time to time—can be seen instantly. The movement of the gyres, however, while they must be seen as being in cyclical conflict, is complementary, not so much as white complements black or positive complements negative or good complements evil, but as goings complement comings, reintegration complements disintegration, and reconciliations complement sunderings. To begin with, Yeats's own extended note to "The Second Coming" ought at least to clarify that poem's visionary underpinnings apropos of the gyres:

At the present moment the life gyre is sweeping outward, unlike that before the birth of Christ which was narrowing, and has almost reached its greatest expansion. The revelation which approaches will however take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre. All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash, though in a flash that will not strike only in one place, and will for a time be constantly repeated, of the civilization that must slowly take its place (Variorum, p. 825).

What, then, according to A Vision, will that new civilization be like? For surely it is only in attempting to answer that question by working directly from within rather than generally from outside the very cosmology that fostered the Yeats poem that the symbolic identity of the rough beast can be rendered, if not as positive as the Second Coming of Jesus, then at least as positive as the processes of historical necessity which oblige mankind to endure his goings forth as surely as his comings hither.

Yeats's claims for A Vision, which was first published in 1925, were perhaps too extravagant. In a dedicatory epistle to Ezra Pound he writes: "I send you the introduction of a book which will, when finished, proclaim a new divinity."8 Though A Visio's system of symbols and their geometric interactions may not in fact proclaim a new divinity, it would not be misleading to say that they do describe a process of societal and spiritual evolution whereby individuals and the race collectively move through twenty-eight so-called phases, each like hours on a clock—called the Great Wheel—ticking out the comings and the goings of the gyres, and each phase defined in terms of human types. Each defined that way, that is, except for Phases One and Fifteen, which are also the two key phases for our immediate purposes. They are both discarnate or supernatural phases representing, respectively: the dark of the moon and the full of the moon; the perfection of the soul and the perfection of the body; wisdom (Sapientia) and beauty (Pulchritudo); and the fine point of the antithetical cone (the perfection of the world or collectivity) and the fine point of the primary cone (the completion of the Christ or individuation). According to that same schemata, Western civilization in 1927 was passing through Phases Twenty-three, Twenty-four, and Twenty-five (cf. diagram, A Vision, p. 266); and in the poem "The Phases of the Moon," Michael Robartes, a fictitious adept and alter ego invented by Yeats in early attempts to publicize his own system (purportedly given to him by spirit communicators through the medium of his wife Georgie between 1917 and 1921), makes it clear that "Hunchback and Saint and Fool" are the final key to the mystery which the student of the occult in his shadowy tower (as likely Yeats himself at Thoor Ballylee as any other novitiate) cannot unravel (A Vision, pp. 59-64).

Another portion of A Vision, however, unravels the mystery whose only mystery for us should be the obscure occultisms in which it is phrased. In the section entitled 'The Great Wheel," Yeats goes into undisguised detail about each of the twenty-eight phases or incarnations. It is in that section that we learn that the Hunchback, the Saint, and the Fool are the typological embodiments of the characteristics of Phases Twenty-six, Twenty-seven, and Twenty-eight respectively, those phases, in other words, which Western civilization, as of Yeats's writing, would shortly be entering (A Vision, pp. 176-82). Still, it is Phase One that we must focus on in our consideration of "The Second Coming," for it is in that phase, which follows Phase Twenty-eight, that the antithetical influx to replace the dissipating primary dispensation will occur; that is to say, in Phase One that the rough beast will be born. Thus, in another, earlier treatment of the cosmology, while Yeats was still speaking through the fictitious Robartes, we learn that: "After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war ... " (A Vision, p. 52).

At this juncture there is a slight confusion, however, for Robartes had introduced his postulation by mentioning "'the third antimony of Immanuel Kant, thesis: freedom; antithesis: necessity . . . '" (A Vision, p. 52). If "antithesis" equals antithetical, then "thesis" must equal primary; thus the incoming "age of freedom" would be primary, not antithetical. Because of such a confusion in the terminology, it is not made clear if that new "age of freedom" which Robartes predicts was the Christian era, which itself fostered as much superstition as it fostered faith, replacing the rationalties of the classical Greco-Roman civilization which it supplanted, or the truly coming new age which will supplant our own Christian era. Fortunately, it is the fictitious Robartes' Watson, Owen Aherne, who clarifies matters somewhat by asking: "'Even if the next divine influx be to kindred [i.e., that age of freedom] why should war [which concludes the list of that age's characteristics] be necessary?'" (A Vision, p. 53). Despite the inadvertent crosswiring of terms like thesis and antithesis with the far more key terms, primary and antithetical, then, the next divine, antithetical influx will be that age of freedom, and the rough beast shall be the avatar of that coming age's characteristics.

Still, how rough and how a beast, for certainly as much as we are asked to anticipate an age of evil and war, we are also encouraged to anticipate an age of freedom and kindred and art. Too, we should keep in mind that, as opposed to our age's stultifying preoccupations with the levelling forces of democracy, it shall be an age of some manner of aristocracy. Once more, it is when Yeats speaks openly, as he does in his treatment of the twenty-eight incarnations, that a measure of clarity and logic replaces the obscurantisms of occult jargon. Here, then, is his description of Phase One, i.e., of the coming antithetical influx anticipated questioningly in "The Second Coming":

This is a supernatural incarnation . . . there is complete passivity, complete plasticity. Mind has become indifferent to good and evil, to truth and falsehood . . . the more perfect be the soul, the more indifferent the mind . . . [for it is] the final link between the living and more powerful beings. .. . All plasticities do not obey all masters, and . . . those that are the instruments of subtle supernatural will differ from the instruments of cruder energy; but all, highest and lowest, are alike in being automatic (A Vision, pp. 183-84).

The key, perhaps, is in its being a discarnate phase in which "acts can no longer be immoral or stupid, for there is no one there that can be judged" (A Vision, p. 183). It is for one thing, then, not the Last Judgment of the Apocalypse which the Beast will precede, but more a shifting and sifting from one level of being to another, as well as a period clearly "beyond good and evil."

Yeats was familiar with the works of Friedrich Nietzsche from as early as 1902, and critics have traced much of A Vision's postulations on alternating cycles of human history back, by implication, to similar theories of Nietzsche's.9 The following is, I think, a pertinent passage from his Beyond Good and Evil, a work which, among other things, argues for the necessary development of a human aristocracy of the spirit. Note, too, the allusions to a war-like, barbarian culture ruled foremost by concepts of kindred and caste:

Let us tell ourselves without indulging ourselves how every superior culture on earth got its start! Men whose nature was still natural, barbarians in every frightful sense of the word, men of prey, men still in possession of unbroken strength of will and power-drives—such men threw themselves upon weaker, better-behaved, more peaceable races, . . . in which the last life powers were flickering away in flashing fireworks of intellect and corruption. The distinguished caste in the beginning was always the barbarian caste; their superiority lay primarily not in their physical but in their psychic power; they were more whole as human beings (which on every level also means "more whole as beasts").10

Phrases and images from this passage reverberate strikingly against similar passages previously quoted from Yeats, particularly his note on "The Second Coming" and Robartes' predications for the coming age; but the significance of the passage is better told by ignoring sources and analogues for the sake of focusing on their shared view of the human element in history as being primarily a psychic or spiritual element. I for one am painfully aware that one of history's most bitter ironies will be to link forever Nietzsche's concepts of the Übermensch with Hitler's crack-pot racial theories and his policies of mass genocide. A far more interesting though far less noted irony, however, can be found in those astounding similarities between Nietzsche and Yeats's comments in poetry and prose on the dimensions of the human element in the coming age, not the least astounding among those similarities being that Nietzsche too envisions the human as beasts, but makes his the more wholly human, while the critics, as I have amply illustrated, would have us see Yeats's beast as anything but. Does Yeats himself, however, even if he might not have been fully aware of the furthest implications of his own cosmology, do likewise? Does A Vision view the coming human as essentially bestial, and if it does, does it do so in positive or in negative terms?

Phase Two is, obviously, the subsequent phase to Phase One; more important, it is, rather than supernatural and discarnate, natural and human. If the rough beast is to emerge from the divine antithetical influx of Phase One, his characteristics will be defined for us in Yeats's description of the human type embodying the spiritual qualities of Phase Two. Here is that description. If that coming creature lives in conflict with his fate, Yeats says that "he gives himself only to violent animal assertion and can only destroy; strike right and left." Unquestionably, the rough beast of "The Second Coming," with all of that image's negative connotations intact, comes to mind; but those are only the negative aspects of the embodiment of Phase Two. His positive aspects—that is, what he achieves if he lives in accordance with his fate, giving "himself to Nature as the Fool . . . gave himself to God"—are no less suited by that phrase, rough beast; nor, however, is he any less that wholly human—and not in either case demonic—figure than the Übermensch which Nietzsche anticipates and argues for the spiritual release of. Describing those aspects with which fate will thus endow the creature, Yeats writes:

He is neither immoral nor violent but innocent ["beyond good and evil"]; is as it were the breath stirring upon the face of the deep; the smile on the face of a but half-awakened child . . . remembered as a form of joy, for he would seem more entirely living than all other men, a personification or summing up of all natural life.

And no less christic, we might add, since earlier critics of the poem have persistently asked us to regard the rough beast in the most eschatologically christocentric terms. No less christic, if the Christ is always the anointed one, the chosen vessel carrying God's perfected Will among a still-to-be-perfected mankind. A divinely human creature, as Christ Jesus was the humanly divine, is then, in Yeats's own words, as likely, if not more likely, an apt description of the "rough beast . . . slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born"; for so much is the embodiment of the characteristics of Phase Two according toA Vision. "The new antithetical tincture (the old primary reborn) is violent," Yeats goes on to admit, continuing the description, but "it forces upon the primary and upon itself a beautiful form" with "the muscular balance and form of an animal good-humour with all the appropriate comeliness of the Dancing Faun." Furthermore, should "the rare accident [of wholly accepting one's fate] . . . not occur, the body is coarse, not deformed, but coarse from lack of sensitiveness, and is most fitted for rough physical labour" because "if [he is] born amid a rigid mechanical order [such as we have seen the old primary become], he would make for himself a place, as a dog will scratch a hole for itself in loose earth" (A Vision, pp. 106-107). Finally, it is interesting to note that one of the last images called forth in A Vision is of "a Communist. . . ploughing on the Cotswold Hills, nothing on his great hairy body but sandals and a pair of drawers, nothing in his head but Hegel's Logic" (A Vision, p. 301). For that as well is the "rough beast" questioningly anticipated in "The Second Coming"; but in no case is he represented as anything the human should fear or despise or disown, for he is, to repeat Yeats, that "summing up of all natural life," the perfection of the human animal to this point.

It is understandable that Yeats, a poet simultaneously working within the implications of the system expounded in A Vision as well as living the very history that seemed to have brought all of "The Second Coming" 's most dreadful possibilities to fruition, might have missed the very point which I contend that A Vision makes in response to the question on which the poem ends. We should not, however, be so willing to forgive the incredible lapses of judgment which subsequent critics are guilty of, for others besides Nietzsche and Yeats have spoken within the last century and a half and less of an emerging new age which would not so much require as necessitate by the sheer force of biological, psychological, spiritual, and historical evolution the concomitant emergence of a new mankind. Nor need we look as far back as to Whitman's Democratic Vistas and his hopes for America's sons becoming New Adams, creatures of a transcendent joy for life and with an inner power and quality of spirit; or for that matter to the prophetic aspects of Tennyson's In Memoriam or to the visionary conclusion to Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. More recently, and far more scientifically, Teilhard de Chardin, speculating on the logical possibilities of the Omega of the Apocalypse by tracing the direction of biological evolution within a christocentric framework, began writing, at virtually the same time that Yeats was worrying through A Vision with its proclamation of a new divinity, a work entitled The Phenomenon of Man. De Chardin writes:

It is . . . a mistake to look for the extension of our being . . . in the Impersonal. The Future-Universal could not be anything else but the Hyper-Personal—at the Omega Point.11

For the failure that threatens us to be turned into success, for the concurrence of human monads to come about, it is necessary and sufficient for us that we should extend our science to its farthest limit and recognize and accept . . . not only some vague future existence, but also, as I must now stress, the radiation as a present reality of that mysterious centre of our centres which I have called Omega (de Chardin, p. 267).

It seems perfectly logical, even if not necessarily permissible, to see in de Chardin's Omega Point the Phase One of Yeats's schema, and to see in that intensely personalized and radiant "present reality" or Omega the Natural Man, radiating joy wholly and innocently and summing up all of life, of Yeats's emergent Phase Two.

Finally, Carl Jung, also writing with this same chaotic period for Hebraic-Christian, Greco-Roman Western civilization in view, a culture which Oswald Spengler during the 1920' s had relegated to the ashheap of outworn modes and tired ritual, noted that:

There are no longer any gods whom we can invoke to help us. The great religions of the world suffer from increasing anemia,... the so-called conquest of nature overwhelms us with the natural fact of overpopulation and adds to our troubles by our psychological incapacity to make the necessary political arrangements. It remains quite natural for men to quarrel and to struggle for superiority over one another. . . .

If so much sounds like Nietzsche, it is when Jung suggests the only possible outlet from such a dilemma that he sounds like Yeats:

As any change must begin somewhere, it is the single individual who will experience it and carry it through. The change must indeed begin with an individual; it might be any one of us.12

Whether that individual be seen as the Communist on Cotswold Hill or the rough beast of "The Second Coming" or the man of Phase Two or de Chardin's Omega, the individual must be seen as the wholly human; otherwise—and only otherwise—there would indeed be no common human value to either our hopes or our fears.

If the foregoing was the barest inkling of the expressed hopes of the finest thinkers and men of letters of the last few preceding generations, those concurrent fears that it might in fact all turn out rather quite badly were simply given poetic voice by Yeats in his conclusion to "The Second Coming"—and even then they were stated as a question. To accept that the breakthrough, as terrified as we might be that we may lose the best as well as the worst of the old in doing so, must be made by sheer necessity in any event and that, when it is, it will signal no loss whatsoever and will rather be the true "prize of the spirit,"13 one which this race has labored to earn, is the only way, to paraphrase other lines from the Yeats poem, to restore to the best the unsentimental conviction that mankind is perfectible and to allow the worst to turn their own passionate intensity, if not into plough-shares, at least into less deadening realities and demeaning fictions. For our enduring is

Proof that there's a purpose set Before the secret working mind: Profane perfection of mankind

("Under Ben Bulben," Variorum, p. 639).


1 Allan Wade, ed., The Letters of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1955), p. 851.

2 W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming," in The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957), pp. 401-02. All references to the text and notes will be made from this edition.

3 Morton Irving Seiden, William Butler Yeats: The Poet as Mythmaker (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1975), pp. 235-36.

4 Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 258.

5 Harold Bloom, Yeats (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 323.

6 Frank Tuohy, Yeats (New York: Macmillian, 1976), p. 169.

7 John Unterecker, A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1959), p. 165.

8 W. B. Yeats, A Vision (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1956), p. 27. All references to the text will be made from this edition.

9 Seiden, p. 49; Ellmann, pp. 91-92.

10 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Marianne Cowan (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1955), pp. 199-200.

11 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, trans. Bernard Wall (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), p. 260.

12 Carl G. Jung, "Approaching the Unconscious," in Man and His Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung and M.-L. von Franz (New York: Dell, 1967), p. 91.

13 Wallace Stevens, "Imagination as Value," in The Necessary Angel (New York: Random House, 1951), p. 142.

James Lovic Allen (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: "What Rough Beast?: Yeats's 'The Second Coming' and A Vision," in REAL: The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, Vol. 3, 1985, pp. 223-63.

[In the following essay, Allen interprets "The Second Coming " as a political poem associated with the rise of communism.]

"The Second Coming," one of Yeats's three or four most famous poems, is also one of his most frequently explicated or analyzed. It is, furthermore, one of the most variously interpreted, perhaps the most variously interpreted. There is no generally accepted reading or any significant degree of consensus about meaning or meanings. One reason for this situation is that the poem's broadly suggestive imagery and apocalyptic tone suited or matched the age from which it sprang—a period of cultural and political upheaval between two world wars, to which it might seem to apply descriptively or prophetically. In colloquial terms, the piece "caught a wave," lending it an apparent generality of theme or significance perhaps well beyond its author's immediate concerns or interests at the time of composition. Evidently pleased with the poem's popular appeal and appearance of prophetic validity, Yeats himself made comments which helped to contribute to such wide-ranging interpretations. Circumstances like these along with critical trends in this century have led a number of prominent authorities to argue that the piece need not be associated with anything so arcane or specific as the details of Yeats's private "system" or the theories of history developed in his "cranky" prose volume A Vision.l

In the most general poetic or critical sense, perhaps it is proper to let a poem mean whatever it can or will. By no means is the purpose here to limit the richness or potential of Yeats's poem. However, in scholarly terms it is also frequently useful, informative, and rewarding to know what can be learned of a poem's genesis and of the author's intention when the piece was created—theories and principles of the now old "new criticism" to the contrary notwithstanding. This more academic approach to "The Second Coming" has also been much pursued, but not exhaustively or satisfactorily. With "The Second Coming," even more than is usually the case with difficult poems by Yeats, the materials are confusing and parts of the puzzle sometimes ill-fitting. In fact, the present study itself, though extensively and productively exploratory, probably should not claim definitive status.

The issues of chief concern here are the extent to which and the ways in which "The Second Coming" is related to Yeats's notoriously elaborate and esoteric prose volume A Vision. The first question to be considered involves dates. "The Second Coming" was written in January, 19192, and was initially published in November, 19203. The first edition of A Vision was published in 1925, with the revised version appearing not until 1937. Initial impressions might be, then, that the poem's composition could not have been influenced by a book whose earliest version was published six years later, although almost none of the exegetes who ignore A Vision have chosen to cite this situation as a reason for its neglect. The facts are, however, that the source materials for A Vision—Mrs. Yeats's automatic writings—began late in 1917, and Yeats states that the so-called instructors "drew their first symbolical map of history, and marked upon it the principal years of crisis, early in July 1918. .. . "4 Thus, on the one hand, the basic raw materials on history in A Vision were available in ample time to permit significant relationships to exist between them and a poem with historical implications written in the first part of 1919. On the other hand, what must be constantly guarded against is the tendency to assume too uncritically connections between the poem and historical materials in either edition of the book, for numerous enlargements, developments, and refinements of those materials naturally occurred between 1919 and 1937. However, still another complicating—though also potentially clarifying—factor may be involved. It is possible, or even probable, that the success and impact of the poem was such that in certain respects it, once written, may have had some influence upon the development of certain aspects of the book rather than the other way around. This possibility should neither be overemphasized nor ignored.

Two other facts unequivocally relate "The Second Coming" to A Vision. The one of most long-standing visibility is the note to the poem which Yeats included in the 1921 publication of Michael Robartes and the Dancer at his sisters' small Cuala Press in Ireland. Although this text may have been relatively inaccessible to most scholars before 1949, it was reproduced in that year by A. N. Jeffares in his book W. B. Yeats, Man and Poet5, a source which also asserts (perhaps mistakenly) that the note was written in 1919.6 This note was made even more prominent a few years later in the first printing of the Variorum Poems (pp. 823-25). It explicitly and unequivocally associates "The Second Coming" with the historical cones and gyres which were to appear in more detail subsequently in both editions of A Vision. More recently revealed connections between poem and book, which most scholars and critics of the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's had no way of knowing about, are those provided in the notes of A Critical Edition of W. B. Yeats's A Vision (1925).7 Various materials there indicate, from pre-1919 scripts and notations, an anticipated apocalyptic reversal of historical eras involving Christ or a counterpart of some kind.


One of the chief difficulties encountered in the attempt to discover significant relationships between "The Second Coming" and A Vision is that the sections of the book dealing with history are almost hopelessly flawed and inconsistent, not to mention their inherent complexity even where they momentarily seem systematic or orderly. All scholarly and critical attempts to elucidate adequately the historical system have foundered on this stumbling block. How much Yeats was aware of the incongruities is difficult to determine. Why he did not more forthrightly acknowledge them is equally unclear. All that is certain is that they exist.

One confusing aspect of the system that Yeats himself clearly did understand (although he is inconsistent about it, as will become apparent later) has been fully perceived and dealt with in print by only one commentary other than mine, to my knowledge. In addition to the bifurcation of all culture into the opposite tinctures of antithetical and primary, familiar to virtually all Yeatsians, each of the interlocked gyres in an era is distinguished by predominantly religious or secular features as well. Then the two sets of qualities are joined into four possible combinations; these are antithetical religion, primary religion, antithetical secular life or politics, and primary secular life or politics. Thus, when Yeats sets up his opposing interlocked gyres of history, he not only contrasts an antithetical cone to a primary cone, but, further than that, he also counterpoises an antithetical secular (and political) cone to a primary religious one.8 Only the two-thousand-year cones or gyres of so-called "eras" are involved in this present consideration.9 The two-thousand-year cones, gyres, cycles, or eras are called "civilizations" if they are secular and political, or "religious dispensations" if they represent major spiritual or theological movements. The extent of misunderstanding in these matters is indicated by the fact that some commentators have spoken of the system's "Christian civilization." There is no such unit or concept in A Vision, and Yeats virtually never uses the two words Christian and civilization in direct combination with each other.10 The Christian era or "religious dispensation" is the period from the birth of Christ to a point somewhere between AD 2000 and 2100. Counterpoised to it, in its first 1000 years at any rate, is "classical civilization," represented chiefly by the Roman Empire. In the first century AD this antithetical civilization's gyre is at its widest expansion, with the interlocking Christian cone (primary) at its narrowest point because that religious dispensation would naturally be at its merest beginnings immediately after the birth of Christ. Commentary on the situation in the second half of the Christian religious dispensation (AD 1000 to about 2000) must be reserved until later since that is one of the main places at which Yeats's exposition ceases to be self-consistent.

Almost without question, the most confusing element of the entire situation is that in both editions of A Vision Yeats has articulated at different places two incompatible and irreconcilable versions of the system just discussed. No one appears to have recognized this fact. One of the two versions involves a so-called interchange of the tinctures, a sudden and violent switch of the antithetical tincture from the smallest point of the dwindling cone to the widest expansion of the counterpoised one and vice versa for the primary tincture. The passage in the earlier edition is actually the clearer of the two:

. . . this figure differs in form from that which preceded it and symbolised the preceding period of two thousand years. This difference is caused by a movement analogous to the exchange of the Tinctures but instead of the words primary and antithetical we substitute Solar and Lunar. . . . Before the birth of Christ, for instance the Lunar gyres came to the narrow end of their cone, and at His birth passed into the broad end of the other cone and so continued to converge. The Solar gyre upon the other hand passed from broad to narrow. . . . This means that as the civil life [secular and political] grew more and more antithetical in nature the religious grew more and more primary. .. . At [the midway point], however, there is no interchange, but a return, a change of direction, the gyres which diverged now converge and vice versa. . . . (CEVA, pp. 168-69)"

The corresponding passage in the later version reads as follows:

At the birth of Christ took place, and at the coming antithetical influx will take place, a change equivalent to the interchange of the tinctures. . . . Before the birth of Christ religion and vitality were polytheistic, antithetical, and to this the philosophers opposed their primary, secular thought. At the birth of Christ religious life becomes primary, secular life antithetical. . . . (Vision B, pp. 262-63)

After having explained this feature of the system's cones in earlier nonhistorical contexts, however, Yeats says, "The diagram is sometimes so used by my instructors and gives them a phrase which constantly occurs, 'the interchange of the tinctures/ but it is inconvenient" (Vision B, p. 75). His next sentence indicates that the interchange is "for this reason" "generally" disregarded. That the same kind of lack of consistency applies to the historical gyres is suggested by a careful reading of the following passage:

. . . the automatic script generally [shows] that each civilisation and religious dispensation is the opposite of its predecessor. . . . For instance, classical civilisation [is] 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1000 let us say . . . and our own civilisation is now almost midway in [its] movement. .. . At or near the central point of . . . classical civilisation . . . came the Christian primary dispensation. .. . At or near the central point of our civilisation must come antithetical revelation. .. . (Vision B, p. 204; see also pp. 254-55)

Although it is difficult to compare the two versions of Yeats's historical system without diagrams, it is fairly clear that the one just described has no sudden change of tinctures from the widest expansion of one cone to the narrowest point of the other, nor vice versa. On the other hand, instead of a mere reversal or "change of direction" at the narrowest part of each civilization's gyre, as in the other structure, there is a non-violent change of tinctures where the cones simply touch point to point, antithetical classical civilization having expired and our present primary one having begun at AD 1000. In this version of the system, a religious cone and the counterpoised civilization's cone are opposite to each other in tincture only half the time instead of all the time. If necessary, the reader can, with patience, work out a diagram for himself to see how and why this is so. Such an interpretation is apparently the one that Harper and Hood have in mind when they say, " . . . a religious dispensation . . . lead[s] into a secular civilization of the same type; the primary religious dispensation beginning with Christ thus gives way to a primary secular civilization beginning at 1000 AD . . ." (CEVA notes, p. 45).

If "The Second Coming" relates to the system of history in A Vision, but the system in A Vision has two differing versions or interpretations, then the obvious question—never before articulated—becomes, "To which version does the poem correspond?". As for the birth to come at about AD 2000, it would seem to be the same in either interpretation: a new antithetical religious dispensation is expected at that point in both cases. However, the outward-sweeping gyre of the poem's famous opening lines—assuming that that gyre represents our present civilization—would be different in the two versions. It would be antithetical in the interpretation, with a drastic interchange of the tinctures every two thousand years. The reason is that the Roman Empire represented the widest expansion of an antithetical secular cone that began to dwindle at the year zero, and at the midway point, in this version, "there is no interchange, but a return, a change of direction."12 Therefore, our new civilization would remain antithetical until AD 2000, when the cataclysmic interchange would occur. In the other version, though, where any change of tinctures occurs simply when one cone succeeds another, touching point to point, our present civilization would be primary, contrasting in tincture since AD 1000 to its antithetical predecessor, the Roman Empire. This delineation represents, believe it or not, an oversimplification of the problems and difficulties involved, but it provides as much as needs to be considered for present purposes.13


"The Second Coming" constitutes the culmination of a considerable heritage of apocalyptic pieces in Yeats's work. These include the early story "The Adoration of the Magi," the uncollected play Where There Is Nothing as well as its successor The Unicorn from the Stars, the poem "The Magi," and to some degree the section of Autobiographies entitled "The Trembling of the Veil." The interrelationships between these and other pieces have been studied by several commentators, who show that anticipation of an impending new era was a continuing thematic element in Yeats's thought long before the advent of Mrs. Yeats's automatic writing.14 There is, however, a fundamental difference between "The Second Coming" and most of the predecessors just mentioned, a difference of tremendous importance whose inadequate recognition, by Melchiori as well as virtually all others, has been one of the greatest causes of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the poem. The predecessors tended to have a religious emphasis, looking forward to the birth of a new god or gods who would replace the outworn Christianity for which Yeats had so little use. Both the title and the allusion to Bethlehem in "The Second Coming" deceptively suggest that it also has a religious theme. However, it is, in fact, a political poem that achieves much of its power and impact from Yeats's adroitly ironic implementation of religious imagery and tradition. Admittedly, determination of this fact might have been difficult—though not impossible—before Jon Stallworthy's initial publication of the poem's working drafts in 1963.15 These drafts, though, especially in the later transcription, leave no question whatever that the poem's genesis was completely political. Furthermore, certain similarities of theme and image (not to mention dates of composition) between "The Second Coming" and "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" suggest that the one poem is as politically oriented as the other, while a number of authorities have noted similar kinships between "The Second Coming" and political elements in the piece which follows it in Collected Poems, "A Prayer for My Daughter."16

However, "The Second Coming" might also be said to share the most crucial of all its images—the fabulousbeast icon—with one of the earlier apocalyptic pieces. This misleading circumstance probably would have created trouble enough in any event. But it has been exacerbated almost beyond comprehension, especially as far as exegeses of the already difficult poem are concerned, by Yeats's own identification with each other of the two works involved. In Wheels and Butterflies he says, "Had I begun On Baile 's Strand or not when I began to imagine, as always at my left side just out of the range of the sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction?" To this more or less rhetorical question he appends the following footnote: "Afterwards described in my poem 'The Second Coming.'"17 Then in his next sentence Yeats speaks of Where There Is Nothing, in which just such a brazen beast appears. Despite their creator's implied equation, though, the beasts from play and poem are not really alike at all, either literally or figuratively. Unlike the later one, the earlier monster is sharp-toothed and winged as far as visual appearances are concerned.18 As for thematic implications, the beast in Where There Is Nothing is specifically identified with "Laughter" (loc. cit.), in marked contrast to the grim and foreboding figure in "The Second Coming." Why Yeats ever made his association between the two is irksomely difficult to understand unless—or until—their common heritage in Biblical and occult traditions of apocalypse is fully recognized and explained, as is done later here.

The opening lines of "The Second Coming" constitute another problem. A number of commentators have held that the "widening gyre" is primary or objective. I once thought that they were wrong, for I was convinced that the historical scheme that includes a point-to-circle interchange of the tinctures was the one on which "The Second Coming" was based. Further research has led me to realize that I was mistaken on this point. The most obvious indication of my error is that the 1921 note for the poem—despite internal inconsistencies of its own—is explicit about the tincture of this widening cone: "At the present moment the life gyre is sweeping outward . . . and has almost reached its greatest expansion. .. . All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization [primary qualities] belongs to the outward gyre .. ." (Variorum Poems, p. 825). Though more diffuse and less easy to illustrate with quotation of a single sentence, the last portion of the essay "A People's Theatre"—published in the year in which "The Second Coming" was written—also indicates that the present outward-whirling spiral is "objective" or primary (Explorations, pp. 258-59). Finally, a careful reading of the "Dove or Swan" section of A Vision reveals that Yeats's prepossession in the period from AD 1000 to the present is so much with the growing dominance of primary civilization and politics that he fails to dwell on religion's corresponding decrease, whereas in the first half of the section he had carefully sustained the balance between primary Christianity's growth and the antithetical Roman Empire's decline. This unit of the book is the same in both editions except for excision of a few pages at the end in the 1937 version. This means that all three prose sources emphasizing a widening primary gyre of civilization in the present age are close to "The Second Coming" in dates of composition. The only reasonable conclusion is that the poem must almost certainly portray the same phenomenon and that the alternative version of the history system with an expanding antithetical secular cone ("civilization") approaching a sudden interchange of tinctures at AD 2000 is not relevant to its interpretation. This point will be of considerable importance in another connection presently.

In his journal article that reproduces the drafts of "The Second Coming," Stallworthy says, "The falcon has long been a problem.19 Then he refers to the early draft line that used the word hawk instead of falcon and cites the well-known note for "Meditations in Time of Civil War" about hawks—gloomy birds of prey—being emblems of logic and mechanism as opposed to the butterflies of wisdom. He seems to feel that with this reference he does away with the problem because logic and reason are qualities of the primary tincture and therefore should neatly associate the falcon symbolically with the outward-sweeping objective gyre.20 Unfortunately for such a reading, whereas Yeats had indeed used hawks as images of reason or mental ability, as in the poem "The Hawk," his use of symbolic birds was in a stage of transition at the time of "The Second Coming," and an alternative symbolism could be equally applicable. Not only is the hawk imagery in At the Hawk's Well (1917) probably more subjective than objective, but in the play Calvary (1920) a whole congeries of bird emblems is developed, with large noble birds like hawks made explicitly antithetical in an extended note to the play:

I use birds as symbols of subjective life, and my reason for this . . . cannot be explained fully till I have published some part at any rate of those papers of Michael Robartes, over which I have now spent several years [a semi-private allusion to the automatic scripts of Mrs. Yeats]. . . . Certain birds, especially as I see things, such lonely birds as the heron, hawk, eagle, and swan, are the natural symbols of subjectivity, especially when floating upon the wind alone or alighting upon some pool or river, while the beasts that run upon the ground, especially those that run in packs, are the natural symbols of objective man. (Variorum Plays, p. 789)

As far as interpretational suggestions for "The Second Coming" are concerned, matters are further complicated by the fact that in Calvary the birds' subjectivity is dramatically contrasted throughout to the primary qualities of Jesus Christ.

If hawks and falcons were consistently symbols of primary logic and reason, then it would be appropriate enough to conclude that the falcon in the opening lines of "The Second Coming" is an objective emblem, in keeping with the widening objective gyre that its flight delineates. Or, on the other hand, if the historical system involving an interchange of the tinctures were apposite (and thus the widening gyre were antithetical), then again there could be perhaps emblematic accord between a subjective bird and its antithetically spiraling flight. But since the widening gyre approaching the year 2000 might be antithetical or primary depending on the version of the history system in mind and since hawks at the time in question might be either objective or subjective, then the falcon very much remains a problem, especially in light of the further bird imagery later in the poem, to be considered presently. Personally I think that the falcon itself must be taken almost "unsymbolically," if such a thing is possible in Yeats, though its widening gyre is almost certainly primary. The bird in its outward-spiraling flight was the poem's earliest germinal element; the first three lines of the first draft read as follows:

Ever more wide sweeps the gyre Ever further hawk flies outward from the falconer's hand.21

Evidently the image simply struck Yeats's imagination with such vividness and immediacy from the very outset that he was loath to relinquish it and, in fact, did not throughout all the draft's progressions toward the poem's finished form.22


Stallworthy indicates that the beast in "The Second Coming" "has been hunted by numerous critics and commentators, but has always eluded capture."23 With minimum concern for what dismay may be created among interpretatively oriented critics, the present study has intentionally mounted an intensive scholarly expedition, the chief purpose of which has been finally to capture Yeats's monster. The leader of the excursion, though not totally happy about some uneasy moments here or elusive movements there, is generally not dissatisfied with the outcome of the long and arduous venture.24

Almost certainly the greatest cause of confusion about the beast is the fact that A Vision's historical system—in either of the two versions already reviewed—predicts somewhere near the year AD 2000 the annunciation or birth of a new religious dispensation, an "antithetical influx" that will be contrary to the primary birth of Christ in the year zero and, to one degree or another, will be a counterpart or near equivalent of the antithetical annunciation to Leda at approximately 2000 BC. Everyone who has read A Vision—as well as many who have not—knows that Yeats regarded himself and his sympathetic personae like Cuchulain and Michael Robartes as antithetical men, whereas Christ and Christianity were unfavorably primary in tincture. Why, then, would Yeats portray the birth of the new antithetical dispensation at the end of the outgoing primary era with a symbolic figure as horrible and repugnant as the one in the poem? Some commentators have attempted to answer this question by pointing out that Yeats's antithetical characters were often men-of-war, that the antithetical tincture is characterized as "masculine, harsh, surgical" (Vision B, p. 263), that there comes "After us the Savage God."25 But such antithetical figures in his other poems and in his plays are at least aristocratic, gallant, or heroic. They are not characteristically associated with anarchy, pitiless blank eyes, the drowning of ceremony and innocence in tides of blood, or frighteningly bestial qualities. Resolution of the apparent enigma here comes with realization that the rough beast in "The Second Coming" is neither antithetical nor emblematic of a new religious dispensation. It is, rather, primary and representative of a secular or political entity.26

Perhaps the two parts of this thesis should be examined independently, at least at first. What evidence suggests that the rough beast might be primary rather than antithetical? First of all, there is the symbolism of subjective birds versus objective beasts already cited from the note for the play Calvary, which was written almost contemporaneously with "The Second Coming."27 Second, in the introductory stories about Michael Robartes in both versions of A Vision, the book of Giraldus contains "a number of curious allegorical pictures; .. . a man whipping his shadow; a man being torn in two by an eagle and some kind of wild beast . . ." (CEVA, p. xvii; see also Vision B, p. 38). The two-word expression "wild beast" should be kept in mind, for it will become important later. One reading, of course, might be that the eagle represents spirit and that the beast represents flesh or the physical world, but in light of what follows in Yeats's book itself, it would probably make much more sense to interpret the eagle as antithetical and the beast as primary. For, in the non-historical sections of A Vision, these are the two qualities of which each human personality is composed in varying proportions or the disparate aspects of human nature between which man is divided or "torn."

Next, the beast in "The Second Coming" is doubly related to the sun. It is explicitly so related in the poem itself, with its "gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," and it is indirectly so related by virtue of its "lion body." In tradition, one of the strongest symbolic connections for the lion is with the sun.28 In A Vision itself Yeats seems to have in mind the association between lion and sun when he says, "When I think . . . of Salome . . . delicately tinted or maybe mahogany dark—dancing before Herod .. . I see her anoint her bare limbs according to a medical prescription of that time, with lion's fat, for lack of the sun's ray, that she may gain the favour of a king . . ." (Vision B, p. 273). Although in the body of his work as a whole Yeats's sun and moon symbolism are almost hopelessly inconsistent, within the confines of A Vision the term solar usually means primary and lunar means antithetical. Thus, both the lion-like body and the solar eye of the beast increase its primary implications.29

The suggestion that the rough beast in "The Second Coming" might represent a political entity has been relatively commonplace, even among critics not thoroughly familiar with A Vision's marked distinction between religious dispensations and civilizations (secular or political movements). Early and late, some critics have identified the figure with fascism. This makes no sense, however, for the same reasons that interpreting the beast as antithetical makes no sense; for, politically speaking, fascism would be an extreme form of the antithetical. Such is indicated in A Vision itself: "Primary means democratic. Antithetical means aristocratic" (Vision B, p. 104). These lines of demarcation are indicated at various other places throughout the book. Yeats was, of course, briefly intrigued by fascism at one point in his career. However, "The Second Coming" was written before the development of that interest and also, for that matter, before the emergence of fascism as a political phenomenon. Unless the poem was indeed presciently prophetic, it can have nothing to do with fascism as an organized political system.30

Other commentators have identified the rough beast as emblematic of communism, and there can be little question that these theorists are on valid ground. For one thing, one of them cites a statement by Mrs. Yeats that socialist movements inspired the poem.31 More importantly, the drafts indicate that similarities between the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution were the ideological seeds for the poem in Yeats's thought. Torchiana transcribes some of the drafts himself (rather differently from either of Stall worthy's versions), and his remarks and supporting evidence constitute a reasonably strong case for the communistic interpretation, especially as to Yeats's concern that the Ireland of 1919 might be a dangerously inflammatory tinderbox for the spread of Bolshevik politics.32

Communism makes more sense than fascism as a political referent for the beast image for two additional reasons. One of these is the date of composition. Whereas fascism developed after the poem was written, the Bolshevik Revolution occurred just a little more than a year before. Two essays published in the year in which "The Second Coming" was written—"A People's Theatre" and "If I Were Four-and-Twenty"—are clearly marked by indications of Yeats's concern at the time with "the Red Terror."33 The other main reason why communism makes more sense than fascism as a meaning for the icon is that communism, if truly achieved, would be the absolute or ultimate form of democracy—a mass-oriented primary political system which the aristocratic-minded Yeats would naturally abhor with exactly the kind of horror evoked in the poem by the slouching-beast image. In support of this point is the fact that the word mob occurs several times in the drafts; and, of course, the term anarchy appears in the poem itself.

Another key word that appears several times in the drafts is murder. Yeats habitually used this word elsewhere in connection with communism, which strengthens ties between that political system and the imagery of "The Second Coming" (Explorations, pp. 429-30).34 Furthermore, in a section of "The Trembling of the Veil" first published in the year after "The Second Coming," Yeats quotes the opening lines of the poem to express his feelings about "the growing murderousness of the world" (Autobiographies, pp. 192-93). Perhaps the most telling of all such usages, however, comes from a debate held not only in the same year as the poem's composition, but even in the very month: "Mr. W. B. Yeats . . . said that Russia had, in the name of progress and in the name of human freedom, revived tyranny and torture of the worst description—had, in fact, resorted to such a mediaeval crime as burning men for their opinions."35 The drafts of "The Second Coming" have far more explicit and unequivocal language about Bolshevism than murder and mediaeval crime, however: "The Germany of Marx has led to Russian Com."36 This leaves little doubt. Torchiana transcribes the line in exactly the same way, incidentally.37 The development of widely divergent interpretations of "The Second Coming" prior to the publication of these drafts is easily understandable. But it is difficult to comprehend how critics can contend since their publication, as many have done, that such specific language and pointed meanings were "generalized," refined away, or cast aside in the process of the poem's development so that the finished piece has sometimes been taken, even recently, as not about anything so topical as communism or political systems at all.38

There is considerable further evidence to indicate that the late drafts and the final poem are just as much about the advent of communism as the early drafts. For example, in the last pre-publication draft as reproduced by Stallworthy, after a couple of false starts with the word jealous in connection with the beast's rousing from its "stony sleep," Yeats has the somewhat strange-sounding expression "by jealousy stung awake." That combination of words sounds less strange, however, when one finds a passage written some years later in which Yeats is still pondering what his "instructors" had told him about "the end of any age," the "final phase" of a "civilisation," and Swift's view that such things are brought about "by the jealousy .. . of the many" (Explorations, p. 316). In context, the word jealousy here is obviously meant in the sense of revolutionary resentment against the wealthy few. And the passage from the drafts sounds less strange still when, in another place, speaking against the same kind of things depicted in the earliest drafts of "The Second Coming," Yeats says that eighteenth-century "America . . . had neither the wealth nor the education of contemporary Ireland; no such violence of contraries . . . had stung it into life. [In Ireland] the influence of the French Revolution woke the peasantry from the medieval sleep, gave them ideas of social justice and equality . . ." (Variorum Poems, p. 833; my italics). The "stony sleep," of course, survived even into the final poem.39

Careful examination of the drafts from another, though related, perspective reveals that instead of changing his subject, as some have suggested, what Yeats so characteristically did was to make it simultaneously more subtle and more powerful by discovering ways to express it through symbol and allusion rather than direct statement. Dealing with violent revolution in late eighteenth-century France and in twentieth-century Russia, he was understandably cast into an apocalyptic frame of mind, and at the end of the first prose draft he wrote, "Surely the second Birth comes near."40 The "second Birth" (as opposed to "Second Coming") is clearly an expression welling up from the massive automatic scripts that had spoken repeatedly of a new "Avatar," "the Second Master," a "New Messiah," and so forth (see CEVA notes, pp. 20, 45, 46). But in 1919 the apocalyptic event associated with those terms was only "near" (first draft), not "at hand." This "second Birth" was to be the annunciation of a new religious dispensation "at about 2100" (p. 45). Yeats's poem, by contrast, is about a political development manifesting itself in the final outward-moving spirals of the present era's cone or gyre. Under the influence and excitement of months of epochal terminology and imagery from his "instructors," Yeats appears to have confused or combined these two phenomena in the early stages of his drafts, either unconsicously or semi-consciously. Even so, neither the words second Birth nor the idea occurs again for a number of lines. Then appears, "Surely the great falcon must come," which is immediately replaced by "Surely the hour of the second birth is here."41 At this point Yeats's thoughts evidently drifted momentarily even further in the direction of the scripts' religious annunciation, though, as Stallworthy notes, the use of the falcon as an emblem of the new birth is out of keeping with the poem's opening.42 He then fumbled with the "second birth" for three or four more attempts before coming up all at once with a shift to "the second coming" (not deleted) and the first mention of Bethlehem. It is with this combination that "The Second Coming" achieved that magical click, like the closing of a box, with which the major pieces of a poem suddenly fall into place according to Yeats.43 For it was rather clearly at this point that Yeats realized the tremendous advantage for his poem of the vast storehouse of Biblical and traditional imagery of apocalypse over the arcane materials in the automatic scripts and card files of his private system, especially since his poem was not really about the antithetical religious annunciation there predicted anyway. In the same momentary flash of creative genius, or just before or after, he must also have recognized the symbolic and imaginative possibilities of the concept of a secular Christ, of associating all the detested levelling religious dogmas of primary Christianity with the detested levelling political doctrines of primary communism. Throughout the final drafts of the poem the constant central objective is development of the grotesquely repugnant beast icon and effective handling of its powerfully ironic relationships to the unequivocally allusive image of Bethlehem.44

Secular Christ the beast, then, a levelling socialism which is the final extreme manifestation of the outward-sweeping primary political gyre, is to precede the new antithetical religious dispensation.45 Specific materials exist in support of this analysis of the situation and interpretation of the poem. Originally, "Dove or Swan"—written, it will be recalled, before 1925 and therefore relatively close in time to "The Second Coming"—concluded with a segment which Yeats deleted from the 1937 edition of A Vision. It deals with what the system predicts to come in the last part of the present cycle (after Phase 22) and in the first part of the new one. It indicates rather clearly that something like communism or socialism will occur before the dawning of the new age. The imagery is even sometimes reminiscent of that in "The Second Coming":

Then with the last gyre must come a desire to be ruled or rather, seeing that desire is all but dead, an adoration of force spiritual or physical, and society as mechanical force be complete at last. . . .

A decadence will descend, by perpetual moral improvement, upon a community which may seem like some woman of New York or Paris who has renounced her rouge pot to lose her figure and grow coarse of skin and dull of brain, feeding her calves and babies somewhere upon the edge of the wilderness. . . . What awaits us [is] democratic and primary. . . .

When the new era comes . . . it will, as did Christianity, find its philosophy already impressed upon the minority who have, true to phase, turned away at the last gyre from the Physical Primary. (CEVA, p. 213)

A similar source is Yeats's 1921 note for the poem itself. In it a fictitious desert tribe, the Judwalis, tell Michael Robartes, "For a time the power will be with us, who are as like one another as the grains of sand [ultra-democratic, socialistic, or primary], but when the revelation comes it will not come to the poor but to the great and learned and establish again for two thousand years prince & vizier [antithetical types]" (Variorum Poems, p. 825; my italics). Finally, in a more well-known passage at the end of the second edition of A Vision, Yeats indicates that even in 1937 he is still concerned about the possibility of Communism spreading dangerously far in the final phases of the present cycle before the advent of the new era:

How far can I accept socialistic or communistic prophecies? I remember the decadence Balzac foretold to the Duchesse de Castries. I remember debates [on socialism] in the little coach-house at Hammersmith or at Morris' supper table afterwards. I remember the Apocalyptic dreams of the Japanese saint and labour leader Kagawa, whose books were lent to me by a Galway clergyman. I remember a Communist described by Captain White in his memoirs ploughing on the Cotswold Hills, nothing on his great hairy body but sandals and a pair of drawers, nothing in his head but Hegel's Logic.

What discords will drive Europe to that artificial unity ... which is the decadence of every civilisation? How work out upon the phases the gradual coming and increase of the counter-movement, the antithetical multiform influx ...[? ] (Vision B, pp. 301-02)

The final portion of this last quotation indicates still another kind of reason why it does not make sense in terms of the system to interpret the cataclysmic birth of the beast in "The Second Coming" as the beginning of the new antithetical cycle. There, as in several other places, Yeats's indications are that the coming antithetical influx will have only its barest beginnings somewhere near AD 2000 to 2100, with its development to maturity or fullest expansion not until considerably later.46 Like Christianity at the year zero, the new religious dispensation will be just at the tip of its cone at the time of annunciation. According to the apposite version of the system, nothing either antithetical or religious will be so widesweeping near AD 2000 as the phenomenon symbolized by the imagery in "The Second Coming," but rather some primary secular power or political movement.

Two related points about other parts of "The Second Coming" should be made in the light of the analysis just presented. One involves the lines "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." Donald Weeks and others have suggested that these lines strongly echo a passage from Shelley's Prometheus Unbound,47 while some commentators have suggested even other parallels or possible sources outside Yeats's own work. Such parallelisms may be interesting to speculate about, but there are quite a few similar passages from Yeats's own work which provide better elucidation of these lines. The just-quoted passage about the minority in the old era having already the philosophy of the new age is one. Yeats felt that he and a few other distinctly antithetical types were born out of phase, so to speak, in the final stages of a strongly primary civilization. Unfortunately members of this minority, surrounded by vocal or even violent masses, were all too often something less than staunch or united in their views (the words uncertain and wavering occur in the drafts). One of the most helpful parallel passages from Yeats's own works comes from that aquiline-visaged antithetical persona Michael Robartes, who, in an introductory story from the second edition of A Vision, speaks to a small group of pupils or disciples as follows: "Dear predatory birds, prepare for war. . . . Love war because of its horror, that belief may be changed, civilisation renewed. We desire belief and lack it. Belief comes from shock ... " (Vision B, pp. 52-53; my italics).48

This same passage sheds light on the second of the two related points, which has to do, rather obviously, with the "indignant desert birds" whose shadows are reeling all about the poem's rough beast (in the drafts occurs the line "an angry crowd of desert birds"). Very clearly in operation here is Calvary's symbolism of antithetical birds versus primary beasts, even though the falcon imagery in the poem's opening lines may be inconsistent or muddled in this connection. Although members of the antithetical minority may lack conviction, they would naturally be at least "indignant" over the threatening advent of a vast primary majority, as was Yeats himself when he wrote this poem. The appearance in the finished piece of only the shadows of the birds may be meant to suggest their ineffectual minority situation in contrast to an inundating "blood-dimmed tide" of antiaristocratic masses.

During the 1920's and 1930's, both communism and Yeats's attitude toward it changed, although his concerned interest did not entirely disappear. Any number of passages from those intervening years reveal, however, that he realized at a rather early date that the Bolshevik state as it was actually being run was much more an inhumane oligarchy than a truly socialistic system. This no doubt accounts for his tendency in later years to lump most of the chief European governmental structures together for equal disapprobation and may help to explain why and how in 1936 he felt at liberty to say that "The Second Coming" had predicted more than a decade and a half previously what was currently happening on the Continent (Letters, p. 851). If one wants truly to understand the original thematic implications of "The Second Coming" and its rough beast, however, he must remind himself constantly that the poem was written in 1919, slightly before the advent of fascism and very shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution and the earliest instances of inhumane political executions in Communist Russia.


Some commentators do not even consider or mention the fact that Yeats specifies a sphinx as the monster in his nightmare vision. Before publication of the drafts, some may have felt that the line "A shape with lion body and the head of a man" was too indefinite to make the identification certain. A few, in fact, have even stressed the likelihood of intentional indefiniteness. But the first transcription of the drafts in 1963 provided new evidence—"breast & head"49—and the second in the early 1970's added "& with woman's" before the word breast.50 These details leave virtually no question. In fact, they even tell us that Yeats's first impulse was to depict the Greek or female form of the fabulous creature, after which he settled upon the Egyptian or male version. This very change itself will be of significance in efforts to answer the tantalizing question, "Why a sphinx?"

A series of futile attempts to arrive at a satisfactory answer to this question almost thwarted efforts to capture Yeats's beast. Only with last-minute assistance from an unexpected source was failure averted. Unlike many of Yeats's other important symbols, the sphinx makes very few appearances elsewhere in his work, contrary to the impression given by some commentators.51 It appears in none of the plays (except for passing references in the translations of Sophocles, of course), in only one poem other than "The Second Coming," ("The Double Vision of Michael Robartes," also written in 1919 and so presumably of potential relevance), and only here and there in the prose, usually in references either to visual portrayals by Charles Ricketts or to Hegel's use of the image in his Philosophy of History. This last, however, even though its occurrences include A Vision's sections on history, can have no bearing on "The Second Coming," since Yeats did not read Hegel's book until after 1919. Statements of traditional meanings in sources like Cirlot are of little assistance except for associations between the Egyptian sphinx and the sun, as between lion and sun. Usual significances are of such dubious relevance (for example, "enigma," "the great mystery," and so on) or multiple diversity that they remain next to useless. Only the fellow sphinx in "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes" would seem to be of much potential aid.

However, "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes" is not a readily understandable poem, and explications of it are few and conflicting in their suggestions of meanings. Yeats himself says in A Vision that he used the main symbols in the poem "in ways I am not yet ready to discuss" and that the piece was written "in the first excitement of discovery," with clear indications that more considered thought or later experience might have led to a different handling of the symbology (B, pp. 207-08). The passage also says that of two main contrasted images, the sphinx and Buddha, one is associated with "the outward-looking mind, love and its lure" and the other "with introspective knowledge of the mind's self-begotten unity, an intellectual excitement" (p. 207). Since the poem itself describes the sphinx as gazing upon all things known or unknown "In triumph of intellect," the latter description from A Vision would seem to be the relevant one. Although little or no assistance beyond this can be gained from the appearance again of that virtually indefinable word intellect in Yeats's vocabulary, the description "introspective knowledge of the mind's self-begotten unity" certainly sounds subjective or antithetical rather than objective or primary. However, in terms of consistency between the two poems, the present analysis of "The Second Coming" would be benefitted more if the sphinx in "The Double Vision" could somehow be glossed as primary. Thus, the need for evidence in support of such an interpretation becomes apparent.

Further investigation brings to light two sources of possible assistance. In an essay entitled "The Buddha as Symbol in W. B. Yeats: A Study of Two Poems," T. R. S. Sharma argues urgently, if not always completely convincingly, that in Yeats's poems "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes" and "The Statues" the Buddha figure is subjective or antithetical and the sphinx in the former poem and the grimalkin in the latter (a miniature sort of sphinx, it is suggested) are objective.52 Sharma pursues his argument by associating the sphinx with the "outward-looking mind, love and its lure" from the passage in A Vision, despite the fact that the other description, "introspective knowledge," and so forth, is the one that includes "intellectual excitement" to tie in with the poem's "triumph of intellect." The basis for some doubt is, therefore, apparent. The other source is F. A. C. Wilson's book already cited. In one note it says, "In this study I have assumed that Yeats originally meant his Buddha to typify subjectivity and his Sphinx to typify objective intellectualism, despite his difficult note in A Vision. . . ."53 But then he later says of that sentence, "This is perhaps the statement in the present book about which I feel most doubtful; though not doubtful enough to delete it."54 Not very reassuring materials. If they convince anyone that the sphinx in "The Double Vision" is primary, so much to the good. If not, then the only line of thought would seem to be agreement with Richard Ellmann, who could conceivably be said to be following Yeats's own comments previously quoted. Ellmann states that the images in "The Double Vision" are troublesome because they are used differently there from any other place in the poet's work.55 As far as "The Second Coming" is concerned, that leads back to the original question, "Why a sphinx?"

Conclusions based on much investigation and contemplation are that Yeats used a sphinx figure in "The Second Coming" for three interrelated reasons, or one might say rather that, in characteristic fashion, he syncretized in his imagination meanings and implications from three relatively separate sources. Two of these sources involve the initially indicated female Grecian sphinx. One of the main associations for this figure in ancient tradition is, of course, the Oedipus myth, and that is—virtually certainly—just exactly one of the sources upon which Yeats drew. In the myth the sphinx was identified with death, pestilence, and famine. Until its riddle was answered, the city of Thebes could not thrive. Death, pestilence, and famine, along with war and bloodshed, tie in directly with the body of apocalyptic Biblical lore that Yeats elected to draw upon the moment that he settled upon "the second coming" and an allusion to Bethlehem instead of "the second Birth" and notions of a new "Avatar" from his automatic scripts.56 The sphinx image first appears in the same verse draft as that dual Biblical allusion, only some six lines or so removed if deletions and trial repetitions are not considered. One momentary objection might be that Yeats's mind was not very significantly involved with the Oedipus story in 1919, since his translations of Sophocles' two plays came later; but a bit of sleuthing reveals that he had indeed been quite interested in the tale for a number of years. In fact, he had been involved in efforts to arrange a performance of Oedipus Rex at the Abbey Theatre from a date as early as 1904 or 1905.57 There is no question, in short, that on the basis of his theatrical experience alone the riddling sphinx of the Oedipus myth would have been an immediately apprehended image of pestilence and famine in the mind of W. B. Yeats in the year 1919.

Yeats was also thoroughly familiar with the story of Oedipus and the sphinx from another source as well, however. The mythic motif had been appropriated as a favorite subject by a group of symbolist artists and poets so familiar and akin to Yeats that the scarcity of sphinx images in his own work is, in fact, somewhat anomalous. His closest associate among the pictorial artists involved was Charles Ricketts, one or more of whose pictures depicting a sphinx Yeats referred to in very admiring terms in at least two places (Vision B, p. 298, Autobiographies, p. 550). Actually, the impact on Yeats of this circle of artists' interest in the sphinx figure may have been somewhat overstated by commentators. In addition to Melchiori, already mentioned, D. J. Gordon and Ian Fletcher, in their catalogue of an exhibition of art works with supposed relationships to Yeats's writing, list and discuss perhaps a disproportionate number of items. The material is helpful, nevertheless, in its suggestion of possible associations.58 Some of Ricketts' pictures were illustrations for Oscar Wilde's poem on the subject, a lush Edgar-Allan-Poeish sort of thing with possible influences from Swinburne. Even Yeats's friend T. Sturge Moore wrote a poem—far less impressive than Wilde's—entitled "The Sphinx." In his recent book on Yeats's songs and choruses, David Clark includes a collection of plates which reproduce some of these paintings and drawings that depict from varying perspectives the encounter between the mysterious riddler and Oedipus.59 What becomes apparent from an examination of these and other renderings60 is that both the sphinx and the dancing Salome became favorite subjects for quite a few symbolist artists in the late nineteenth century, with the usual theme in both cases being the femme fatale. Salome or some surrogate in that role appears rather frequently in Yeats's own work. Certainly such implications for the female sphinx are in no way foreign to Yeats's concern in "The Second Coming" and may help to explain his initial use of that figure rather than the masculine Egyptian image. For what could be a better way to portray communism than as a heartless seductress luring the unsuspecting masses into harm's way? In his book with the plates already mentioned—which any reader interested in the subject should definitely see if unable to view the originals or other copies elsewhere—one of Clark's chief interests is associations of the sphinx with death, another shade of meaning by no means foreign to Yeats's concerns in "The Second Coming." However, the conception of death postulated by Clark is much "warmer" and more alluring than that suggested by the imagery of Yeats's apocalyptic poem, except to the extent that the femme fatale motif may be involved in both cases.61

For a matter of weeks, reasons like these were the only ones that I could come up with in answer to the question, "Why a sphinx?" While they may well be contributory, they clearly cannot be exclusive, because they all involve the female Grecian sphinx, whereas Yeats almost immediately modulated to the male Egyptian icon in the drafts of his poem. Then the fuller answer came, like one of Yeats's lightning strokes, from a source to which I cannot possibly acknowledge adequately the degree of my indebtedness.62 The key to understanding as fully as possible Yeats's "rought beast" in all its richly manifold symbolic implications is knowledge of the roles of the sphinx in various occult traditions and of the interrelationships between those and the long-standing body of orthodox and quasi-orthodox Christian eschatology, apocalypse, and second adventism in western culture. I do not understand why someone—especially I myself—has not recognized this circumstance and researched this subject before now. Although many of the connections are iconographic, associational, and poetic rather than logical and discursive, there can be little doubt that they were quite real in Yeats's mind when he wrote the poem.

The main two lines of association can best be presented initially for discussion by reference to their symbolic identification with two cards from certain versions of the tarot deck, although both also exist in occult tradition independently of that set of "magic" cards, especially in cabalistic lore. The cards in question are the Chariot and the Wheel of Fortune. Both include a sphinx or sphinxes in some versions of the deck, and, in such versions, both have connections with the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel as well as with "the Wheel of Ezekiel" and the throne of God.63 All of these associations and many others are interrelated with each other in a very intricate and complex esoteric symbology. Ezekiel is one of the two most prophetic and apocalyptically oriented books in the Old Testament (the other is Daniel), and it has both direct and indirect connections with the New Testament book of similar kind, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, with its imagery of Christ's second coming and his role as a destructive warrior and death-dealer at the day of judgment and advent of a new dispensation. As will become apparent, Yeats did not have to imagine or invent such associations between the sphinx and a warlike Christ. They existed ready to hand in the two intertwined traditions, orthodox and heterodox. All he had to do was sharpen the focus by means of that allusive juxtaposition whose manner and tone are the central concern of his final two drafts—Bethlehem and beast.

Several versions of the tarot deck depict a sphinx atop or above the Wheel of Fortune, with the four "living creatures" of Ezekiel's vision in the four corners of the card, or in some cases just their heads: lion, man, eagle, and ox.64 On the cards four separate animals or "living creatures" are shown. However, in Ezekiel there are four creatures, each of which has four heads of the kinds just indicated, as well as wings (see 1.6, 10). An occult attempt to represent pictorially such a monster appears in W. Wynn Westcott's translation of Eliphas Lévi's The Magical Ritual of the Sanctum Regnum, evidently on the page facing the title page. There is a photographic reproduction of the two pages in Kathleen Raine's Yeats, The Tarot, and the Golden Dawn (illustration 15).65 As indicated there, such a "living creature" from the prophetic book of the Old Testament is sometimes called "The Cherub of Ezekiel," or in other places the creatures are designated simply as cherubs or cherubim (occasionally spelled with a k). But they are also sometimes called sphinxes, and in some esoteric sources the terms cherub and sphinx are used almost interchangeably.66

The extraordinary four-headed "living creatures" or "sphinxes" in the Book of Ezekiel are further identified there with some very strange wheels which follow them about and which contain their spirits (1.19-21). Anyone at all acquainted with the various interrelated bodies of occult lore is familiar with the propensity in esoteric tradition for quaternities and the tendency for quaternities to develop into four-sectioned circles or wheels. It was probably inevitable that this kind of thing should happen with the four four-headed living creatures of Ezekiel, who were already associated with wheels anyway. Thus the so-called "Wheel of Ezekiel" is such a divided circle with one of the four animals represented in each of the four quarters or at each of the dividing lines.67 It takes no special ingenuity to perceive that this wheel and any number of others like it are prototypes, to one degree or another, for Yeats's great wheel in A Vision, whose phases correspond to gyres, cones, and cycles throughout the book but especially in the sections on history. Thus beasts or sphinxes could easily be identified with cardinal points in the cycles, particularly one like the conclusion of an era. This kind of association, of course, tends to become too generalized to be a major element of meaning in poem or system. On the other hand, however, neither Yeats nor a responsible critic could very well associate his "rough beast" with the "living creatures" of Ezekiel without being reminded of the various kinds of wheels of process or progress with which those creatures are sometimes linked in esoteric tradition.

The other tarot card related to the sphinx is The Chariot. Originally this card had horses pulling the vehicle, but in the nineteenth century some decks replaced the horses with sphinxes.68 The chariot is much like a wheeled throne in many instances with a king, prince, or some other figure representing triumph in it. The occult symbology is often quite detailed and complicated.69 The chariot is sometimes even associated with the throne of God in the vision of Ezekiel. Of course, for Yeats's symbolic purposes the figure could readily be related associatively to the triumphant armed Christ at his apocalyptic return to earth in the corresponding New Testament book, Revelation.70

That the sphinxes on the Chariot card are also sometimes associated with the "living creatures" of Ezekiel is made unequivocal by the fact that, in at least one version of the tarot pack, instead of two sphinxes pulling the chariot there are all of Ezekiel's beasts (four separate animals, as in Revelation 4.7) before the vehicle, either pulling it or else protecting it.71 In the versions with two Egyptian sphinxes, usually one is white and the other is dark or partly black, with them apparently pulling in opposite directions.72 This fact brings the whole congeries of sphinx tradition and occult apocalypse into direct connection with an import laden icon which Harper and Hood take to be the very seminal image of the automatic scripts' entire dual-natured system itself—a chariot pulled by opposite-colored horses (CEVA introduction, pp. xii-xvii, xlix). Thus, if a horse (or a sphinx) of one color is associated with the subjective or antithetical tincture and an animal of the other color with objectivity or the primary, what could be more natural than to represent by such a beast the point where a tincture, in its final expansion, inundates all culture—by a horse or, more in keeping with apocalyptic lore, a sphinx? Some readers may feel that this last-mentioned possibility pushes esoteric interpretation a bit far. Perhaps. But once again, how could Yeats possibly have been unaware, or his informed critic be silent?

Another area of occult lore in which the sphinx plays an important role is the complicated system of meditation known as Enochiana or Enochian magic, which is discussed and described at considerable length in sources like Regardie73 and Francis King.74 Initiates of the Inner Order of Yeats's Rosicrucian society, The Golden Dawn, were introduced to this method of achieving visions, and Yeats would have been thoroughly familiar with its principles and terminology.75 In this esoteric activity one of the chief attributes of the sphinx emblem is power, which is also in fact one of its attributes in certain aspects of the tarot deck and in ancient tradition as well.76 While power would clearly seem to be an appropriate quality for association with the beast in "The Second Coming," it and certain other meanings tend to be positive or favorable more than negative and foreboding, for which reason their applicability to Yeats's poem might be questionable.77 Almost certainly Yeats's chief reason for using the sphinx icon was to evoke through associational links all the graphic imagery of pestilence, bloodshed, warfare, and destruction inherent in Ezekiel, Revelation, and post-Biblical traditions of Christian Armageddon or quasi-Christian apocalypse.

Such lines of implication, of course, raise momentarily the question of Yeats's familiarity with the Bible in general and with the Book of Ezekiel in particular. But the question is quickly laid to rest: in fact, with a vengeance. In addition to three references to Ezekiel in the poetry, there is a very telling one in the Yeats-Ellis edition of Blake, which says that the four Zoas "are identical with the wheels of Ezekiel and with the four beasts of the Apocalypse."78 The words in this passage are almost certainly Yeats's rather than Ellis'; but even if not, both editors insisted that they each approved all passages written by the other. Also, in Yeats's play The King's Threshold, the poet Seanchan says in his death speech: "I need no help. / He needs no help that joy has lifted up / Like some miraculous beast out of Ezekiel" (Variorum Plays, p. 309). While this passage removes any question about Yeats's knowledge of Ezekiel and its beasts, its tone would seem to be out of keeping with what has been said here of the "living creatures" and their awesome import in apocalyptic tradition. However, in the play Seanchan is very clearly a type that would have been labelled subjective or antithetical in the terminology of A Vision. Therefore his defiant final speech would have to be in sharp contrast to the connotations for death in "The Second Coming." Also, the beast appears in the play only as part of a simile. Though the beast is designated "miraculous" and "lifted up," as it might well be in virtually any context, Seanchan is the one who is "joyous," not the beast. In accord with such a reading, the "living creatures" are "lifted up"—wheels and all—in Ezekiel (1.19-21, 10.17-19).

What is perhaps more telling about the appearance of Ezekiel's beast in The King's Threshold, in relationship to "The Second Coming," is the date rather than possibilities of meaning. The passage did not exist in the original play (1904). Instead, it appeared for the first time in "A New End for The King's Threshold" written in 1921.79 This means that the beast or beasts from Ezekiel were unequivocally in Yeats's mind at a time not far removed from the composition of "The Second Coming." In fact, it is quite likely that associations in the poet's mind from the recently published poem help to account for the reference in the play.80 That a difference in meaning from the image in "The Second Coming" should not be considered beyond the realm of possibility is suggested by the fact that a few lines later in his new conclusion for the play Yeats also employs the moon symbolically in a way contrary to its antithetical usage in the historical system:

O, look upon the moon that's standing there In the blue daylight—take note of the complexion, Because it is the white of leprosy And the contagion that afflicts mankind Falls from the moon.

(Variorum Plays, p. 309)

In short, Yeats clearly felt that symbolism in the new conclusion for the play had to be kept consistent with the tone and meaning of imagery and usages in the original work rather than shifted or altered in light of the iconography that had developed in his system between the piece's original composition and its revised conclusion. In fact, Bushrui, who identifies the beast image as an echo from "The Second Coming," comments briefly on ways in which the "New End for The King's Threshold" could in 1921 incorporate certain elements of meaning from the emerging system of A Vision without violating in spirit or intent the play originally written almost two decades earlier.81


"The Second Coming" is not about the annunciation of some new avatar or religious dispensation. Neither is it about the influx of some new antithetical civilization or hierarchical social structure of "kindreds" or "covens," though Yeats thought about and wrote about such things in other places during and after the advent of his system. It is about precisely what its title indicates that it is about, the second coming of Christ. This second Christ, however, will be secular and political rather than spiritual and religious. Yeats in various places identified certain attributes of Christ or Christianity with those of such political systems as democracy or socialism. Chief among such qualities in common were two: the supposed equality of all humans—not surprisingly—and the dominance of reason or logic, perhaps somewhat less expectedly. One illustrative passage is the following: " . . . Christ came at the Graeco-Roman meridian . . . was the first beginning of the One—all equal in the eyes of One. . . . Equal rights and duties before the One—God with the first Christians, Reason with Rousseau" (Explorations, p. 311). In another place Yeats's identification of Christ with reason is startlingly explicit, even if the element of egalitarianism is present only through reverse implication, by virtue of the speaker's being that most antithetical and autocratic of personae, Michael Robartes: " . . . I said to myself, 'Jesus Christ does not understand my despair, He belongs to order and reason'" (Vision B, p. 41).82 For present purposes, probably the most striking of such passages on reason is one which was published in the same year as "The Second Coming" was written. Not only does it associate Christianity with logic and egalitarianism, but it also labels logic a "wild beast": "Logic is loose again, as once in Calvin and Knox, or in the hysterical rhetoric of Savonarola, or in Christianity itself in its first raw centuries, and because it must always draw its deductions from what every dolt can understand, the wild beast cannot but destroy mysterious life" (Explorations, p. 277; cf. the "wild beast" of Giraldus' book). Very significantly, in light of this contemporaneous passage, one of the late drafts of "The Second Coming" momentarily labelled the monster slouching toward Bethlehem as a "wild thing", before Yeats settled upon his now famous turn of phrase "what rough beast."83

However, the most explicit and emphatic revelation of a secularized Christ in Yeats's imaginative thought, a political phenomenon characterized by all the aspects of Christianity which he most disliked, comes in "A Packet for Ezra Pound" (1929), which eventually became a part of the introductory materials for the 1937 version of A Vision. There Yeats not only articulates the idea of a secular Christ, but also chooses as his antithetical type or symbolic persona opposite to Christ the mythic hero Oedipus: "What if Christ and Oedipus . . . are the two scales of a balance, the two butt-ends of a seesaw? What if every two thousand and odd years something happens in the world to make one sacred, the other secular; . . . one divine, the other devilish?" (Vision B, pp. 28-29). After twenty centuries of dominance by the sacred Christ, the time has arrived in "The Second Coming" for that "something" to happen, for the appearance of that other Christ, the secular one. Here, I think, we have a case in which the poem helped to shape the subsequent book rather than the other way around. For if in 1919 the sphinx was the emblem used to image the birth of that secular Christ, in the form of egalitarian revolutions (French and Bolshevik), what could be more fitting than to choose an autocratic ruler, Oedipus, the sphinx's traditional antagonist and opposite, as representative of the antithetical being who becomes sacred when the primary one becomes secular? Furthermore, since the primary political gyre will reverse its movement and dwindle during the next thousand years while the antithetical religious one spirals outward, Oedipus, the aristocratic avatar in Yeats's historical scheme just as in the myth, will eventually vanquish the sphinx, the secular Christ of communism.84

Finally, not only could—and did—Yeats conceive of a secular Christ, but he was also capable of discussing in surprisingly explicit prose ideas much akin to those intimated by elliptically allusive poetry in "The Second Coming." The height of the primary era of civilization is imaged as Christ's impending return in the role of apocalyptic avenger and ruthless arbiter at a horrible day of doom, with reason and egalitarianism once again emphasized as dominant characteristics:

What has set me writing is Coleridge's proof, which seems to me conclusive, that a civilisation is driven to its final phase .. . by "pure thought," "reason," .. . by that which makes all places and persons alike. . . . "Pure thought" . . . finds all alike, leaves all plastic, and its decisions, did it dwell equally in all men, would be a simultaneous decision, a world-wide general election, a last judgment, and for judge a terrible Christ like that in the apse at Cefalù. (Explorations, pp. 316-17)

Possibly Yeats is here confusing Cefalù with Monreale, which he mentions simultaneously with Cefalù in Vision B (p. 285), or perhaps both with Daphni, where "Christ is revealed in the aspect of Jehovah, a heavy Semitic judge with thick nose and full, cruel mouth, the thickbrowed eyes gazing pitilessly to one side, . . . one sinewy hand . . . raised in blessing but conveying also menace and condemnation."85

While Christ may be alternately sacred or secular in Yeats's imaginative thought, He is virtually always "objective" or primary, as is clearly indicated again and again by passages inside and outside A Vision. What Yeats anticipates with foreboding and horror in "The Second Coming" is the "physical primary" of our civilization's "last gyre," with its "adoration of force" and "society as mechanical force," not the subsequent antithetical "new era" with its "Second Fountain [which] will arise after a long preparation" (CEVA, pp. 211, 213-14). His famous prophetic poem is, then, in fact about the second coming of Christ, though Christ in a frighteningly unfamiliar worldly guise. In opposition to the mass-oriented and anti-individualistic spiritual teachings of the sacred Christ Jesus, this new secular Messiah will espouse a mass-oriented and anti-individualistic political materialism. After twenty centuries of religious equality urged by Christ the Lamb, a cataclysmic and levelling social anarchy is to be loosed upon the world by Christ the Lion.


1 The list of commentators who have neglected, belittled, or ignored the relationships between "The Second Coming" and A Vision is too long to be given here. Perhaps three representative examples will suffice. Donald Weeks's treatment of A Vision, in just three paragraphs of an article on the poem that is eleven and a half pages long, would certainly seem to constitute neglect ("Image and Idea in Yeats' The Second Coming,'" PMLA, 63 [1948], 286-87). Balachandra Rajan is among those who feel that "The Second Coming" is "capable of standing on its own text," although he makes a few references to the system in his exegesis (W. B. Yeats: A Critical Introduction [London: Hutchinson University Library, 1965], pp. 119-22). Certainly Patrick J. Keane's study is an extreme instance of rejection: in an elaborate and extended commentary which is evidently intended to be definitive, at least in its own terms, A Vision is mentioned only once ("Revolutions French and Russian: Burke, Wordsworth, and the Genesis of Yeats's 'The Second Coming,'" Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, 82 [1979], 19).

2 See Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 290; A. Norman Jeffares, A Commentary on The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1968), p. 238.

3 See Jeffares, Commentary; The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (New York: Macmillan, 1957), p. 401. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in the text.

4A Vision (1937; rpt. London: Macmillan, 1962), p. 11. Subsequent references to this edition (the so-called Vision B) will appear in the text.

5 2nd ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), pp. 197-98.

6 Jeffares, Yeats, p. 197.

7 Ed. George Mills Harper and Walter Kelly Hood (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1978). Subsequent references to this edition (the so-called Vision A) will appear in the text alongside the abbreviation CEVA.

8 George Mills Harper and Walter Kelly Hood deal with these combinations and constructions briefly in one of the notes in CEVA, p. 45. The present essay assumes most readers' familiarity with technical terms and concepts from A Vision like antithetical (or subjective), primary (or objective), gyres, etc.

9 Another potential source of confusion is that within every two-thousand-year pair of interlocked gyres there are two one-thousand-years cycles, while each two-thousand-year era is itself half of a larger four-thousand-year period. However, Yeats is quite explicit about this matter at the beginning of the section entitled "Dove or Swan," and most serious scholars have understood the situation.

10 At least three commentaries have mistakenly used the expression "Christian civilization": Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, eds., Understanding Poetry, 3rd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), p. 407; Helen Vendler, Yeats's Vision and the Later Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963), p. 101; and Robert O'Driscoll, "The Second Coming' and Yeats's Vision of History," in A Festschrift for Edgar Ronald Seary: Essays in English Language and Literature Presented by Colleagues and Former Students (St. John's: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1975), p. 173. At least three others use the words Christian or Christianity and civilization in close proximity to each other and appear to have in mind the concept that would be denoted by a direct combination: A. Norman Jeffares, "Gyres in Yeats's Poetry," in his The Circus Animals: Essays on W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1970), p. 109; Edward A. Bloom, "Yeats' 'Second Coming': An Experiment in Analysis," University of Kansas City Review, 21 (1954), 106; and Hazard Adams. In Adams the equation is all but explicit. He says that Salome's "dance takes place upon the verge of phase I of the Christian millennium," that her "movements are prophetic of . . . the appearance of a new civilization," and that "she sends the new civilization on its way" (Blake and Yeats: The Contrary Vision [1955; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968]), pp. 218-19.

11 This passage and some subsequent ones might be made somewhat clearer through the use of diagrams, but the prohibitive expense of reproducing such visual aids precludes their use here.

12 Whether or not reference to "the year zero" is technically acceptable (there being no year between 1 BC and AD 1), the expression is used here and later because Yeats implies it (with the numeral 0) on his large "historical cones" diagram with dates that relate to the various phases in the present era (Vision B, p. 266).

13 Readers interested in clarification of at least one further major difficulty in A Vision's system of history may see my recent note about the large diagram with dates and phases just mentioned in note 12 ("The Red and The Black: Understanding 'The Historical Cones' in Yeats's A Vision," Yeats Annual, 3 [1984]). One reason why information on the problems treated there is not urgently needed here is that, as Yeats says of the illustration, his instructors "have adopted a system of cones not used elsewhere in this exposition" (Vision B, p. 256). There are even inconsistencies not resolved by my note, however, that I did not fully recognize at the time. The main one is that the diagram, once understood, clearly indicates that the gyre which widens at the approach of AD 2000 (part of the "hour-glass" shaped figure) should be that of an antithetical civilization or secular movement, according to Vision B, p. 262. But as the discussion here will show, the text of "Dove or Swan" and at least two earlier sources stress the growth and expansion of a primary secular or political phenomenon at the end of the current era. I give the subject attention here for two reasons. One is that present concerns are with the historical portions of the book as well as with the poem. The other is that final concession should be made (though others enough have done likewise on less evidence): there simply are no resolutions to some of the discrepancies and incongruities in A Vision.

14 A careful study, with more emphasis upon Yeats's prose and certain symbols or figures than on particular poems or plays, is Donald Pearce's "Philosophy and Phantasy: Notes on the Growth of Yeats's 'System,'" University of Kansas City Review, 18 (1952), 169-80; see especially 173-79. Giorgio Melchiori focuses on creative pieces and their imagery (The Whole Mystery of Art: Pattern into Poetry in the Work of W. B. Yeats [New York: Macmillan, 1961], pp. 35-72), but commits a major error in his explication of certain animal emblems, as becomes apparent here. Ellmann treats the subject concisely but quite instructively, drawing the black pig of Irish legend into Yeats's evolving cluster of apocalyptically symbolic "beasts" (pp. 50-51).

15 Stallworthy's first publication of the drafts was in his book Between the Lines: Yeats's Poetry in the Making (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963). He subsequently published a revised and fuller transcription in a journal article, which is almost identical to the chapter in his book except for improvements in the transcriptions. All further references here will be to the later publication ("The Second Coming," Agenda, 9/10 [1971/72], 24-33) unless otherwise noted.

16 Politically suggestive images shared by "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" and "The Second Coming" are nightmare, a "monster" with blank eyes, and gyres and spirals in connection with things breaking up and one epoch replacing another. "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" and "A Prayer for My Daughter" also share the levelling wind, which might well be considered analogous to the levelling tide in "The Second Coming."

17Explorations, sel. Mrs. W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 393. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in the text.

18 See The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats, ed. Russell K. Alspach, assisted by Catherine C. Alspach (New York: Macmillan, 1966), pp. 1099, 1102. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in the text.

19 p. 25.

20 Stallworthy's apparent satisfaction on these points is somewhat surprising in view of the fact that Yeats's inconsistencies with the bird symbolism (to be dealt with at greater length here) were pointed out by Donald Weeks as early as 1948 (pp. 288-89).

21 Stallworthy, p. 24.

22 The word hawk is deleted and replaced by falcon in the next draft. In this same draft the outward-sweeping cone is called "the intellectual gyre" (p. 24). Stallworthy clearly takes intellectual to relate to logic (pp. 25, 28), which would make the gyre primary, though he does not say so explicitly. Such a connection may have some validity; which would mean that Yeats has simply been contradictory with his bird symbolism in the poem since, as will be seen, the indignant desert birds are almost certainly antithetical. However, the equation of intellect with logic is very tenuous. Both in A Vision and elsewhere, Yeats uses the word intellect in so many ways and contexts that settlement upon any consistent denotation or set of connotations is virtually impossible. In one place, for example, he replaced the word intellect with reason when revising a typescript that was ultimately excluded from A Vision (see Walter Kelly Hood, "Michael Robartes: Two Occult Manuscripts," in Yeats and the Occult, ed. George Mills Harper [Toronto: Macmillan, 1975], p. 223). In another, by sharp contrast, he associates intellect with imagination, especially in the antithetical phases of the system (Vision B, p. 142).

23 Stallworthy, p. 30.

24 There is neither space nor inclination to review here all the numerous previously proposed prototypes or "sources"—inside and outside Yeats's own works—for the famous beast image. Most of the more potentially relevant ones are probably familiar to readers of this essay anyway.

25 See William Butler Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), p. 349. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in the text.

26 The only two scholars or critics that I have found who agree with this designation of the beast as primary are Donald Pearce (p. 177) and Thomas Parkinson (W. B. Yeats: The Later Poetry [Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1964], p. 166). However, neither of these identifies the beast as a political phenomenon or movement. The list of commentators who have mistakenly taken the rough beast to be antithetical is long. It includes, among others, Harold Bloom (Yeats [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970], p. 318), Elizabeth Cullingford (Yeats, Ireland and Fascism [New York and London: New York Univ. Press, 1981], p. 161), Harper and Hood (p. 45), O'Driscoll (p. 178), Rajan (pp. 121-22), Peter Ure (Towards a Mythology: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats [Liverpool, 1946; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1967], and Vendler (p. 101).

27 In connection with this play and its note, F. A. C. Wilson expands briefly on objective beast symbolism in Yeats's work (Yeats's Iconography [New York: Macmillan, 1960], pp. 166-67).

28 See J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, trans. Jack Sage, 2nd ed. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1971), pp. 189-90.

29 Like so much in this poem, the line in question is not without some inconsistencies, however. One of the primary qualities of Christ so intensely disliked by Yeats was His particular kind of pity. If, then, there are to be associations between the beast and Christ, as later suggested, the "pitiless" sun-like gaze tends to be symbolically anomalous, even if imagistically effective.

30 Commentators who have identified the beast as fascism include John Heath-Stubbs (The Darkling Plain: A Study of the Later Fortunes of Romanticism in English Poetry from George Darley to W. B. Yeats [London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1950], pp. 208-09), D. S. Savage ("Two Prophetic Poems," Adelpbi, 22 [1945], 26), Conor Cruise O'Brien ("Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W. B. Yeats," in In Excited Reverie: A Centenary Tribute to William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939, ed. A. Norman Jeffares and K. G. W. Cross [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965], pp. 275-78), and Cullingford (pp. 161-62). The last of these identifications is apparently the result of an illogical backlash effect from the author's overwrought efforts to disprove O'Brien's theses about Yeats's affinities with fascism. Louis MacNeice states (The Poetry of W. B. Yeats [1941; rpt. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969], p. 119) that Stephen Spender also identifies the rough beast as fascism in his book The Destructive Element, However, I can find no such ascription in Spender's book. But MacNeice himself comes quite close to just such an equation (pp. 119-20).

31 See Donald T. Torchiana, W. B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1966), p. 214.

32 Torchiana, W. B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland, pp. 214-19.

33 These essays appear in Explorations, pp. 244-59 and pp. 263-80. The quoted phrase occurs on the first page of the first essay, which is the more explicit and uniform of the two.

34 See also The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), p. 656. Subsequent references to this edition will appear in the text.

35 This material, printed in the Irish Times, 30 January 1919, is quoted by both Torchiana (p. 216) and Cullingford (p. 116). Cullingford's treatment of Yeats's politics is extraordinary, as already intimated in reference to her equation of the rough beast with fascism. Her chapter "Visionary Politics" drastically overstates the connections between Yeats's interests in governmental systems, especially Marxist ones, and A Vision: "Composed between 1917 and 1925 and continually modified thereafter, A Vision is Yeats's attempt to understand the calamitous events of that time. . . . [It] is founded on, and inspired by, one fundamental antithesis: 'Primary means democratic. Antithetical means aristocratic.' Conceived and written while the Bolsheviks were consolidating their power in Russia, A Vision offers an alternative to the Marxist interpretation of history" (p. 121). Cullingford's data is massive, but much of it appears to have been shaped to suit the author's preconceptions. If assessed without prejudice, it would strongly support the view that Yeats's beast represents communism. Instead, the conclusions are ambivalent and unconvincing: " . . . the destruction of innocence by socialist revolutions . . . was the motive force behind The Second Coming' . . ." (p. 117), but "socialism both repelled and attracted [Yeats]; A Vision was his way of holding these contrary impulses in balance" (p. 140).

36 Stallworthy, p. 25.

37 Torchiana, p. 214.

38 Rajan exemplifies the theoretical tendency described here: " . . . Stallworthy's presentation of the various drafts shows how specific references to Pitt, Burke and the German advance to Russia were discarded and how, in its evolution, the poem moved steadily to its twin objectives of universality and immediacy" (p. 121). O'Driscoll's essay constitutes an extreme example of such theory put into practice (despite his initial attention to A Vision's system of history): "The Second Coming for Yeats is not the coming of Christ or Communism or Fascism or Democracy, but the coming of a free and expressive religion of art and the imagination ..." (p. 177).

39 Related to this sleep is still another image which has often been glossed in general terms rather than with reference to the language and ideas of Yeats's system. A number of commentators have spoken of the "rocking cradle" that "vexed to nightmare" the "stony sleep" as an emblem of infantile innocence in ironic contrast to the beastly horror of the poem's vision. There can be no doubt that the cradle image bears connotations of birth. However, the Christ-child is traditionally associated with a stable manger (pun intended), not a "rocking cradle." The image was much more probably related in Yeats's mind to an expression and concept from his poem "The Phases of the Moon" (1918), which is used as a verse prologue in both versions of A Vision: "Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon, /. . . The cradles that a man [or era] must needs be rocked in . . ." (Vision B, p. 60, Variorum Poems, p. 373). These "cradles" are, of course, the phases of the wheel or of the gyres in Yeats's system. The incessant alternations of the opposed historical eras—antithetical, primary, antithetical, primary—might also be thought of as rocking cradles, especially since the noun cradle in the poem is singular instead of plural. In such an interpretation, the cradle of the present era has rocked to the extreme of its tilt in the primary direction, the widest fluctuation of the objective gyre.

40 Stallworthy, p. 24.

41 Stallworthy, p. 27.

42 See Stallworthy, p. 28. Actually, Stallworthy generally agrees with a good deal of what has just been said and with what follows in this note—or vice versa. Yeats quickly realized and corrected his drift toward the revelation of a new religious annunciation. Nevertheless, this brief appearance of the "great falcon," presumably as an antithetical deity figure, constitutes an interesting prototype in view of subsequent appearances of other divinely annunciatory birds in "Leda and the Swan," "The Mother of God," and The Heme's Egg.

43Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (1940; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 22.

44 The numerous exegeses which associate Yeats's rough beast with the "Antichrist" of orthodox and heterodox tradition would seem to be somewhat simplistically off the mark. The Antichrist concept and second adventism constitute related but different bodies of religious lore in and "around" Christianity. In view of Yeats's title and the Bethlehem allusion, his beast cannot properly be identified with the former, because the Antichrist is supposed to appear at some time before the second coming and, in some versions, is to be defeated and displaced by Christ upon His reappearance on earth. Yeats's poem and its beast emphatically are, however, related to the extensive and pervasive tradition of second adventism. As will be seen even more fully, the ironic allusions to that iconographically rich body of apocalyptic lore are clearly among the chief evocative features contributing to the piece's almost supernatural immediacy and impact, as well as to its widespread critical acclaim and even popular renown. For valuable further information on both traditions, see W. Bousset, "Antichrist", and S. J. Case, "Second Adventism," Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961), I, 578-81, and XI, 282-86, respectively.

45 While there are materials in the automatic scripts about Christ being antithetical at certain times or in certain senses (see CEVA notes, p. 79), He and Christianity are unequivocally primary throughout virtually all of Yeats's published works.

46 One passage draws a parallel between the height of Christianity and Christ's influence at AD 1000 and the greatest influence of his predecessor two thousand years before at 1000 BC (Vision B, p. 285). By logical implication, then, Christ's successor and his dispensation would have their fullest development two thousand years after A. D. 1000, at AD 3000.

47 Weeks, p. 289.

48 Relevant to the points just made and to those which follow is the fact that Yeats in one place explicitly describes Robartes' face as "hawk-like" (CEVA, p. xv).

49 Stallworthy, Between the Lines, p. 22.

50 Stallworthy, p. 29.

51 See, for example, Melchiori, p. 36.

52The Literary Criterion, 7 (1967), 33, 35, 39-40. Sharma concedes that Frank Kermode and Giorgio Melchiori differ with his opinion (p. 32).

53 Wilson, p. 311.

54 Wilson, p. 322.

55 See Ellmann, p. 255.

56 Actually, such calamities also tie in with at least some of the scripts' predictions about impending events as well. For example, Harper and Hood speculate that one passage about the future may have been excluded from A Vision "because the prophetic tone was . . . too harsh . . . : 'I find in my documents a statement that population will decline through pestilence and famine and accidents of nature . . . '" (CEVA notes, p. 63).

57 In 1904 Yeats commented in Samhain on London's ban against staging Oedipus Rex (Explorations, pp. 131-32). About the same time, he evidently asked Gilbert Murray to consider translating the play for the Irish Theatre; Murray declined in a letter written on January 27, 1905 (see Richard J. Finneran, George Mills Harper, and William M. Murphy, eds., Letters to W. B. Yeats [New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1977], I, 145-46). There are seven references to the possibility of staging the play in letters among the Directors of the Abbey dating from 1906 to 1908 (Ann Saddlemyer, ed., Theatre Business: The Correspondence of the First Abbey Theatre Directors: William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge [University Park and London: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1982], pp. 127, 147, 151-52, 159, 178, 216, 295). By November, 1909, Yeats was contemplating translating the play himself and had "gone through translations and [found] Jebb's much the best" (Letters, pp. 538-39). Then, when censorship of the play in England was withdrawn, Yeats's interest in the project lapsed, even though he had purportedly "finished the dialogue in the rough" (p. 537). This had to be in 1910 or afterwards, since he was still reviewing translations late in 1909. Wade reproduces in full a note entitled "Plain Man's Oedipus" (originally published in the New York Times, 15 January 1933) in which Yeats outlines both his initial (pre-1919) and subsequent (post-1919) interest in Sophocles' play (loc. cit.). That the piece did not fade entirely from his thoughts in the interim period is made clear by a sentence from the "People's Theatre" essay published in the year that "The Second Coming" was written: "You [Lady Gregory] and I and Synge, not understanding the clock, set out to bring again the theatre of Shakespeare or rather perhaps of Sophocles" (Explorations, p. 252).

58W. B. Yeats: Images of a Poet (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961), pp. 96-98, 109-10.

59Yeats at Songs and Choruses (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1983), pp. 197, 199-201.

60 See Robert L. Dele voy, Symbolists and Symbolism (New York: Rizzoli, 1978), pp. 39-43, 131-35, and passim.

61 See Clark, pp. 192-202, The materials in Clark's book may support the theses of the present study even further in several ways. Clark points out, for example, that Yeats, like D. G. Rossetti ahead of him, "calls the Sphinx a Fate" (p. 193; see also Variorum Plays, p. 844). If the possibility can be entertained that Yeats might have conceived of the sphinx in the same way as readily in 1919 as almost a decade later, then the idea of "a Fate" might relate to and reinforce suggestions of doom and apocalypse irj "The Second Coming." Further than that, Clark points out that Rossetti's picture portrays a sphinx "whose eyes look past [its interrogators] without answering the question they seem to ask" and that the artist had said his drawing was about "the pitiless eyes of Fate" (pp. 192-93). While the odds that Yeats would have known and recalled such a remark may be slight, the picture and the phrase are both startlingly evocative of the line in Yeats's poem, "A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun."

62 A young Australian Yeats scholar, one of the few in his country, attended the International Yeats Symposium at Winthrop College, South Carolina, in April, 1983, where I presented a paper which was an embryonic version of the present essay. (An expanded model of that presentation is in print for anyone who may be interested in knowing what its major theses were ["William Butler Yeats," in Critical Survey of Poetry, ed. Frank N. Magill (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Salem Press, 1982), VII, 3194-99]. Other than an enormous disparity in volume and detail, one of the chief differences between those two essays and this study is that I then believed that the version of the history system involving an interchange of the tinctures was the one appropriate to the poem. The earliest prototype of those analyses is a master's thesis on "The Second Coming" and A Vision deposited somewhere in the stacks of the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University, in which I identified Yeats's rough beast as primary and communistic nine years before Stallworthy's initial publication of the poem's drafts, when Heath-Stubbs, Savage, and others were interpreting it as fascism. Unfortunately, the two of these three precursors that dealt with the question "Why a sphinx?" answered it in a way that turned out to be anachronistic for "The Second Coming." Their answer is not at all irrelevant for A Vision, however, as will be seen later in connection with part of the introduction to the 1937 edition.) The Yeats scholar from Australia, Colin McDowell, who also made a presentation on A Vision at the Winthrop Symposium and who is a specialist on both Yeats's occult interests and occultism in general, continued to discuss my theories with me via correspondence after the conference. When I foundered on the issue of the sphinx in the poem, he generously sent some tentative suggestions and a collection of photocopies from sources on occultism not available in libraries to which I have convenient access, with revelatory and productive consequences the scope and impact of which not even he will know until he reads what follows.

63 Virginia Moore says that the Wheel and Chariot cards with their sphinxes "fascinated" Yeats (The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats' Search for Reality [New York: Macmillan, 1954], p. 60), which may well be believed in light of what unfolds in the sequel here.

64 I have placed these figures in the present sequence intentionally in order to indicate immediately the obvious basis for associations between the sphinx as depicted in Yeats's poem and the four "living creatures" of Ezekiel, even if there were no extant traditional connections. This list also reveals at least one reason why Yeats had to change from the female Greek sphinx to the male Egyptian one—"head of a man." Another reason for that change may have been greater proximity, geographically and thematically, to Bethlehem, while still another may have been a desire to intensify the desert imagery for poetic effects much like those that function in Eliot's The Waste Land. I suspect also other purposes for desert imagery, such as associations with Michael Robartes' travels in the Near East, with the land of the fictional Judwalis, etc., although I am not sure that I understand all the reasons for Yeats's preoccupation with those things themselves (mystery, civilization's origins, "Babylonian starlight"?). However, a virtually certain further reason for desolation imagery in "The Second Coming" itself is practically self-explanatory when one recalls Yeats's figurative use of the expression "the Christian desert" (Vision B, p. 271). Christianity is also associated with desert imagery elsewhere in the book, with emphasis on its making all things and all men equal and indistinguishable, "featureless as dust" (p. 274). This, in turn, is reminiscent again of the primary Judwalis, who are "as like one another as the grains of sand" in the 1921 note to "The Second Coming" (Variorum Poems, p. 825). Incidentally, in the tarot-deck portion of occult tradition the sphinx has become a blend of the Greek and the Egyptian in many cases. Most versions—though not all—depict female breasts, but also most—again, not all—portray the characteristic "King Tut" type of headdress. Some show wings but most do not. The Greek sphinx is winged, whereas Egyptian ones vary in this particular. For differing versions in the tarot, see Paul Foster Case, The Tarot: A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages (1947; rpt. Richmond, Va.: Macoy Publishing Company, 1975), p. 118; Robert Wang, The Qabalistic Tarot: A Textbook of Mystical Philosophy (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1983), pp. 195, 210; Eliphas Lévi, Transcendental Magic: Its Doctrine and Ritual, trans, and ed. A. E. Waite (London, 1896; rpt. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1974), p. 389.

65 (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1972).

66 Wang (p. 198) and Israel Regardie (The Golden Dawn: An Account of the Teachings, Rites and Ceremonies of the Order of the Golden Dawn [1937-40; rpt. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1971], IV, 310) suggest that the sphinx is a "combination" or synthesis of the cherubs, but in at least one place Lévi uses the terms cherub and sphinx simply as alternates for each other (p. 273). Such usage accords with, and clearly derives from, Chapter 10 of Ezekiel, in which the "living creatures" appear again and are called "cherubim."

67 See Wang, p. 196, or Raine, illustration 26.

68 See Richard Cavendish, The Tarot (London: Michael Joseph, 1975), p. 90; Wang, p. 210; A. E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (London, 1910; rpt. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973), pp. 96-97, or Lévi, pp. 388-89.

69 See the sources just cited.

70 On the one hand, it would be easy to overlook or understate the emblematic connections articulated here. On the other hand, however, it would perhaps be almost impossible to overstate their power and significance for the success and impact of Yeats's poem. An important iconographie detail that reinforces the multiple-levelled interrelationships involved is the bared or flashing sword. Recognition of its various appearances in the congeries draws into clearer identification with each other the triumphant charioteer, the militant and judgmental Christ of doomsday tradition, the sphinxes of occult and Biblical lore, and the rough beast of Yeats's poem (a sphinx). In a number of versions of the Chariot card, the victorious king or warrior holds what appears to be a sceptre, but the object in his hand is sometimes a sword held by the blade, with the handle at the top. This observation is verified by those packs in which the sword is instead held by its handle (as in the middle illustration in Cavendish, p. 90) and by verbal rather than visual portrayals: "An erect and princely figure carrying a drawn sword" (Waite, p. 96). Also, most versions of the Wheel card that have a sphinx at the top show a sword held in the crook of one arm or else in one hand, as in three of Wang's four examples (p. 195). Moreover, the gatekeeper of Eden with a fiery sword is sometimes identified as a sphinx in occult lore, probably from the previously mentioned sphinxcherub equation (see Lévi, p. 273; Cavendish, pp. 90, 102). Finally, the Christ of Revelation and second adventism is prophesied to strike down in vindictive carnage the nations of the earth when "out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword" (19.15; see also 19.11, 21).

71 See Wang, p. 210, second illustration.

72 See Lévi, p. 389, and Wang, p. 210, third illustration.

73 IV, 310-22.

74Astral Projection, Magic and Alchemy (London: Neville Spearman, 1971), pp. 81-87.

75 See Moore, pp. 142, 151, 203, 257, 277.

76 See Cavendish, p. 90, and Wang, p. 197.

77 For example, the Egyptian sphinx, especially atop the wheel of fortune, is often taken to represent a resolution of the four elements or signs with which the four creatures are sometimes associated, much like the phoenix in alchemy (Wang, pp. 198, 213; Cavendish, pp. 92, 102). In other contexts the sphinx is a fearful gatekeeper or guardian of entry ways to newer or higher realms of knowledge or being (Wang, p. 197). Such roles clearly accord with the sphinx's representation of mystery and enigma and might also conceivably relate in similar ways to the entry of a new historical era. However, those roles involve synthesis and stasis more than seems appropriate to the imagery and themes of flux and catastrophic dynamism in "The Second Coming." Probably, therefore, such suggestions of meaning should be given relatively little emphasis here.

78The Works of William Blake, Poetic, Symbolic and Critical, ed. William Butler Yeats and Edwin J. Ellis (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1893), I, 251.

79 See S. R. Bushrui, Yeats's Verse-Plays: The Revisions 1900-1910 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 109.

80 The "living creatures" are not called "beasts" in Ezekiel itself. Thus, Yeats's expression "beast out of Ezekiel" in "A New End for The King's Threshold" suggests that he probably picked up the term beast for use in "The Second Coming" from tradition or Revelation (4.7) or both. More importantly, the expression in the play demonstrates that in the poet's imaginative thought Ezekiel's "creatures" were equatable with "beasts." This point validates the thesis that adequate understanding of the nature and iconographie function of Yeats's famous image in "The Second Coming" depends upon recognition of its demonstrable associations with the prophetic book's "living creatures" and all of the apocalyptic symbology and import deriving from those associations.

81 Bushrui, pp. 114-15.

82 This declamation is strongly reminiscent of the play Calvary (published in the same year as "The Second Coming") and its dramatic opposition of subjective desert birds to Christ's objectivity. Yeats's note to the play states: "I have surrounded Him [Christ] with the images of those He cannot save, not only with the birds, . . . but with Lazarus and Judas. . . . 'Christ,' writes Robartes, 'only pitied those whose suffering is rooted .. . in some shape of the common lot. .. .4 I have therefore represented in Lazarus and Judas types of that intellectual despair that lay beyond His sympathy . . ." (Variorum Plays, p. 790). In a different way, Robartes' outcry echoes and accords with a passage on the Church's decline as the cycles of history approach the rationalistic eighteenth century: "The gyre ebbs out in order and reason, the Jacobean poets succeed the Elizabethan, Cowley and Dryden the Jacobean as belief dies out. Elsewhere Christendom keeps a kind of spectral unity for a while ..." (CEVA, p. 205, Vision B, p. 295; my italics).

83 See Stallworthy, p. 30.

84 Yeats's discussion of Oedipus as the "new divinity" begins on page 27 of Vision B, and on page 28 the sphinx is mentioned as an antinomical figure in the myth, though not exactly in the role suggested here. On the same page Oedipus is also contrasted to abstraction, to Plato's One, and (by clear implication) to reason. He is instead designated as "an image from Homer's age;" this obviously aligns him with the system's previous antithetical annunciation, which theoretically occurred 4000 years ago. That annunciation, of course, is graphically portrayed in Yeats's poem "Leda and the Swan," which was written in the interim between "The Second Coming" and "A Packet for Ezra Pound." Incidentally, associations between Oedipus and the sphinx are strong in occult tradition as well as in ancient mythology (Levi, pp. 15-16, Wang, p. 198).

85 John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 120. One should see also pp. 123 and 131 as well as plates 215, 223, and 231 for evidence in support of the proposition that in his prose passage Yeats might perhaps have confused Cefalu with Monreale, or maybe even both with Daphni. The passage from A Vision suggests that after Christianity's powerful domination of culture in the middle ages, Christ's image will "grow more like ourselves, putting off that stern majesty [of] . . . Cefalù and Monreale. ... " But the text and plates in Beckwith's book make unmistakable the fact that the mosaics at Cefalù and Monreale depict Christ much more sympathetically than the awesome portrayal at Daphni. Cefalù's depiction, the least "stern" of the three, hardly seems to bear the iconographie burden put upon it by the passage from Explorations. If Yeats never visited Daphni nor saw a reproduction of its Pantocrator, then the mosaic at Monreale (in the apse, as is Cefalù's) may well be the memory image inspiring his "terrible Christ."

Jewel Spears Brooker (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "The Second Coming' and The Waste Land': Capstones of the Western Civilization Course," in College Literature, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 240-53.

[In the following essay, Brooker examines "The Second Coming" and T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as these poems confront the decline of western civilization.]

"The Second Coming" by W. B. Yeats and The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot are ideal companion poems to use as a capstone experience in a course in Western Civilization. Both poems deal powerfully with the state of civilization in the twentieth century; both suggest that civilization is falling apart and each in its own way reveals the cause of the crisis. Both poems (especially The Waste Land) allude to central events and major texts of, the last several thousand years of Western (and Eastern) Civilization. The Waste Land, furthermore, suggests that the main activity of general humanities courses, i.e., systematic study of great texts, has value as a means of redeeming civilization from ruin.

In his most famous critical essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot argues that a poet must write with Western Civilization, so to speak, in his bones. He calls this presence of the past within a poet "the historical sense," and argues that it is "indispensable for anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year."

The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.1

One can disagree with the idea that the historical sense is a universal requirement for poets, but not with the fact that Eliot used it as a standard for himself and conscientiously prepared himself to be a poet by saturating himself in the great texts of Western Civilization. Next to Milton, Eliot is probably the English language's most learned poet; his mind includes most of the great classics of Western Civilization and is like the "mind of Europe" described in "Tradition and the Individual Talent,"—a "mind which changes, . . . but which abandons nothing en route" (6). The great texts hover over everything that he wrote, but in a special and obvious sense, they literally and conspicuously constitute The Waste Land. Yeats was not learned in the same classical sense as Eliot, but he too was well educated, particularly in the great myths of Western Civilization. As a repository of the myths of the Greeks, Hebrews, Romans, Christians, and especially the Celts, as well as a representative of his age, Yeats is invaluable in a general humanities course.

The reason for using "The Second Coming" and The Waste Land as capstone texts in a Western Civilization course, then, is that they gather within themselves many of the texts included in early parts of the course. In that they focus on the same crisis from very different standpoints, they tend to be reciprocally interpreting and are more valuable used together than alone. Moreover, Eliot's particular mode of re-collecting texts provides students with the joy of re-cognizing and re-interpreting the past texts at the same time that they are beginning to understand the present ones. These poems enable students to understand another point that Eliot makes in the "Tradition" essay: the new changes the old as much as the old influences the new. The Divine Comedy, for example, not only influenced and became a part of The Waste Land, but for a student who studies first Dante and then Eliot, The Waste Land actually makes a difference in the Divine Comedy.

In spite of the fact that the two modern poems seem made to order for use as companion capstone texts, they are seldom so used. The main reason is that they are considered too difficult for such courses. Many faculty feel uncomfortable with them; many more feel that they are simply too advanced for general education courses, courses usually taught in the first two years and often as requirements. But even though both poems are in some ways endlessly complex, both are remarkably accessible to students, especially if introduced into a course which anticipates them by including great works which they in a sense recapitulate. In my experience, students find "The Second Coming" mysteriously powerful, even before they have any idea of what it means. And today's students, brought up on rock music rather than on books, are in one way more prepared than their more literary elders to read The Waste Land. Unhampered by expectations of narrative form, they bring an immediate appreciation of discontinuous form. In fact, to the astonishment of teachers, students often take to The Waste Land far more naturally than to the "easier" poems of, say, Wordsworth or Frost.

In the conviction that the poems by Yeats and Eliot are both invaluable and accessible, I have written the following guide for students (and faculty), especially for those in general humanities courses of the kind so often taught in American colleges. The first part of my essay provides the context for these poems and offers a reading of "The Second Coming"; the second part focuses on The Waste Land. Both parts assume that students bring to the twentieth-century materials some experience with central texts of Western Civilization, specifically including Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, St. Matthew's gospel, St. Augustine's Confessions, Dante's Purgatorio, Shakespeare's Hamlet, Darwin's Origin of Species (selections), Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, and Frazer's Golden Bough (selections).


The importance of such poems as The Waste Land and "The Second Coming" is inseparable from their value as pictures of modern man and modern civilization; and they should be considered, first of all, in the context of the civilization and the crisis which they document. At the core of this crisis is a fear that Western Civilization is on the edge of disaster and, in fact, may be wiped out entirely. One reason that these poems continue to speak to us so powerfully is that we are still in this crisis. There is a real danger that contemporary man will destroy his universe and everything in it, that he will literally annihilate himself and his civilization. Our anxiety is an extension of Eliot's and of Yeats', for both have the same roots. Around 1920, when these works were written, and in 1986, the danger is related to incredible advances in knowledge and at the same time a loss of cultural memory, a collective forgetfulness about basic spiritual and humanistic resources and values.

The massive collapse of traditional values and the lamentable failures in brotherhood characteristic of our century have resulted in a pervasive cultural uneasiness. W. H. Auden calls the modern crisis a breakdown of liberal humanism, by which he means a breakdown of faith in the existence of God, in the goodness of man, and in the possibility of progress. This breakdown produced what Auden in a fine poem calls "The Age of Anxiety." In that "anxiety" is distress or uneasiness caused by the apprehension of some certain but vague disaster, Auden's term seems appropriate. The Age of Anxiety is often said to have begun in August, 1914; and it is true that the First World War had an incalculable effect on the modern mind. In that war, Western Civilization began literally tearing itself to pieces on the battlefields of Europe. The war, however, was not primarily a beginning; it was, rather, a culmination, not a cause of the modern spiritual crisis, but a result of it.

The pervasive disillusionment characteristic of the Age of Anxiety should be associated with a radical revision, during the second half of the nineteenth century, of ideas and principles which had long served as the foundation of Western Civilization. Among those most responsible for the revision are Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Sir James G. Frazer. In Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin removed mind (human or divine) from the origin and development of life. He maintained that God, if he existed, had been absent in history; and implied that man, merely a creature among creatures, is not justified in considering himself endowed with inalienable "human" rights. Like all other organisms, he is a creature of environment and chance. In Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche argued that Dionysus, the dark god of wine and irrationality, is more basic to art and to life than either Socrates or Apollo, symbols of reason and light. And in a famous boast, Nietzsche proclaimed that "God is dead." Sigmund Freud, in Interpretation of Dreams (1899), suggested a model of human nature in which the irrational and the unconscious and the violent are foundational. In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), he summed up his findings that man is not a gentle loving creature who simply defends himself when attacked but an innately aggressive one opposed to culture. The anthropologist Sir James Frazer also contributed much to the shape of the Age of Anxiety. In The Golden Bough (1890), a great encyclopedia of primitive religion, he argued that religion evolved from magic and is in turn being replaced by science. He meant to recover respectability for Christianity by bringing it into line with Darwinian evolution, but ended by suggesting that all religions are the same religion, all heroes (Christ and Dionysus) the same hero. The disquiet produced by these thinkers was compounded around the turn of the century by physicists who called into question or denied notions of reality which had supported the Western mind for millennia. In the place of an ordered universe, scientists such as Max Planck and Niels Bohr postulated one ruled by chance, a universe consisting of tiny and unpredictable bits of energy. All of this is part of the intellectual background leading to the Age of Anxiety, to the disease associated with the fear that Western Civilization was falling apart.

The conviction that a major dispensation in history was quickly drawing to a close was not limited to artists. German historian Oswald Spengler argued in The Decline of the West, published in German in 1918 and in English a few years later, that civilizations are organisms which go through stages of youth, maturity, decay, and that then, like all organisms, they die. As Greece and Rome flourished and disappeared, so shall we. Western Civilization, in his diagnosis, is in a very late stage of decay, and death is being hastened by neglect of the spiritual (philosophy, religion, art) and cultivation of the merely material. In the 1930s and 40s, the famous British historian Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, also argued that Western Civilization is breaking down. He did not believe that civilizations automatically move through stages of growth and decay, but that civilizations stand or fall insofar as they meet or fail to meet environmental and moral challenges. Toynbee argued that Western Civilization is breaking down because we resort to violence and war to solve our problems. He was part of a chorus of intellectuals who claimed that in abandoning our spiritual and humanistic values, we have lapsed into barbarism.

Yeats and Eliot were not alone, then, in their feeling that a major era in civilization was coming to an end. Eliot is often described as having expressed in The Waste Land the disillusionment of his age. He himself hated this sort of talk, and once quipped that maybe he expressed his readers' illusion of being disillusioned, but never meant to do so. He was, he claimed, expressing his own disillusion; he was just "grumbling." But whether he meant to or not, he transformed his personal grumbling into art, expressing in a new form what many of the most intelligent and sensitive people of this century have felt. In Ulysses (1922), published the same year as The Waste Land, James Joyce put it this way, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."


The conviction that Western Civilization is falling apart, important in most twentieth-century art, is perhaps most memorably expressed in Yeats' "The Second Coming," written in 1919 and published in 1920.2

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The title of this poem is taken from the Christian religion. The first coming was the birth of Christ, the Incarnation; it marked the end of one major historical dispensation and the beginning of another. According to the New Testament, Christ's second coming, to be preceded by a time of troubles and sorrow, will mark the end of this present age. In many interpretations, the second coming is also to usher in a new age, a millennium in which Christ will reign on earth and in which there will be peace. This doctrine of the second coming as a turning point in history can be found in Matthew 24 and other parts of the Bible.

Yeats strongly believed that civilization as we know it is coming to an end. He had a theory of history similar in some respects to that of Spengler. Like Spengler, he believed that history moves in large cycles of growth and decay. Yeats believed that these cycles last about two thousand years and that the present cycle, which began with the birth of Christ, is about to end. The second coming of Christ, traditionally considered as a major historical intersection, as the end of this age and the beginning of the next, is thus a useful image for him.

The first stanza begins with an image of a falconer who has lost control of his hawk. Communication and control are lost, and things fall apart. This image is followed by a description of the historical situation when Yeats was writing this poem, a time of unprecedented violence and barbarism. These were the days of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and civil war in Yeats' own country of Ireland.

St. Matthew's gospel describes the days just before the second coming in the following terms: "For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days be shortened, there should no flesh be saved." Surely, the poet cries, this anarchy and violence and moral collapse in history must be the sign that the second coming is at hand. The mention of the second coming triggers a vision. It arises from the Spiritus Mundi, that is, from the "Spirit of the World." (For Yeats, the Spiritus Mundi is the storehouse of primitive and archetypal images, images likes that of the Sphinx.) One would expect that the vision triggered by the phrase "the second coming" would be the same as that described by Matthew: "And they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." And one would expect that the vision of the new age would be an image of the Biblical kingdom of God, where swords (implements of war) have been recycled as plows (implements of agriculture), where love and pity have banished hate. But Yeats' vision is not the Christian vision. This turning point in history will not be the second coming of Christ the Prince of Peace, but the appearance of another god, a successor to Christ. Like Christ, this god will come from the Mediterranean world. But whereas Christ was a combination of the divine and the human, a perfect man, his successor in Yeats' vision is a combination of the bestial and the human, a monster with the head (intelligence) of a man and the body (passions, instincts) of a lion. In this ultimate nightmare, Yeats sees a god with a blank gaze and slowly moving thighs, a god who is the antithesis of love. This new master will be "pitiless as the sun"; that is, he will be morally neutral and radically democratic. The sun, as the Bible says, shines alike on the just and the unjust. This blind god sheds his beams equally on murderer and victim; he smiles at the same time on the gluttony of despots and the starvation of children.

Yeats interprets his vision by saying that the Greek world was vexed to nightmare by the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. And now, interpreting contemporary history, he sees the Christian era in its own nightmare. In the famous closing image, he wonders about Christ's successor, the rough beast now slouching towards Bethlehem to inaugurate the next era of human history.


T. S. Eliot is of towering significance in the aesthetic and moral life of this century. The first half of the century, in fact, is often referred to as the "Age of Eliot," and the publication in 1922 of The Waste Land is the most important event in twentieth-century poetry.3 As the distinguished critic Richard Ellmann has said, The Waste Land became so famous that for much of this century, the latest poetry in Arabic, Swahili, or Japanese was far more likely to have been influenced by Eliot than by earlier poets in those languages or by any other poet in English. After The Waste Land, Eliot turned to a different kind of poetry, of which the masterpiece is Four Quartets, published during the Second World War.

A waste land, of course, is a desert or any place inhospitable to life and health. Some waste lands, such as deserts or icebergs or rocky mountains are natural; but others, such as the used part of a coal mine, a trash dump, a city slum, or a bombed countryside, are man-made. And of course some waste lands are symbolic, that is, they are not "lands," but states of being. For example, a college or a marriage may be a waste land. Eliot's poem includes references to all of these waste lands. The literal desert may be seen in such lines as "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?" The man-made waste lands may be seen in such lines as those describing the polluted river banks where the "flowers" of summer consist of "empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends." The symbolic lands can be seen in the two families of part II—the miserable and fruitless couple from the upper classes, and the literally fruitful but loveless Lil and Albert, whose children are the expensive and unwanted by-product of Albert's lust.

The most important waste land in Eliot's poem, however, is the comprehensive one that includes all of the others—Western Civilization in the twentieth century, a place which is sterile and hostile to health and flourishing. Eliot's poem is his metaphor for the state of man and culture in the twentieth century. Like Yeats and many others of his generation, he interpreted the contemporary situation in Europe and the United States as one of moral and cultural decay. He felt that the basis of cultural unity had disappeared, that the glue which had held Western Civilization together had dissolved. As Yeats describes this crisis in "The Second Coming," "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold." The center of which Yeats writes is Christianity, which for two thousand years had held things together. But in the late nineteenth century, Christianity lost its power to unify culture, and for the first time in two thousand years, the non-existence or irrelevance of God was consciously taken as a cultural assumption. The Waste Land is a picture of what remains when the center is removed; it is a picture of civilization with no moral or cultural or religious center, no god-concept, no glue. It consists quite literally of hundreds of fragments of the western present and of the western past insofar as it had survived into the twentieth century. The text of the poem is in some ways comparable to what Bloomsbury would look like if a bomb should drop on the British Museum.

Some of the fragments in The Waste Land are preserved exactly. For example, "Those are pearls that were his eyes" is a line from Ariel's song in Shakespeare's TheTempest; and "Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina" a line from Dante's Purgatorio. Other fragments in the poem have been changed by evolution through time, but are still recognizable. The pathetic song of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet, for example, has evolved into the popular song "Good night, ladies, we're going to leave you now" and also into the final words which contemporary people say as they're leaving the pub after an evening of drinking together, "Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight."

Eliot's fragments may appear at first to be more or less independent, related only by the fact that all can be connected on some level to a waste land. But in fact, the fragments fall naturally into groups, with a number of fragments falling into several groups at once. These fragment clusters, then, are not mutually exclusive and do not have firm boundaries. Part of the poem's meaning derives from the juxtaposition of these clusters. For example, there are many fragments dealing with wasted landscapes, and also many dealing with city scenes. By simply placing these fragments side by side without comment, Eliot suggests that the modern city is a waste land. This idea is reinforced by portraying the city dwellers as sterile, loveless, and isolated. He does not actually state: "London (or Paris or New York) is a waste land," but he clearly suggests that these cities are places where life does not flourish. The accuracy of Eliot's depiction of modern urban existence may account in some part for the power of his poem.

The single most important group of fragments in Eliot's poem are those having to do with literal waste lands, for these references refer to an ancient myth, and it is this myth which provides Eliot with his title and his major symbol. The myth describes a land cursed with sterility, a land in which crops will not grow, women cannot bear children, cattle cannot reproduce, etc. The sterility in the land and its occupants is connected in some mysterious way to impotence in the ruler of the land. The ruler, who is both a god and a king, has been wounded in his genitals (as a result of war, sickness, old age, or whatever), and this sexual incapacity affects his entire kingdom, depriving it of regenerative power. Just as the curse on the divine ruler has blighted his people and land, so would his healing lead to their health. The curse can be lifted if (1) a hero will come and undergo certain trials in order to find the wounded ruler and ask him certain ritualistic questions, and if (2) the healed ruler is allowed to die, a circumstance which would permit his resurrection or revitalization.

The waste land myth is part of the background of the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. The following description of the city of Thebes, from the translation by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, is one of many ancient versions of the myth of the cursed land and its suffering inhabitants.

Thebes is tossed on a murdering sea And cannot lift her head from the death surge. A rust consumes the buds and fruits of the earth; The herds are sick; children die unborn, And labor is vain.... Death alone Battens upon the misery of Thebes. . .. The noble plowland bears no grain And groaning mothers cannot bear—

The curse on the land and its inhabitants is directly related to the king's sexual health. Oedipus is guilty of the great sexual taboo of incest (as well as the sin of patricide), and this situation reacts on his land. For healing to occur, certain questions have to be asked and answered. The horrible irony of this version of the waste land myth is that Oedipus is at once the sexually unclean king and the questor who must ask the questions and purge the land.

Eliot was particularly well-educated in philosophy, literature, and religion, and he must have encountered this myth in innumerable versions. In a note to The Waste Land, he reveals two special sources of his understanding of the myth.

Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance. . . . To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly: I mean The Golden Bough; I have especially used . . . Adonis, Attis, Osiris.

The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer is a twelve-volume collection of thousands of myths from all times and all places. Frazer began his work in the generation after Darwin, and as Darwin had attempted to discover the origin of the species and chart the descent of man, so Frazer tried to discover the origin of religion and chart the descent of the gods. He discovered that most myths have certain features in common, and as Darwin had postulated a common ancestor for man, so Frazer postulated a single ancestor for all religions. By putting together the common features of many myths, he was able to construct what he considered to be the parent myth. This myth had broken up over time, but its fragments persist in the myths and religions that we know from history and in the present world. According to Frazer, all religions, including Christianity, are fragments of this one great myth. The myth which Frazer constructed out of all his fragments is the myth of the waste land, outlined above and taken by Eliot for the main symbol of his poem.

Jessie Weston was a student of the legends having to do with the Holy Grail, the cup Christ is said to have used at the last supper. In studying these legends and fragments of legends, most of which date from the early middle ages, she came to the conclusion that the legends of the Holy Grail had also descended from a single parent. Like Darwin and like Frazer, she used the fragments she had to construct what she thought to be the parent legend. She argued that the legends of the Holy Grail are, in fact, fragments of the pre-Christian waste land myth.

Eliot's interest in the waste land myth, unlike that of Frazer and Weston, is not in the myth itself, but in its power to suggest truths about contemporary life, and also in its claim to support an underlying unity for modern society. Post World I London, in which Eliot was living at the time he wrote the poem, contained all sorts of people, all sorts of beliefs. They seemed to have nothing in common with each other or with the poet; and although crowded together in a modern city in which they literally touched and smelled each other daily, they all seemed alone, isolated. But in terms of Frazer's thesis, all people, regardless of how separate they seem to be, are brothers; all beliefs, no matter how bizarre, are one belief. The Waste Land is a collection of human voices and mythic fragments such as is found in any modern metropolis. The human and mythic odds and ends of a modern city seem unconnected, but they are all related because of the myth of the waste land.

Eliot works mainly by suggestion, and so he does not say precisely what causes a flourishing place to become a waste land. By using the myth, he suggests that there is a mysterious but certain relationship between the wounding of God and the existence of a waste land. In wounding or sterilizing our God, we have wounded ourselves. His decay and ours are intertwined. Fruitfulness in a family or a city or a civilization is dependent on connections between people who know and love each other, who share traditions and beliefs. The physical or sexual connection by itself, however, without the traditions and beliefs and the love, generates not a garden, but a different type of waste land. By using the myth, Eliot also suggests a connection between human love (caritas) and divine love (agape). The Bible makes the same connection by stating that a man who cannot love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot truly love God, whom he has not seen.

The background myth, then, suggests that the cause of the waste land is a failure to connect, a lack of love. The myth also suggests that it is possible to get rid of the curse. In the myth, the healing of the land is tied to the healing of the king. His healing, death, and revitalization would lead to ours. This healing could be accomplished by undergoing certain trials and by asking certain questions about the meaning of life. The healing, interestingly, happens because the questor asks the right questions rather than because he receives the right answers. God cannot heal himself; he is dependent on a person who will conceive of and ask certain questions.

Whether The Waste Land is experienced as difficult or easy depends to a great extent on the expectations brought by the reader. If the reader demands a story or plot, a hero or main character or main speaker, an argument or lesson; if the reader demands an understanding of every line; if he demands any or all of these things, he will have a difficult time indeed. But if (as Eliot expects) the reader suspends these demands and accepts the poem as an arrangement of fragments of western culture, he will have an easy time. To return to my example of Bloomsbury after a bomb has fallen on the British Museum: if one came upon such a scene, he would be able to make sense out of it without understanding every fragment. In fact, he could get the basic idea just by experiencing the scene, even if he did not at first recognize any specific fragment. And then he could start reconstructing by identifying a few fragments and finding complementary fragments and so forth. And he would find meaning, not just in the reconstructed fragments, but more important, in the act of reconstructing them.

Eliot's poem has suffered from the work of teachers who try to explain it line by line, layer by layer. It is often introduced by presenting the reader with a list of fragments with tags showing where Eliot got them. Such a list overwhelms most readers and constitutes a barrier to understanding the poem. A better approach is a simple reading, noticing the fact that the poem is made up of fragments of Eliot's own verse and fragments of Western Civilization, knowing that these fragments (according to Frazer and Weston) were once part of one myth, trying to understand what has happened and why. Simply knowing the myth and experiencing the bits and pieces of meaning in the poem is to most readers at once illuminating and unforgettable.

A second stage in reading this poem has to do with the recognition of specific fragments. Many of the fragments are pictures and sounds of contemporary life, familiar because we see and hear them every day. Others are from other times and places; some, we instantly notice, are in foreign languages. These fragments of contemporary and historical life have been carefully selected and arranged by the poet so that the more one knows, the richer the poem becomes. Most people will recognize some of the fragments of myth and religion and history and literature, even on a first reading. But since getting the main point of the poem does not require understanding all of the fragments and does not require immediate understanding of any specific fragment, the best procedure is to focus on the familiar ones and, for the time being, forget about the others.

The richness which comes from retrieving fragments (and the works from which they came) can be suggested by considering the lines "To Carthage then I came / Burning burning burning burning," lines which can be understood simply as part of a scene of contemporary life. The first part of this passage from The Waste Land, however, is a translation of the opening phrase of chapter 3 of St. Augustine's Confessions, which reads (in Edward Pusey's translation):

To Carthage I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love .. . I sought what I might love, in love with loving . . . For within me was a famine of that inward food, Thyself, my God, yet, through that famine I was not hungered .. . my soul was sickly and full of sores, it miserably cast itself forth, desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense. . . .4

If recognized as part of Augustine's autobiography, if recovered as part of his quest for love and knowledge and truth, if understood as part of his attempt to put his loves in order, if then returned to the context of the modern city, the fragment in Eliot's montage takes on profound suggestiveness. This process of recognizing and recovering fragments and bringing them to bear on Eliot's poem will be rewarding in itself and will lead to the heart of his deeply moral vision of Western culture. In asking such questions as why the line from Augustine exists only as a fragment, why Eliot thought it and the tradition of which it is a part were worth recovering, and why he put it at the end of a contemporary scene of sterile lust, a reader will have begun the work of reconstruction that might lead civilization beyond the waste land.

Some readers are disquieted by the foreign phrases scattered throughout The Waste Land. The fact that they are jibberish to most of us and to most of the modern characters in the poem is more important than any meaning they have in themselves. A main point in the poem is that we are so split up by nationalism and other "isms" that we do not understand each other's languages, much less each other's masterpieces. Most of us would not recognize lines in English from Tennyson, much less lines in Italian from the Inferno or in German from Tristan und Isolde; and Eliot claims that this inability to connect to our past and to each other is the main cause of the waste land. A mere translation of foreign phrases, such as appears in the footnotes of many teaching editions of the poem, does not solve the problem, because simply knowing the translation of a line does not permit the reconnection which Eliot considered essential. In the final analysis, recovery of meaning and reconstruction of bridges will not be accomplished by editors, but by readers who take Eliot and his landmark poem seriously.

As parts of classic works available in ordinary libraries, most of the waste land fragments are in a literal sense not really fragments. But Eliot is not concerned with what exists in libraries, but with what exists in the heads and hearts of modern man. And to most modern people, Plato, the Bible, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, and most of our noblest ancestors exist only as a name or as a part of a line heard in an advertising jingle or as part of a popular song ("O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—"). Fragments in themselves have no power to unify and revivify culture, but as part of the great traditions of our common history, they have the power to help us turn our waste land into a garden.


1 T. S. Eliot. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Selected Essays. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1950.

2 W. B. Yeats. "The Second Coming." The Poems of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

3 T. S. Eliot. The Waste Land. The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1952.

4 Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. Edward B. Pusey. New York: Washington Square Press, 1951.

Robert F. Fleissner (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: "On Straightening Out Yeats's 'Rough Beast'," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, December, 1988, pp. 201-8.

[In the following essay, Fleissner speculates on the nature of the "rough beast" in "The Second Coming."]

The bestial image at the tail end of William Butler Yeats's "The Second Coming" is described there as a "rough" one indeed and so deserves some critical straightening out. Hence yet another note on this famous poem may be justified.


As a starter, let us consider a surprising, recent news release, which was boldly captioned, at least in the local papers, as follows: "Move Over, Tarzan: Anthropologist says army of apemen slaves only a test tube away." Composed by Uli Schmetzer of the Knight-Ridder News Service, the essay depicted a dean at Florence University, Brunetto Chiarelli, who had announced that "biogenetic scientists, using refined techniques of artificial fertilization, are capable of creating a new breed of slave, an anthropoid with a chimpanzee mother and a human father." If true, it would appear that the half-man, half-beast figure from Yeats's apocalyptic poem is now about to be born indeed (or toward the end of this century, at any rate, as the poem decrees). Was Yeats, then, being proleptic in more ways than one?

Before refining the possible validity of such an analysis of the poem, we might scrutinize more closely the seemingly science-fiction ambience for this unusual prediction. Evidently, the news release was expected to have rather sensational impact, as revealed in the opening, one-sentence paragraph: "The image of the mad scientist with the white beard concocting an apeman in his laboratory is no longer a science fiction fable but a 1987 possibility." The reader is likely to recollect not only such a film as Planet of the Apes, but all the commotion in the past about a presumed "missing link," a likewise conjectured creature in the evolutionary chain containing substantial characteristics of both beast and human. This hypothesis most probably formed part of the background for Yeats's anthropoid-like effect, as did a somewhat comparable poem by Browning, "Caliban upon Setebos."

After the initial, attention-getting claim, the news report then provided an important (and probably mainly expected) qualification: that "the experiments on the new subhuman species had been interrupted at the embryo stage because of 'ethical problems,'" These vague desiderata were not formally spelled out, but most readers may well posit what they could be, particularly for Christians wary of accepting evolutionary or Darwinian principles. Indeed, as a university colleague of mine somewhat conservatively yet pointedly expressed it: "Would the Pope allow such a creature to have an abortion?" When I acquainted others with this news item, responses were, for the most part, skeptical. Yet Dr. Chiarelli had added that genetic researchers have now successfully crossed species which actually are "genetically more diverse than man and ape," so that such an embryo may in fact already have been created in this country. (No evidence for the second assertion, however, was produced.) Another reader revealed to me no real surprise at the revelation, having only this dry, rather captious response: unemployment is bad enough already; anthropoids doing odd jobs, as it were, would succeed only in making conditions worse. Finally, the obvious analogy of modern interest in cloning humans also came to mind, even as such experimentation is also still tentative and open to some doubt.

The real problem to be confronted in this paper is not how to arrive at any finalized verdict about the feasibility of such a creation, but rather to see what propitiatory illumination it might indirectly shed on Yeats's symbolic image. Ethical concerns about a potential anthropoid reflect critical concerns about the rough beast's identity. How mythical, for example, is it? Although many readers, perhaps most, upon first perusal have associated the monstrous image with evil, specifically with the Anti-Christ (so described in the Apocalypse), others have pointed rather to the grotesque connection poetically established between this symbol and the birthplace of the Savior. In a word, the conflated image is also bewildering, not a clear-cut case of something wicked.

The effect upon some readers has been curiously unaesthetic for that reason, even repugnant. (For what it may be worth, the same latter term was incidentally also used in the news release to cite what a noted Italian scientist felt about the proposed anthropoid.) To those purists who would object to any presumably wholesome collocation of "rough beast" and "Bethlehem," though, it can be objected, in turn, that Yeats's style allowed for just this sort of juxtaposition. In other words, if the adjective "rough" strikes some readers as pejorative, others can defend him for his clever use of Expressionistic style. In short, one's aversion to the beast's roughness may be deemed too precious, let us say, to be in keeping with modernist poetic experimentation; it too easily can reflect a penchant for prettiness, for the sentimentally picturesque instead of for the strong, bold, masculine, and innovative. So, in terms of the modernity of the image, to associate the "rough beast" and the potential anthropoid may be to cope with analogous aversions, but at the same time such a conjunction could be looked at more objectively as advancing man's knowledge of the unknown, both imaginatively and scientifically; from this perspective, the beast might well be taken as a metaphor even for science itself—not to mention, at the same time, strong humanistic reaction to the encroachments of "scientism." Thus the bestial effect can be paradoxical in more ways than one.

In any event, Yeats's rough image may rightly be termed notorious. Because he himself most probably did not consciously envisage precisely an anthropoid in creating his provocative poem, we ought first to try to look at it figuratively from his artistic perspective. Whereas the standard scholarly gloss relates it to his peculiar, cyclical understanding of history (one rather akin to Spengler's),1 to which he allowed himself to accommodate certain occult features of Christian lore (without thereby assuming a formal religious stance), the creature at the end need not be contained in his personal brand of mysticism alone. For that would be too reductive. Clearly it has a distinctive bearing on the biblical Anti-Christ, but as mentioned earlier, this poetic beast is not only antithetical to the gentle Jesus, but is to be born at His very birthplace—a seemingly tasteless correlation.2

In answer to this criticism, we might note first that by using vague qualifiers like "some" and "somewhere" Yeats deliberately blurred his imagery, thus not allowing the reader to pinpoint the overall effect in too theologically exact a manner. Another possible response is that even though the beast travels to Bethlehem to be "born," this itinerary represents only a way by which the Anti-Christ is to make others try to follow him (thereby having them infer that he is the real Christ come again). A further reply is that the beast will not turn into the Anti-Christ (thereby be "born") until he comes into conflict with the real Christ at Bethlehem (which would then be renamed Armageddon). In any event, whether Yeats's enlisting of apocalyptic raw material necessarily motivated his own final effect has now to be determined. For example, his conception of Christ's "rocking cradle" having already vexed "to nightmare" the Classical Age preceding Him would not so easily be in strict keeping with traditional Christian interpretation. For the Savior went on record resolutely assuring His followers that He came to fulfill and not deny in the process. Hence, in one sense, Yeats's conception of Christ here is as off-kilter as his Anti-Christ.

In my previous, brief explication of the "rough beast,"3 I have contended that the image was probably meant more symbolically in modern terms than biblically. Because it relates to the sphinx in Egypt, it very likely stood for something characteristically African, indeed even for the "dark continent" itself as coming into its own as a power to be reckoned with toward the latter part of this century. True, the seemingly negative images associated with the animal, at first glance, might not pay much of a compliment to the emergence of the Third World; nonetheless, a clear precedent for such a romanticized reading is discernible already in Blake's "The Tiger," even as both Blake and Yeats can easily provide useful glosses on Eliot's similarly provocative image of "Christ the tiger" in Gerontion. (It is, further, a commonplace that Yeats's beast was partially based on Blake's.)4 Again, if such a correlation is apt, Yeats might again be taken to task for it because of its primitive approach to the Third World. Whatever the case, his own later verdict, that his beast was symbolic of totalitarianism, has been construed as a "dubious afterthought" of his.5 Perhaps this is so because there is nothing necessarily "socialistic" about his beast and because both fascism and communism have condemned the sort of Expressionistic art Yeats was constructing, preferring "calendar art" in its place. Moreover, he is well known for advancing his own "crypto-fascist, neo-feudalist" program,6 so it would be a bit ironic, to say the least, if he was condemning such reactionary tendencies in his most famous poem.


In order to come to better terms with the "rough beast," which in the final analysis may not be fully intellectualizable, admittedly, I should like to propose first an interpolative amendation and thereby closer connotative study of the key name Bethlehem (in contrast with Babylon, the locale traditionally linked with the Anti-Christ). The proposed interpolation offered is the implicit insertion of the word his in brackets before Bethlehem in the final lines. Such a qualifier would set off the traditional birthplace of Christ with the "new" locale set forth in the lyric. An inserted his was most probably understood implicitly anyway, but, obviously because of the meter, would not be actually allowed. The point of the emendation would then be to suggest that the beast's own poeticized Bethlehem will hardly be quite the same as Jesus's.

As for the names themselves, let me offer a few pointers which may be instructive, ones not put in print before, to my knowledge. The first is that Babylon conjures up "baby lion" (the letter "i" being another interpolative emendation, one silently understood). Because the beast is described as part lion, even as the name of Babylon is linguistically "part - l(i)on," that city has its claim to the "rough" aspects of Yeats's final image. But then, why, it might well be asked, did not he write Babylon here instead of Bethlehem? Evidently he did not because his effect was meant to be more than biblical. Or, in another sense, the beast was to be construed as relating to Christ Himself! It may do so if the familiar "Lion of Judah" "slouches" into the final scene. That view may appear a bit extravagant, but it has by no means gone by the board,7 and because Ethiopia has been termed the land of the Lion of Judah, the symbol of Africa again would come into the poetic picture.

The question here is whether something only part lion, like the rough beast, qualifies at all for consideration as the full-fledged Lion of Judah. It would seem at first that a being which is half-man and half-beast would make more sense as a contrast to Christ as truly man and truly God. Still, whether contrast or simple analogy is more pertinent is hard to say.

In short, then, a final connotative association, one related more to occasion and intent, seems in order. Perhaps the Bethlehem involved referred not so much to the Near Eastern purlieu as to one much closer to home geographically. In the British Isles the label commonly designated a well-known hospital for the insane, one shortened, in ordinary parlance of course, to Bedlam. If Yeats had had that commonplace connection on the back of his mind, it would explain a lot. And the association was then so obvious that it would hardly need to be proven in black and white. The poem as a whole details a state of chaos extant suggesting a psychotic atmosphere rather than the calm haven of the Prince of Peace. Further, because of Yeats's Irish background, he may have wished to convey thereby a tone of confusion, what is popularly called Irish blarney, in his tantalizing, riddling image as well. At least such a modernist reading would have the net effect of saving the end of the verse from being seemingly contradictory in its apparently ruthless juxtaposition of antithetical elements from Scripture alone. And it is not quite a canard that way either, the Irish element notwithstanding. Although the emendation proposed before Bethlehem, namely his, can be silently understood and not introduced into an oral presentation, the locale itself might well be read as Bedlam without altering the orthography.

As a final code, somewhat corroborating this point is another recently suggested to me, namely that the speaker's bewilderment is expressed not only in the riddling final line, but in the repetitive quality of his doing a double-take in citing the phrase "the Second Coming" twice earlier (11. 11-12). This almost nervous effect would point, I submit, to imaginative accommodation of biblical material to other sources, not to mere exegesis of dogma (which would call for simple assertion). In any case, Yeats was not himself Christian in any orthodox sense. In his Autobiography, he tells of giving instead "much time to what is called the Christian Cabala"; he insists that modernist souls like his had "hearts that Christianity, as shaped by history, cannot satisfy."8 It would seem rather reductive therefore to limit the "rough beast" and its Bethlehem merely to orthodox Christian antecedents.


1 It is helpful to read the poem in connection with A Vision. See also Russell E. Murphy, "The 'Rough Beast' and Historical Necessity: A New Consideration of Yeats's The Second Coming,'" Studies in the Literary Imagination, 14 (1981), 101-10 (from a special issue on the occult). Murphy related Yeats's vision cogently to Nietzsche's, noting that national socialism had perverted the German philosopher's philosophy.

2 Richard Ellmann, in The Identity of Yeats (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), finds it "shocking" (p. 257).

3 "The Second Coming of Guess Who?: The 'Rough Beast' as Africa in 'The Second Coming,'" Notes on Contemporary Literature, 6 (November 1976), 7-9. Comparable is Richard P. Wheeler, "Yeats' 'Second Coming': What Rough Beast?" American Imago, 31 (1974), 233-51. Wheeler also takes a psychological approach. On the poem's sphinx as symbolic of Africa, cf. Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 1450 to 2000 (Chicago: Third World Press, 1974), p. 74. Much as I admire the spirit behind this book, I confess that to ascribe the sphinx's flat nose to a black man and thereby to reject "Caucasoid" features is to demote the standard view that the Pharaoh's nose was broken off or worn away with time. But he may be right.

4 Hazard Adams, Blake and Yeats: The Contrary Visions (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1955), pp. 236-40.

5 Harold Bloom, Yeats (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 320-21. Yeats referred to the poem in 1938 as having "foretold what is happening." See his letter of 8 April 1938 to Ethel Mannin, in The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (New York: Macmillan, 1955), p. 851.

6 See Martin Seymour-Smith, Who's Who in Twentieth Century Literature (New York: McGraw Hill, 1976), p. 406. John Harrison, in The Reactionaries: A Study of the Anti-Democratic Intelligentsia (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), is harsh on Yeats for his political views but goes too far. See my review article in Journal of Human Relations (Central State University), 17 (1969), 138-45.

7 For what it is worth, this leonine connection was first brought to my attention by a Catholic nun, a Sister who happened to have previously delivered a paper on the "rough beast" image as a distinct allusion only to the Anti-Christ. Even she was subject to second thoughts on this issue, to creatively new second comings.

8 References are to Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Stange, eds., Victorian Poetry and Poetics, 2nd ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), pp. 773, 776.

Edward Proffitt (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: "Yeats's The Second Coming'," in The Explicato r Vol. 49, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 165-6.

[In the following essay, Proffitt contends that the "rough beast" of "The Second Coming" refers to the offspring of the sphinx-like desert creature in the poem.]

Yeats's "The Second Coming" must be one of the most widely explicated and paraphrased of poems. Still, its closure remains a mystery. If the "rough beast" spoken of at the end is the sphinx-like creature of lines 13-17, how can it be going to be born in Bethlehem when it has already been born in the desert? Indeed, how could any creature slouch toward the place where it is to be born?

Readers of the poem characteristically fudge this difficulty. For instance, in his otherwise exhaustive treatment, Richard P. Wheeler gets around the problem (ironically, because part of his title comes from line 21) by saying nothing about it at all or about the last two lines ("Yeats' 'Second Coming': What Rough Beast?" American Imago 31 [fall 1974]: 235-51). I, too, have fudged the matter when teaching the poem by saying, as other readers have held, that the beast is physically born in the desert but is to be born spiritually in Bethlehem. But that is a most unsatisfying conclusion. A. M. Gibbs comes closer to a satisfying solution in speaking of the "sexual hint in the ominous description of the beast 'moving his [sic] slow thighs'" ("The 'Rough Beasts' of Yeats and Shakespeare," Notes and Queries 17 [fall 1970]: 48-49). By focusing on the desert creature and its thighs, I have come, I think, to a tolerable solution.

In The Riddle of the Sphinx (London: Hogarth Press, 1934), Geza Roheim states that "The Sphinx .. . is the father and mother in one person" (22). There is our clue. Yeats's creature, though specified to have "the head of a man" (no such specification, of course, would be needed if the creature were simply to be taken as male), is female—as the focus on the "slow thighs" suggests—as well as male, or "the father and mother" at once. So, what "Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born" is not the desert creature but its child, slouching in utero in the fetal position. That makes sense. Moreover, this reading is much more frightening than any other I know, and Yeats clearly intended to convey a sense of fright. For we are left with no idea as to what the creature to be born will be. We are given a glimpse of the parent, but then "The darkness drops," and we are left to wonder how much more terrible its offspring might be. This reading also uncovers a symmetry between Mary and the creature that reflects the poem's title and makes it particularly appropriate.

All in all, by taking the poem's last line—"Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born"—to refer to the offspring of the desert creature rather than to the desert creature itself, we can conclude that Yeats's closure both makes sense and is satisfying. Its complexity, once understood, makes the poem seem especially rich and worthy of our attention.

Seamus Deane (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "The Second Coming': Coming Second; Coming in a Second," in Irish University Review, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1992, pp. 92-100.

[In the following essay, Deane studies "The Second Coming" in relation to the accompanying poems of Michael Robartes and the Dancer, concentrating on its combined sexual and historical themes.]

Yeats's famous poem "The Second Coming" is concerned with an ending and a beginning, both of them so interfused that it is scarcely possible to say where the distinction between them can be found.1 The poem does indicate the moment when they appear to disengage. "Hardly are those words out / When. . . . " The phrase "The Second Coming" has just been completed for the second time when the action of that coming commences with the "vast image". Indeed these first eleven lines have several repeated words and phrases: "Turning and turning", "falcon / falconer", "loosed", "surely", "at hand".2 Further, the definite article, used eleven times, is strategically important in the establishment of the pattern of repetition. It insinuates a complicity with the reader, a knowingness. We can specify what the falcon, the tide, the ceremony, the best, the worst are because the surrounding poems of the volume Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) tell us. In the vicinity of "The Second Coming", poems like "The Leaders of the Crowd", "Towards Break of Day", "Demon and Beast", "A Prayer for my Daughter", "A Meditation in Time of War", "To be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee" provide a narrative sequence of which "The Second Coming" is an integral part. They help us to know what "the ceremony of innocence", "the worst" and all other agents and conditions of the poem's action are. As is always the case, a Yeats poem is, in a sense, a quotation from the volume in which it appears. Michael Robartes and the Dancer has a group of poems at its centre about Easter 1916 and "The Second Coming" is reputedly about the Russian Revolution of 1917. Both of these political moments are dramatised as part of a larger theatrical dispute that dominates the whole volume. It takes the usual Yeatsian form of a collision between opposites out of which might come unity or, more likely and less heroically, release from the trial of strength between them into a limp, exhausted freedom. It is the sort that he writes of in "Demon and Beast", when a floating (not a soaring) bird could please him:

Being no more demoniac A stupid happy creature Could rouse my whole nature.

The "freedom" he wins from "hatred and desire" is not gratifying.

Yet 1 am certain as can be That every natural victory Belongs to beast or demon, That never yet had freeman Right mastery of natural things, And that mere growing old, that brings Chilled blood, this sweetness brought;

Freedom is a poor thing compared to the bestial and/or demonic energies that create the force field in which we live most vitally. This casts some light on the group of poems about the Easter rebellion ("Easter 1916", "Sixteen Dead Men", "The Rose Tree", "On A Political Prisoner" and, less directly, "The Leaders of the Crowd"). It is not freedom, its legitimacy or otherwise, that concerns Yeats. It is the energies that fought for it, the demonic return to Ireland of what he believed to have been effectively repressed, even though the last two poems in this sequence would seem to indicate that he believed the repression had been renewed in the intervening five years and that the abstract mind had taken over again. But "Easter 1916" is, in an ambiguous, questioning way, wondering if the rebellion had been a Second Coming of the daemonic that had then yielded to its malign intimate, the Bestial, represented by the Blackand-Tan atrocities in the War of Independence and by the era of bloodshed that included the First World War and the Russian Revolution. The ambiguity is not wholly centred on the Easter Rebellion as such. It arises from the distinction that this book struggles to make between Demon and Beast, between a violence that is renovatory and one that is destructive. These impulses are so intertwined that they can scarcely be separated. But it is in such a struggle that humankind achieves its greatness. Freedom is what is left after the struggle is over, "mere growing old".

"The Second Coming" poses a question in the form of a prophecy; equally, it proposes a prophecy in the form of a question. The prophetic element, the vision of the stirring to life of the Rough Beast from its two-thousand year long sleep, almost overrides the question, since it implies catastrophe in so unmistakable a fashion that there is no room left to doubt that this is a demonic energy that has, through repression, become bestial. The echoing of the Book of Revelation (in specific words and phrases like "loosed" and "at hand" as well as in the title, repeated twice in the poem, and in the biblical geography) confirms the impression of terror. But the Beast is not imitating Christ's Second Coming at all. It is imitating his first coming, by going to Bethlehem to be born. The second coming is a rerun of the first, not an analogue for the biblical Second Coming. It is, in a very specific sense, like the Beast of Revelation, an Anti-Christ, a reverse image of the First Coming but not a prelude to the Second.

It is here that the element of questioning begins to reassert itself against the element of prophecy. This "Egyptian" beast is going out of bondage over to Palestine to be born. The double biblical reference here—the liberation of the Jews from Egypt and the Flight into Egypt of the Holy Family—collaborates with the tropes of secondness and of reversal of direction that dominate the poem. The manner of the Beast's going ("slouches") is important. But it has already come to life; in what sense then will it be born—or born again? Will it be reborn as the thing it is, or will it be reborn as something different? It would seem that this nightmarish vision can only be known for what it is when it is interpreted, when the Rough Beast of the dream is born again as something which represents what was "vex'd to nightmare" by the "rocking cradle". The manger, mutated into a rocking cradle, a domestic and familial object, emblematic of a nursery peace and comfort, is, in this guise, an oppressive emblem. Christianity oppressed, suppressed or repressed demonic energies that have now gone bad. In their release they bring destruction with them. But it is a release. This peculiar version of the second coming may, after all, have its redemptive component within it because the therapeutic moment has arrived. The unconscious has finally spoken. The phrase that, in Christian belief, signalled the end of human history, has precipitated the beginning of another phase, one dominated by those very energies that had been hitherto occluded. It is a very potent question after all what this Rough Beast is or what it will become when it reaches its Bethlehem, its symbolic place, to be born again in the human imagination. Yeats spent so much of his life in the pursuit of those deep energies of the occult, almost cancelled in the modern world, that he could scarce forbear to cheer their sudden rearrival, however apocalyptic the form it took.

The second coming is bestial but it is also vague. It is "a vast image", "a shape"—the first nouns in the poem preceded by the indefinite article. Just as the definite article worked its effect by insinuating a complicity with what is known, so the indefinite article conversely achieves its contrasting effect by enhancing the sense of something unknown, the more sinister for being indefinite. It is also the more sinister for being a private, personal symbol. Yeats's own presence comes into the poem at the strategic moment when the first eight lines of what could have been a sonnet like "Leda and the Swan" are resumed, not into a sestet, but into a full sonnet. We not only have a sonnet and a half, we have an aborted sonnet that is then reborn as a full one, as the poem itself comes for the second time, brought to its full formal strength by the sudden intervention of the poet who now reveals himself to be the speaker:

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out...

The words are spoken and suddenly, in a flash, the vision comes. It comes in that second after speech and belongs to sight. The poem began with the falcon that "cannot hear"; it breaks at a critical point into speech and then continues as sight, vision. But the vision is, paradoxically, the more indelible for its vagueness. It is a personal vision but it is also public, since it is both a shape that is emerging from "somewhere" in the desert, and it is also recognisably the Egyptian Sphinx. At least, it is Sphinx-like, traditionally mysterious and yet known. But it is also a repetition. This creature too, like the apocalypse that has seized Europe, is announced by the wheeling birds, whose punning action ("Reel shadows") reiterates that of the falcon.

Still, this is not only a second coming, it is a coming that is second to a previous one—or, rather, to several previous comings that belong both to this poem and to the volume in which it appeared. In "Solomon and the Witch", "An Image from a Past Life" and "Under Saturn" images return, prophesying something ominous. The cockerel in "Solomon and the Witch" that "Crew / Three hundred years before the Fall" crows again because he thought

'Chance being at one with Choice at last, All that the brigand apple brought And this foul world were dead at last.'

The cockerel may be mistaken. As the Witch points out,

'Yet the world stays.'

So, replies Solomon,

'Maybe an image is too strong Or maybe is not strong enough.'

The female lover in "An Image from a Past Life" puts her hands over her beloved's eyes to conceal from him the female image from a past life that she cannot understand, knowing only

... I am afraid of the hovering thing night brought me.

In "Under Saturn", the return image is that of an ancestor who died "before my time" and is yet "like a vivid memory". The labouring man "who had served my people" cried out:

'You have come again, And surely after twenty years it was time to come.'

It would seem that the cry was addressed to the poet himself, reincarnated as his ancestor, returning now to "that valley his fathers called their home." Later in the volume, "Towards Break of Day" the lovers dream, he of a waterfall on Ben Bulben, she of the white stag of Arthurian legend. The question is,

Was it the double of my dream The woman that by me lay Dreamed, or did we halve a dream Under the first cold gleam of day?

What all these poems have in common is a questioning of the status of the vision. They are enactments of the issues raised in the fictional correspondence between Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne that Yeats cited in his 1921 note to this volume. In his analysis of dreams, Robartes claims that "the followers of Kusta-ben-Luki"

. . . distinguished between the memory of concrete images and the abstract memory, and affirm that no concrete dream-image is ever from our memory.

In a later passage, Yeats cites Robartes writing to Aherne in a letter dated 15 May 1917:

'No lover, no husband has ever met in dreams the true image of wife or mistress. She who has perhaps filled his whole life with joy or disquiet cannot enter there. Her image can fill every moment of his waking life but only its counterfeit comes to him in sleep; and he who classifies these counterfeits will find that just in so far as they become concrete, sensuous, they are distinct individuals; never types but individuals. They are the forms of those whom he has loved in some past earthly life, chosen from Spiritus Mundi by the subconscious will, and through them, for they are not always hollow shades, the dead at whiles outface a living rival.'

These forms he calls the Over Shadowers. The same "subconscious will"

. . . selects among pictures, or other ideal representations, some form that resembles what was once the physical body of the Over Shadower, and this ideal form becomes to the living man an obsession, continually perplexing and frustrating natural instinct. It is therefore only after full atonement or expiation, perhaps after many lives, that a natural deep satisfying love becomes possible, and this love, in all subjective natures, must precede the Beatific Vision.

Yeats goes on to say that he does not think he "misstated Robartes' thought" in allowing the woman and not the man of "An Image from a Past Life" to see the "Over Shadower or Ideal Form". Images, he says, "in moments of excitement . . . pass from one mind to another with extraordinary ease." Thus,

The second mind sees what the first has already seen, that is all.

As a commentary on the love poems of Michael Robartes and the Dancer, this is all quite helpful. Robartes and the Dancer, Solomon and the Witch, the "He" and "She" of "An Image from a Past Life", are engaged in a very Yeatsian kind of love talk—post-coital discussion of how to overcome the sense of imperfection and separation that has been exacerbated by a dream, a vision, an allegory:

In this altar-piece the knight, Who grips his long spear so to push That dragon through the fading light, Loved the lady; and it's plain The half-dead dragon was her thought, That every morning rose again And dug its claws and shrieked and fought.

This is a dragon that has to be killed over and over; Solomon and the Witch must also make love again in the hope that the language of a real, not a false coming (or crowing) may be heard. Repeated love, repeated sexual climax is part of the process of atonement, the purgation that will perhaps some day make the Beatific Vision available. But Robartes has not completed his system. Aherne has to be shocked into the further realisation that

The mind, whether expressed in history or in the individual life, has a precise movement . . . and this movement can be expressed by a mathematical form. .. . A supreme religious act of their (the Judwalis') faith is to fix the attention on the mathematical form of this movement until the whole past and future of humanity, or of an individual man, shall be present to the intellect as if it were accomplished in a single moment. The intensity of the Beatific Vision when it comes depends upon the intensity of this realisation.

This passage leads on to the well-known characterisation of the intersecting cones and gyres, outward and inward sweeping, with the contemporary world reaching its greatest and fatal expansion, preparing

not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash, though in a flash that will not strike only in one place, and will for a time be constantly repeated, of the civilization that must slowly take its place.

The historical turn, like lovers, has to come again and again; with each flash of contact, the images appear, slowly emerging out of phantasmagoria to achieve their full form in a mathematically defined system. These images have to keep coming. They are never originary, since they have taken their form, inverted, from what has gone before and is now at the point of exhaustion. They are always coming second, and they come in a second, in a flash, and each sexual-historical lightning strike produces an image that may or may not be sufficient to represent the end of life and history. The only vision that can represent that is, per impossibile, the Beatific Vision which does not represent anything but itself, which simply is.

Nevertheless, the poem "The Second Coming" is clearly a hellish vision. Just as it has its anticipations within the volume in which it occurs, it also has its anticipations in history, some of which are visible in the early drafts. The Russian Revolution of 1917 has, as its great prefiguration, the French Revolution. The degree to which Yeats drew upon and concealed his sources in Burke, Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth, Nietzsche and others has been well-documented as has the contribution of his early experiments with MacGregor Mathers in the Order of the Golden Dawn.3 He envied the women of the circle for their capacity to form vivid mental images. Patrick J. Keane tells us that in the experiments with Mathers, Yeats reported that for him

. . . 'sight came slowly, there was not that sudden miracle as if the darkness had been cut with a knife, for that miracle is mostly a woman's privilege.' This simile reappears in the drafts of the clairvoyant section of 'The Second Coming'. Groping for figurative language with which to introduce the mysterious moment just prior to the vision of the vast image rising up out of 'Spiritus Mundi', Yeats first wrote: 'Before the dark was cut as with a knife.'4

The "woman's privilege" is repeated in the vision of this poem. We know that Yeats was deeply affected by Burke's lament for Marie Antoinette in his Reflections on the Revolution in France and that the sexual mutilation of the Princesse de Lamballe's body was one of the horrific moments of the Terror of September 1792 that registered deeply on him. The murder of the Tsar's family in Russia, the monstrous rebirth there of German Marxism, the drafts that speak of the "second birth" rather than the second coming, the reference to Bethlehem and the inevitable association with the Virgin birth (later reimagined in the Greek fable of "Leda and the Swan"), the fact that the phrase "Rough Beast" is applied by Shakespeare to Tarquín in The Rape of Lucrece5 all give to the second stanza of the poem a more specific inflection of sexual violation, threatened by

A shape with lion body and the head of a man.

Between the idea of a second "coming" and that of a second "birth", the poem reveals its conflict. There is a welcome given to the male coming, to its brute strength, its renewable energy, its destructive power. But there is also a horror at the consequences of its emergence, the suffering of the female figure who is represented only by contextual reference and echo and yet who is the reigning figure over "the ceremony of innocence" celebrated in the succeeding poem, "A Prayer for my Daughter". The second coming of this male force will be a violation that results in a monstrous birth. The hand that rocked the Bethlehem cradle may have, like the Virgin, or Marie Antoinette, or the Tsarina of Russia, ruled the world in some sense. But now the mob-beast has risen in male fury to put an end to all that Christian, familycentred ceremony in a threatening, slouching rapist's walk into the Holy Land that is a dreadful parody of its biblical antecedents.

How differently might we read the poem had Yeats made it, as he made the opening poems of the volume, a dialogue between a "He" and a "She". In this instance, it is the second stanza, the born-again sonnet, that would be spoken by the "She". However, the central point is that the vision of history and the vision of love relationships, both of which are part of Yeats's preoccupation in this book of poems, are superimposed one upon the other in "The Second Coming" and that Yeats's contradictory emotions of horror and welcome are ultimately visible in the poem's inner dialogue between a highly present male voice and an almost wholly concealed female one.

From 1910 onwards, Yeats remained loyal to a double narrative that generated conflict and regenerated energy in his poems. One was the narrative of revival, especially associated with Ireland and the occult; the other was the narrative of degeneration, especially associated with the modern world and science. "The Second Coming" is a poem that produces both narratives simultaneously. It is about the return of barbarism and about the return of the lost energies of the occult. In some respects, the poem wishes to interfuse these, to make one the function of the other; in other respects, it wishes to distinguish them and, further, to dwell on that moment, that split-second, when the distinction becomes clear. The poem (orits final question) is itself lacking in all conviction and full of passionate intensity. The Beast's hour has "come round at last" and this is a matter for celebration. But it is also a ravening beast that threatens violation and endless monstrosity. Caught between two value systems, Yeats represents one as male, the other as female, one as triumphant, the other as horrified, imbricating into the form of the poem itself the ironic admission that the best that can be said is second-best. "Things" could hardly be worse. But the threatened rape, when it does take place in "Leda and the Swan", answers the final question of "The Second Coming" with a question of its own. If the knowledge of the occult is to be reintroduced to the world, then that might be compensation for the destruction that it, vengefully and necessarily, has to bring with it. But in the coming of the Swan,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

If not, the darkness drops again. It all depends on that sexual-historical second in which knowledge comes with power. Otherwise, it will have to wait again for its second coming. And the daemonic, when it comes second, comes as the Bestial. Can the Bestial find a Bethlehem in which it can be born again as the daemonic? That would truly be a second coming.


1 A version of this essay was delivered as the Judith Wilson Annual Lecture on Poetry at Cambridge University, March 1991.

2 All references to Yeats's poems and his commentary upon them are from Richard J. Finneran (editor), W.B. Yeats: The Poems (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1984). The poems of Michael Robartes and the Dancer are on pp. 175-190 and the commentaries on pp. 642-645 and pp. 646-648.

3 Patrick J. Keane, Yeats's Interactions with Tradition (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1987), pp. 72-105.

4 Keane, p. 565.

5 Keane, p. 64.

A. Raghu (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Yeats's The Second Coming'," in The Explicator, Vol. 50, No. 4, Summer, 1992, pp. 224-5.

[In the following essay, Raghu addresses Edward Proffitt's 1991 explication of "The Second Coming." Raghu argues that the "rough beast" of the poem is a mental image or vision, and that the final lines of the poem should not be read literally.]

Edward Proffitt's very original thesis, that the rough beast mentioned in the penultimate line of Yeats's "The Second Coming" is the offspring of the sphinx-like creature of lines 13-17, which was propounded in his note on the poem (Explicator 49.3, spring 1991), definitely makes sense but does not seem to be as wholly satisfying as he claims it to be.

If one accepts the postulate of Geza Roheim, cited by Proffitt, that 'The Sphinx .. . is the father and mother in one person,"1 one has necessarily to reject Proffitt's thesis, as it is only the mother who can carry her child in her womb. The "sexual hint in the ominous description of the beast 'moving his [sic] slow things,'"2 which is seen by A. M. Gibbs and by Proffitt, does not appear to be sufficient to impart the female sex to it. On the other hand, if at all the creature has a sex, it seems to be male: Yeats says that it possesses the head of a man and the body of a lion, not a lioness. Besides, to ascribe the female sex to it, or even to add a female element to its sex, would dilute the terrifying nature of the creature. To see the rough beast slouching in utero in the fetal position, as Proffitt suggests, imposes a rather heavy strain on the reader's imagination.

The twelfth line of the poem makes it explicit that the sphinx-like creature is little more than "a vast image," a mighty mental picture seen by the speaker. This mental picture emanates from Spiritus Mundi, the Yeatsian counterpart of the Jungian collective unconscious, the general storehouse of images common to the race. It is therefore only natural that the speaker cannot specify the exact location of the creature; all that he can say is that he sees it moving "somewhere in sands of the desert." It is not quite accurate to say, as Proffitt does, that we are given a glimpse of the creature. It is the speaker who has a glimpse of the creature, and we are only told about it. The speaker states that the creature "Troubles my sight" making it clear that the vision, notwithstanding its roots in racial memory, is a personal one, something that he shares with no one else.

As the vision comes to an end and "The darkness drops again," the speaker realizes that he has had a preview of things to come. He now knows that the "stony sleep" of each civilization, normally lasting two thousand years, is "vexed to nightmare," that the security offered by every civilization contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and that the specific nemesis of the civilization to which he belongs is the sphinx-like creature seen in his vision, which he now alludes to as a "rough beast."

The two concluding lines of the poem do not form a statement but constitute a question, as is unambiguously indicated by the punctuation mark that brings the poem to its close. The physical identity of the creature is beyond doubt, as the speaker has already seen it in his vision, but he is not certain of its place of birth. Bethlehem, because of its association with Christ, whose second coming is prophesied in the Bible (Matt. 24.3-44, Mark 13.3-37, Luke 21.7-36, and Revelation 6.12-17), appears to be an ironically appropriate birthplace for the beast. Pointing out that a civilization lasts two thousand years from nadir to nadir and that Christ came at the Greco-Roman meridian, Yeats wrote in his diary, "Our civilisation which began in A.D. 1000 approaches the meridian and once there must see [sic] the counter-birth."3

The closure of the poem need not be given too literal a reading. Keenly aware of the physical appearance of the beast, the speaker feels that slouching is the movement most natural to it, and he wonders whether it is now on its way to the town of Bethlehem in order to make its appearance.


1 Geza Roheim, The Riddle of the Sphinx (London: Hogarth, 1934) 22; qtd. in Edward Proffitt, "Yeats's 'The Second Coming,'" Explicator 49.3 (1991): 165.

2 A. M. Gibbs, "The 'Rough Beasts' of Yeats and Shakespeare," Notes and Queries 17 (1970): 48-49; qtd. in Proffitt 165.

3 W. B. Yeats, "Pages from a Diary in 1930," Explorations, selected by Mrs. W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1962) 311.

Karen Marguerite Moloney (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "Re-envisioning Yeats's 'The Second Coming': Desmond O'Grady and the Charles River," in Learning the Trade: Essays on W. B. Yeats and Contemporary Poetry, edited by Deborah Fleming, Locust Hill Press, 1993, pp. 135-47.

[In the following essay, Moloney reads Desmond O'Grady's poem "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River" as a response to the ideas expressed in "The Second Coming."]

In "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River" (Contemporary Irish Poetry 260-62), the narrator, Desmond O'Grady as a young Harvard graduate student, engages in conversation one April afternoon with John Kelleher, professor of Celtic Studies. Nearby runs the gentle but polluted Charles River, whose meandering course assumes, in these stanzas, apocalyptic dimensions: as O'Grady asserts in the poem's first line, the Charles "reaps here like a sickle." The image recalls both the sickle-shaped curve the river makes as it flows past the campus and the tendency of that curve to "harvest" floating debris. The phrase also alludes to a larger harvest, in which death acts the role of "the grim reaper."

This dramatically charged image resides at the heart of O'Grady's setting, in turn the unequivocal center of the poem. Indeed, each succeeding stanza contributes further details to the development of the initial scene. Stanza two introduces us to "the ivy wall,/The clock towers, pinnacles, the pillared university yard," and the adjacent Protestant cemetery. In stanza three, we learn that student crews are rowing down the river; stanza four focuses on "a leafing tree" rooted at the edge of the water; and stanza five mentions that "beyond" can be seen "some scraper, tower or ancestral house's gable end." Stanza six anchors its action "there by the blood-loosed tide"; and in the seventh stanza "The saffron sun sets." Taken together, such details increase our sense that this conversation between professor and student is actually occurring at a particular place and moment. More meaningfully, though, O'Grady's images—remarkably resonant and often, as we shall see, deliberately opposed to one another—stimultaneously assert the poem's challenge to Yeats's prophetic pronouncements in "The Second Coming."

David Perkins notes that largely because Yeats's "achievement and reputation were too great and too much in everyone's mind" (474), he actually had "relatively little" influence on other Irish writers of this century. More accurate, however, is Robert Garratt's assessment that "so essential was the role Yeats played in determining the direction of modern Irish poetry that those poets who followed him, try as they would, could neither ignore him nor escape his influence" (16). Indeed, Garratt's Modern Irish Poetry is largely a study of the various responses of post-Yeatsian poets to the insistent, imperious presence of "the great Yeats, whose long and prolific literary career changed modern literature and made Ireland a land of imagination for readers all over the world" (17). Certainly, even Perkins concedes that while its style may not be Yeatsian, "the work of contemporary Irish poets frequently alludes to specific phrases of Yeats or to his attitudes and opinions" (474). Still, Perkins groups Desmond O'Grady with Joyce, Beckett, Denis Devlin, and Thomas MacGreevy as "Irish poets who lived abroad and adopted international styles" (474-75), and one might therefore expect O'Grady to affect indifference to the earlier poet. Instead, O'Grady invites deliberate comparison with Yeats in his frequently anthologized poem set by the Charles River—and patently validates Garratt's thesis in the process.

Should we be surprised? Yeats himself, after all, did not choose to ignore his own predecessors. Indeed, Harold Bloom's study of Yeats's Romanticism devotes a full five chapters to questions of influence; the pervasive influence of Blake and Shelley is "studied throughout" (vii). Particularly relevant for our analysis here is Bloom's comment that

As much as any other poem by Yeats, "The Second Coming" bears its direct relation to Blake and Shelley as an overtly defining element in its meaning. The poem quotes Blake and both echoes and parodies the most thematically vital passage in Shelley's most ambitious poem, Prometheus Unbound. (Yeats 317)

Specifically, as first pointed out by Margaret Rudd (119, noted in turn by George Bornstein 202, 207), Urizen's "stony sleep" in The Book of Urizen (III.57) reappears in "The Second Coming" as the sphinx's "stony sleep" (19). Even more tellingly, Bloom demonstrates that Shelley's "central insight" (320) in Prometheus Unbound

The good want power, but to weep barren tears. The powerful goodness want: worse need for them. The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom; And all best things are thus confused to ill


—is echoed in Yeats's poem: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" (187).

As Bloom notes, however, what for Shelley was "an insight of the Left. . . Yeats proceeds to appropriate for the Right" (320). "His mind," Bloom explains further,

[was] on the Russian Revolution and its menace, particularly to aristocrats. . . . But unlike his Romantic precursors, Yeats is on the side of the counter-revolutionaries, and his apocalyptic poem begins by seeing the intervention against revolution as being too late to save the ceremoniously innocent. (318)

It would be a neat twist to announce now that O'Grady re-adopts the cause of the left in yet another rewriting of the original Shelley: would that it were quite so simple.

Set side by side, Yeats's rewriting of Shelley and O'Grady's reworking of Yeats do provide the most direct point of comparison between "The Second Coming" and "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River." Consider, first, these lines from "The Second Coming":

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.


Compare them, next, with their transformation in "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River":

Locked in their mute struggle there by the blood-loosed tide The two abjure all innocence, tear down past order— The one calm, dispassionate, clearsighted, the other Wild with ecstasy, intoxicated, world mad. Surely some new order is at hand; Some new form emerging where they stand.


The echoes here of Yeats's well-known lines naturally also adapt Shelley's. More importantly, O'Grady's lines suggest a fundamentally different approach to "apocalypse" than does Yeats's poem.

Perkins may define O'Grady as working outside the traditions of modern Irish poetry, but even O'Grady takes on the master, countering Yeatsian transcendence with echoes of the very language—and techniques, as we shall see—Yeats used to create it. Indeed, both "The Second Coming" and "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River" contemplate a new world order, but with a crucial difference. Where Yeats prophesies the demise of the ruling classes and an age of horrifying violence, O'Grady celebrates personal realization, awareness, and responsibility—for the historically marginalized as well as for the elite, for the left and for the right. More precisely, O'Grady rejects Yeats's vision of a Second Coming, the superimposition of a new historical gyre upon an old, to favor perennially renewable personal vision, as available to the peasant as to the aristocrat. To understand the exact nature of this challenge to Yeats, it becomes helpful now to examine the quality and purpose of the tension generated in the poem among sets of sharply antithetical images.

As in the likening of the Charles River to a sickle, O'Grady's images are often multi-layered. Even more frequently they are also at odds with each other and thus embody the struggle in which Kelleher and his student are caught. In fact, tension and conflict, in my estimate, are the primary source of the poem's rhetorical energy. For example, in the second stanza, the scene to the west is contrasted with the scene to the east, and the cemetery dead vie in our imagination with the living Irish farmer. In stanza three, student rowing crews are juxtaposed against the memory of O'Grady's father on the Shannon, just as John Kelleher's lecturing is set against the memory of earlier history lessons at home in Limerick; and in stanza four, the water and the land are linked in hostile partnership: "The secret force/Of the water worries away the live earth's under-surface" (261). The oxymoronic phrase, "dying conceptual motion," chosen to epitomize the wave's erosive power, also epitomizes the poem's thematic preoccupation with antitheses. The poem is, after all, a record of a conflict between an aging professor's and a young student's views of the past, one contender "dispassionate," if not "lackfing] all conviction," the other "full of passionate intensity," to characterize both using Yeats's counterpart phrases.

Such a pointed interest in opposites is, of course, yet another invocation of Yeats, who, believing with Blake that "without contraries is no progression" (A Vision; see Olney 86-124), muses in poem after poem on the opposing energies of "nature and art, youth and age, body and soul, passion and wisdom, beast and man, creative violence and order, revelation and civilization, poetry and responsibility, and time and eternity" (Perkins 596). O'Grady's knack for mimicry, however, is subordinated in "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River" to a much more intriguing rhetorical purpose, a purpose brought into clearest focus by an analysis of the conflicts pervading the religious imagery in the poem.

The Charles River is described approvingly in stanza one as "living water," and more neutrally but still with respect in stanza four as a "secret force," as well as dismissively in stanza five as a "bitch river" and menacingly in stanza six as a "blood-loosed tide." The Atlantic itself, into which the Charles flows, is, we learn in stanza two, "godless." If "living water" did not so strongly imply a vital, life-giving, spiritual sustenance, reconciling the remaining four descriptive phrases would not be so difficult. One could acknowledge, for example, that "secret force" might suggest, on one level, a classified military unit, or at least an unspecified form of strong and insidious power. "Living water," on the other hand, calls to mind connotations of eternal sustenance and rebirth, certainly to include the Christian rite of baptism; indeed, the phrase can even allude to Christ himself. What is so positively charged a phrase doing in such close conjunction to the more negative descriptions of the river and ocean?

Assuming, as I am, that such an odd juxtaposition does not represent simple Yeatsian parody, the puzzle is further compounded by the poem's seasonal setting. The action of the poem, of course, occurs during spring, the traditional month of resurrection, yet every contemporary poet knows also that "April is the cruellest month" (Eliot 63), and O'Grady embraces this dichotomy. It is April in his poem, yet the sun "sweeps flat as ice," and although "the spring air . . . thaws," it is "still/Lean from winter." Moreover, the thawing graveyard clay and "harvesting" river of stanza one actually host a resurrection in stanza seven: "The great dim tide of shadows from the past/Gathers for the end—the living and the dead"; but the resurrection occurs in darkness, processioning shadows among stars. Although the poem's final, climactic line, "All shadows procession in an acropolis of lights," commands rhythmic majesty, the fact remains that shadows are processioning—and shadows, especially a "great dim tide of shadows," however majestic, connote the solemnity and gloom of Hades. Just as spring in the poem is not unequivocally warm and life-affirming, resurrection in the poem is not unquestionably good.

Another disturbing religious crosscurrent emerges when Overhead, far from the wave, a dove White gull heads inland.

Of course, the dove is a traditional symbol of peace, innocence, and gentleness, as well as a widely recognized emblem of the Holy Ghost; the appearance of the word dove in its prominent position at the end of line three is clearly designed to elicit such associations. However, this emphasis is immediately undercut by enjambing "dove/White gull," and the reader realizes with some disappointment that it is a gull, not a dove, that flies inland—a scavenger bird, not Noah's harbinger of hope.

Tension is heightened, then, in stanza four when the ominous shadow of the "leafing tree," "With all its arms, crawls on the offal-strewn meadow." Certainly, the shadow's steady lengthening indicates much more than the passage of time: the tree is also the cross (both crucifix and burden) of traditional Christianity, and its shadow falls over the age, slowly advancing like a riflecarrying soldier crawling across a battlefield.

What purpose is served by such religious allusions and images as these—including the explicit, venerable-in-this-context, Protestant past of Cambridge and the implicit, plebeian-in-this-context, Catholic heritage shared by O'Grady, Kelleher, and the ploughing Irish peasant, their "common [both shared and proletarian] brother"? The answer to this question, I must emphasize, is central to the poet's vision; the key to the answer is the poem's last stanza.

No line in the poem is more straightforward than the line, "All force is fruitful. All opposing powers combine." Neither is another line more weighted with meaning. Here O'Grady declares that the conflicts he depicts in the poem like a fervent Yeatsian apprentice—conflicts between west and east, the dead and the living, memory and the present, water and land, youth and age, water-as-life and water-as-destruction, spring and winter, dove and gull, tree and cross, Protestantism and Catholicism, aristocracy and peasantry—merge, unite, combine, and do so with O'Grady's blanket endorsement that "All force is fruitful." But can one stanza in which direct statements of resolution are made resolve six stanzas of images at war with each other? Perhaps not, if there existed no rich literary tradition for O'Grady to build upon, no Blake, Shelley, Yeats—or Joyce—to whom to add his voice. Such voices, of course, do exist.

"All force is fruitful. All opposing powers combine" is surely a restatement of Blake's "Without contraries is no progression"; recognizing this, we are at once in touch with the familiar existential discussion about the necessity of opposites, not to mention the Jung-prescribed need to integrate the shadow within our own natures. Even so, if O'Grady were to rely solely on this restatement to resolve the ambiguities of the poem's religious images, the conclusion would be disappointingly weak; I would argue, in consequence, that there is no resolution in the poem. In actuality, though, the line is integrated carefully within a final stanza whose striking images and lyrical majesty transcend the conflicts at hand and conclude the poem on a powerfully unifying note:

Dusk. The great dim tide of shadows from the past Gathers for the end—the living and the dead. All force is fruitful. All opposing powers combine. Aristocratic privilege, divine sanction, anarchy at last Yield the new order. The saffron sun sets. All shadows procession in an acropolis of lights.

In "The Second Coming," Yeats's pronouncement that "Surely some revelation is at land;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand" is followed immediately by his vision of the rough, sphinx-like beast slowly approaching Bethlehem. In O'Grady's poem, his own pronouncement that "some new order is at hand;/Some new form emerging where they stand" immediately precedes a great gathering of shadows, "the living and the dead." This is perhaps the ultimate antithetical pair, at least for Yeats, for whom "the ultimate antithesis is that between antithesis itself, as the moral structure of human existence, and a realm or state of being in which all antitheses are annihilated" (Perkins 596).

Another echo in these lines, however, deepens their richness and underscores their ability to reconcile the conflicts of preceding stanzas. In the concluding scene of James Joyce's "The Dead," as Gabriel Conroy lies quietly in his hotel room contemplating that "one by one they [friends, family, acquaintances] were all becoming shades" (223), he himself experiences a powerful form of vision:

. . . he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. .. . the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling (223).

The final, climactic paragraph of the story, then, describes the soft fall of snow over all of Ireland, "like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead" (224). The snow of Joyce's conclusion is absent from the last stanza of "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River," but both scenes link the living with the dead. Apparently, both authors are comfortable with the interdependence of the two forms of entities, perhaps because interdependence can represent a particularly fruitful form of interaction between opposites.

The Joyce passage, certainly, has generated markedly divergent interpretations. Some critics hear in it only a death knell for Gabriel Conroy; "others read the conclusion as a moment when Gabriel is gifted with the selfrecognition and selfless awareness of all humanity denied to the other characters in Dubliners" (Scholes and Litz 303). I personally am persuaded by Florence Walzl, who argues for the validity of both interpretations. In her view, the ambiguity of the passage is utterly intentional. "Every image in it," she writes,

is a symbol, and since each symbol is multi-faceted in reflecting earlier ambiguities, the epiphany allows for either a life or death interpretation. Paradoxical images of arrest and movement, darkness and light, cold and warmth, blindness and sight, are used in this conclusion to recall both the central paralysis-death theme of Dubliners as a collection and the rebirth-life theme of 'The Dead" as a narrative. (431 )

According to Walzl, in order to achieve this complex rhetorical purpose, Joyce deliberately creates paradoxical pairs of images. For example, "in some contexts [Joyce] equates the east with dawn and life and the west with sunset and death, but in other contexts [he] associates the east with the old and sterile and the west with the new and vital" (433).

An equal complexity operates in "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River." In stanza two the Irish peasant is ploughing, "East, over the godless Atlantic." East typically suggests dawn, awakening, resurrection, images associated with viable Christianity; yet, eastward also lies an ocean which is "godless," a term which defies religion. In fact, each of O'Grady's positive religious images is undercut by their darker, religion-defying contraries. The living water becomes a "bitch river," the dove is in fact a gull, and the shadow of the cross crawls menacingly over the two men's conversation, aware somehow that its influence is threatened. The resurrection itself is godless, irreligious. And along with the aristocratic privilege which O'Grady did not inherit (even if he has qualified for a Harvard education) and the anarchy loosed in "The Second Coming," divine sanction (far too often a weapon in traditional Christianity) is superseded in stanza seven by the new order immediately at hand. Religion is superseded in O'Grady's vision of new order.

O'Grady's vision, then, is steeped in irony. Indeed, how could so momentous an event as the ushering in of a new world order be preceded by a mere conversation, even a significant conversation, on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge? Admittedly, O'Grady has endowed the incident with cosmic ramifications by describing it as an "ageless," "mute struggle" initiated "as in some ancient dance." Even so, one strains to visualize a new order ushered in by an incident introduced with a statement like "Walking, John/Kelleher and I talk on the civic lawn." The lines, "Surely some new order is at hand;/Some new form emerging where they stand," result from a professor and student's dismantling of "past order." The irony here satirizes the whole idea of resurrection and religious rebirth into a new world. Really, is it a new world being ushered in? Is a Second Coming presaged?

The answer is, "No." The poem instead recalls the setting for a moment of heightened personal awareness for a young student "mad" for change—and his acceptance, even if only temporary, of personal responsibility for that change as he "abjuref[s] all innocence." The "new form" to replace "Aristocratic privilege, divine sanction, [and] anarchy" is an order as personal to the poet as his struggle with Kelleher while they walk on Harvard's civic lawn. The vision is not Yeats's vision of an apocalyptic Second Coming, but an intensely personal realization, "selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time" (Portrait 212), and, like Gabriel Conroy's, "initiated by a moment of deep, if localized sympathy" (Loomis 417). For O'Grady, this is the only valid order, order which can be renewed not only every two thousand years, but as perennially as the seasons themselves renew and as often as a young man conflicts with an old.

Despite, then, the profound Yeatsian echoes in the poem, O'Grady ultimately aligns himself with Joyce—with whom he shares not only his early Catholic education, but his need as well to leave Ireland and adopt an international outlook. In a way, in fact, O'Grady—with Joyce—represents the achievement of a class of people whose insensitivities and materialism the great Protestant Ascendancy poet railed against and for whom he predicted only disaster. Indeed, if "The Second Coming" prophesies the unfortunate demise of the world's aristocracy with all the customs and ceremonious privileges Yeats so openly valued, then Joyce and O'Grady—in particular the latter with his humble Limerick beginnings—represent in many ways the new men whom Yeats feared. Need Yeats have been so wary? O'Grady may invert the Yeatsian vision, appropriating Yeats's own methods in the process, but he does so with an aplomb that Yeats himself could not have failed to acknowledge. If, in O'Grady's new order, primacy is given to the common man, surely Yeats would have admitted that this common man, at least, deserves it.

"Professor Kelleher and the Charles River" is a vivid, memorable depiction of Desmond O'Grady's version of "new order." His vision emerges out of conflicting images which embody struggle, religious undercutting which vivifies the need at the helm for something other than traditional Christianity, and irony which pushes for the validity of personal experience and insight. This vision may not be as powerful or far-reaching as Yeats's in "The Second Coming," but it is not meant to be. O'Grady's vision is a response to a contemporary, post-Yeatsian world, and although "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River" might be said to chronicle the demise of Christianity that Yeats predicted in his more famous poem, the slouching beast whose reign Yeats also prophesied is conspicuously absent from O'Grady's stanzas. The two poets thus agree that the old ways are coming to an end, but they diverge sharply on the question of what comes next. I for one believe that O'Grady's emphasis on the validity of individual epiphany, particularly in a post-modern world where one can do no better than perennially create new personal order, represents, ultimately, the more relevant response.


Blake, William.A Vision. The Complete Writings of William Blake. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. London: Oxford UP, 1972.

——.The Book of Urizen. The Complete Poems. Ed. Alicia Ostriker. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, 242-58.

Bloom, Harold. Yeats. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Bornstein, George. "Yeats and the Greater Romantic Lyric." Critical Essays on W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1986, 190-207.

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems 1909-1962. London: Faber and Faber, 1963.

Garratt, Robert F. Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Joyce, James. "The Dead." Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, 175-224.

——. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Ed. Chester G. Anderson. New York: Penguin Books, 1982, 5-253.

Loomis, C. C, Jr. "Structure and Sympathy in The Dead.'" Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. By James Joyce, et al. Ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, 417-22.

O'Grady, Desmond. "Professor Kelleher and the Charles River." Contemporary Irish Poetry. Ed. Anthony Bradley. Rev. ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988, 260-62.

Olney, James. The Rhizome and the Flower: The Perennial Philosophy—Yeats and Jung. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1976.

Rudd, Margaret. Divided Image: A Study of William Blake and W. B. Yeats. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953.

Scholes, Robert, and A. Walton Litz. Editors' Introduction. Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. By James Joyce, et al. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, 297-303.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Prometheus Unbound. Anthology of Romanticism. Ed. Ernest Bernbaum. 3rd ed. New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1948, 883-935.

Walzl, Florence L. "Gabriel and Michael: The Conclusion of 'The Dead.'" Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. By James Joyce, et al. Ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, 423-33.

Yeats, William Butler. 'The Second Coming." The Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition. Ed. Richard Finneran. New York: Macmillan, 1983.

——. A Vision. New York: Collier, 1965.

Nathan Cervo (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: "Yeats's 'The Second Coming'," in The Explicator, Vol. 53, No. 3, Spring, 1995, pp. 161-3.

[In the following essay, Cervo explores the prophetic implications of "The Second Coming" with regard to Christian millennarianism.]

Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" was published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), a few years after Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West, which appeared just after the close of World War I and the Balfour Declaration (1917). In a long note on the widening "gyre" (line 1) mentioned in the poem, Yeats observed: "All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not for the continuation of itself but the revelation as in a lightening flash .. . of the civilization that must slowly take its place."1 The outward gyre, Yeats tells us, is unlike the gyre before the time of Christ, which was narrowing. Under the expansive centrifugal force of the outward gyre, "the centre cannot hold" (3): "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" (4).

Although the "anarchy" has been linked to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the "rough beast" (21) slouching "towards Bethlehem to be born" (22) has been spoken of as a prophetic embodiment of Fascism,2 an explication of the word "beast" may show that, in this poem, Yeats foresaw the state of our present culture in the United States ("scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous") and associated the wordly success of this culture with chiliasm.

It is in this connection that the Balfour Declaration may be brought into play to shed some light on the nature of the "beast." In 1917, assisted by the eccentric English colonel T. E. Lawrence, discontented Arabs wrested Jerusalem from the Turks, and in 1918 Turkish resistance collapsed. (Lawrence's revolt in the desert is chimed in the poem by "shadows of the indignant desert birds" [17; the Turks].) The Arabs aimed at a Middle East that was exclusively Arabian. "But in 1917 the British government, trying to rally Jews throughout the world to the Allied cause, issued the Balfour Declaration (named for the foreign secretary) favoring 'the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.' Zionist aspirations and Allied promises thwarted Arab hopes."3

Within the context of the history of Christian millennarianism, Zionism may be said to have a decisive role: "One view of the Antichrist was that he would be a Jewish messiah who would promise to bring the people back to their land. If Christians put any stock in this hope, it was viewed as the Jews' final mistake. Their restoration would be but the prelude to the second coming of Christ and the destruction of the Antichrist."4 The rejudaicization of Jerusalem would amount to a definitive split between the Old and New Testaments. Ironically, its effect would be the same as that envisioned by Marcion, who insisted on an exclusively christianized reconstituted Jerusalem. For Marcion (died c. 163), a wealthy shipowner of Sinope in Pontus who went to Rome (about 140 CE) and founded the semi-Gnostic Marcionites (144 CE), "the historical destruction of Jerusalem meant the final death of the Jewish Creator-God of the Old Testament,"5 a moralistic, yet capricious, despot akin to the Antinomian William Blake's Nobodaddy.

The christology of the Marcionites is of some moment in this explication. In their view, the body of Christ was a mere phantasm. Not only were they anti-Judaic, they were anti-matter, espousing asceticism as their way of essentially spiritual affirmation. Yeats, who assumed the name "Demon Est Deus Inversus" (The Daimon Is God Turned Upside Down) upon his initiation into the Golden Dawn, an esoteric cult, points to the Marcionite nature of the "beast" in his poem "Demon and Beast," which immediately precedes "The Second Coming" in Michael Robartes and the Dancer. In "Demon and Beast," both the ascetic and antinomian notes are struck when Yeats praises the "exultant Anthony [of Egypt]" (46) "[a]nd twice a thousand more [hermits]" (47). Contemptuous of civil society, supported in the West by Roman law, Yeats ends "Demon and Beast" thus: "What had the Caesars but their thrones?" (50). Earlier, Yeats had declared:

Yet I am certain as can be That every natural victory Belongs to beast or demon, That never yet had freeman Right mastery of natural things[.]


"Right mastery" comes from living out the archetypes, from sustaining oneself on the rhizome of the Gnostic Pleroma, the Collective Unconscious, or Platonic anamnesis, of that spiritual race cast into matter and into human boundaries (bondage to matter). The "vast image out of Spiritus Mundi" (12) is such an archetype. Specialized spiritual knowledge is viewed as an instinct of the elite.

In light of the above, the "rough beast" slouching "towards Bethlehem to be born" (21-22) may be identified, within the context of the tremendous dialectic between conventional and unconventional christology that is the subject of "The Second Coming," as "the man of lawlessness" (ho anthropos tes anomias; II Thessalonians 2:3), the "man" (anthropos) here signifying the hermaphroditic, gender-inclusive Gnostic transcendental ideal of the Self. Paul fully teaches (II Thessalonians 2:3-12) that before the second advent, or coming, "the anthropos of lawlessness" must be revealed.

The "rough beast" is pointedly described as a sphinx, an Egyptian monument, "with lion body and the head of a man" (14), because, by means of the poem's ideational dialectic, Yeats wishes to show that "our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization" is begging for a backlash, "a lightning flash": "The revelation which approaches will . . . take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre"6 (that is, from the conventional Christian dispensation). The Judeo-Christian foundation of Western civilization, imitating Jesus ("And he was with the wild beasts"; Mark 1:13), will encounter the amalgamized theosophy of Egyptian esoteric alchemy and transfigure its defiance, producing "the civilization that must slowly take [our present governing culture's] place."


1The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Macmillan, 1989) 493.

2The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol. 2. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962) n. 2, 1355.

3 Crane Brinton, John B. Christopher, and Robert Lee Wolff, Civilization in the West (Part 2: 1600 to the Present) (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1981) 466.

4 Robert B. Eno, rev. art. of Stefan Heid, "Chilasmus und Antichrist-Mythos: Eine fruhchristliche Kontroverse um das Heilige Land," The Catholic Historical Review 80:1 (January 1994): 127-128.


6Collected Poems 493: Yeats's note.

John R. Harrison (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: "What Rough Beast?: Yeats, Nietzsche and Historical Rhetoric in The Second Coming'," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 362-88.

[In the following essay, Harrison focuses on Nietzschean suggestions in the language and imagery of "The Second Coming. "]

In the absence of a thorough examination of the impact on "The Second Coming" of Yeats's historical thought, it is arguable that the meaning the poet intended has not only been consistently overlooked, but that in general the poem has been taken to mean the opposite of what he intended. This essay offers a reassessment of the thought and imagery, of the response Yeats wished to evoke, and of the antithetical rhetoric of his dialectical view of history.

The text provides a striking example of the synthetic technique which produced some of Yeats's finest poems, one which condenses into imagery as much of the poet's thought as is possible but which also creates interpretative problems of which he was fully aware and which he attributed to the compressed, logical rigor of the ideas: "It is hard for a writer, who has spent much labor upon his style, to remember that thought, which seems to him natural and logical like that style, may be unintelligible to others" (Variorum 853). However, Yeats did not believe his philosophy to be either obscure or idiosyncratic; in fact he found confirmation of it in the work of Boehme, Heraclitus, Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Vico and in Neoplatonism and the Upanishads. More surprisingly, he considered the intellectual equivalent of his own imaginative richness of suggestion to be the "packed logic," the "difficult scornful lucidity," of Alfred North White-head, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and subsequently of Philosophy at Harvard, and Bertrand Russell's collaborator on the Principia Mathematica (Letters 714). Russell's "plebeian loquacity" infuriated Yeats who admired "something aristocratic" in Whitehead's mind, a combination of terse clarity and suggestive complexity in thought and expression which he labored assiduously to attain, nowhere more so than in this poem.

Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" at the time he was collecting, from his wife's automatic writing, the material from which he created the philosophical system later set out in A Vision, the "very profound, very exciting mystical philosophy" which was to change radically the nature of his verse, and make him feel that for the first time he understood human life: "I live with a strange sense of revelation. . . . You will be astonished at the change in my work, at its intricate passion" (Letters 643-44). In reality this philosophy was neither completely new nor entirely mystical in origin, but rather a crystallization of what Yeats had read, thought, experienced and written over many years, the result of the process whereby he had "pieced [his] thoughts into philosophy" ("Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen," Variorum 429). Despite Yeats's own conviction that this had produced a striking change in his writing, many critics have demurred. There has often been a reluctance to take Yeats's thinking seriously and, partly as a consequence of this, a refusal to accept that he successfully expressed his beliefs in his poetry, especially a skepticism regarding what Graham Martin has called his "cryptic symbolism" (230). In fact the symbolism in "The Second Coming" is anything but cryptic, except in the limited sense that it embodies some of the most profound elements of his philosophy in a concentrated and complex form which he recognized might prove not immediately intelligible to the reader, but which is entirely logical and consistent. Moreover, it mines a deep and rich vein—literary, philosophical, historical, political and mythical—which has little, if anything, to do with the occult.

The most fundamental question which has to be addressed in any interpretation of the poem concerns the response Yeats invites to the sphinx symbol, which is awesome, frightening, at last seemingly repulsive, yet which I shall contend paradoxically embodies much to which he was intellectually and emotionally committed. Critical opinion has predominantly interpreted the rough beast as a comfortless vision of horror, symbolizing the birth of a "violent, bestial anti-civilization" (Unterecker 165), while often suggesting that the poem as a whole consists of generalizations which do not require, or would not benefit from, detailed analysis.1 Two recent commentaries have underlined the need for a critical reassessment by reiterating such views. In the first Thomas Kinsella asserts that the rough beast is related, visually and verbally, to the imagery and the "brutal diction" of "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen." The passage he quotes refers to atrocities committed by the Black and Tans at Gort in County Galway:

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery Can leave the mother, murdered at her door, To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free; The night can sweat with terror.

(Variorum 429)

In fact there is only a superficial resemblance between these lines and the imagery and "brutal diction" associated with the rough beast of "The Second Coming," in which the contemporary Irish context is inseparable from the wider context of Yeats's intellectual, social and historical perspectives. In the second, Nicholas Drake states that "the rhetorical phrases, repetitions . . . and metaphors are generalizations lacking any specific context" (52-54). On the contrary, this poem is a compelling example of the movement in Yeats's verse towards the concrete and particular, and the perspectives referred to above provide for the language and imagery the specific context which Drake denies exists.

Those critics who have attempted to provide such a context have not pursued the implications of the imagery with the rigor and fearlessness Yeats demanded of himself, which ultimately took him "Ravening, raging and uprooting . . . / Into the desolation of reality" ("Super-natural Songs," Variorum 563).2 To explore these implications fully one needs clearly to identify, and make intelligible, the "natural and logical" thought process incorporated in the language and imagery, and to explore the poem's "imaginative richness of suggestion," what may aptly be called its "difficult scornful lucidity."

Yeats's thought is here compressed into images with an intensity rare even in his work and with a deliberately provocative Nietzschean element of paradox.3 Yeats's interest in Nietzsche was aroused at least as early as September 1902, when his American lawyer friend, John Quinn, sent him his own copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra together with copies of The Case of Wagner and A Genealogy of Morals. The first mention in Yeats's letters is dated by Wade 26 September 1902. He wrote to Lady Gregory: "You have a rival in Nietzsche, that strong enchanter. . . . Nietzsche completes Blake and has the same roots—I have not read anything with so much excitement since I got to love Morris's stories which have the same curious astringent joy" (Letters 379). It was shortly after this, and not I believe coincidentally, that he began to reconstruct his poetic style to give it more "masculinity," more "salt," and to make it more idiomatic. Yeats also annotated John Quinn's copy of Thomas Common's Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, Poet and Prophet, which appeared in 1901. Most of his annotations are on passages from A Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil and Thus Spake Zarathustra. According to Professor Donald Torchiana Yeats's library contained at least the following texts (the dates of English translations are given in brackets): The Case of Wagner (1895), A Genealogy of Morals (1899), The Dawn of Day (1903), The Birth of Tragedy (1909), Thoughts out of Season (1909), and The Will to Power (1909-10). He also possessed Daniel Halévy's Life, translated by his own biographer, J. M. Hone. Professor Torchiana's inspection of the library was hurried and by no means thorough and he acknowledged that there may have been other works by Nietzsche (Thatcher 143). With such a consuming and lasting interest in Nietzsche's work, and considering that he possessed three texts published between 1909 and 1910, it is unlikely that Yeats was not acquainted with Nietzsche's last work to appear, Ecce Homo, first published in German in 1908 and in English in 1911. In the course of this discussion of "The Second Coming" I shall point to some remarkable resonances between the work of these two writers in both language and meaning, while the critical emphasis will of course be on Yeats, not Nietzsche. Moreover, the question of literary influence is far too complex to be addressed here, and I am not in any way suggesting that either Yeats's language or meaning is directly derived from his reading of Nietzsche.

From the outset the poet invites, indeed demands, reference to his philosophic system, the central symbol of which contains two interpenetrating gyres or cones, perpetually in conflict and alternately victorious.4 Whatever mystical origins Yeats may have claimed for this idea, it is a recognizably dialectical, and not necessarily an occult, concept. Despite the importance of this symbolism in Yeats's thought, it is rarely introduced into his poetry as explicitly as it is here; its use is thus a direct pointer to what he intended to be the poem's specific philosophical and historical context:

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

("The Second Coming" lines 1-2)

and throughout the poem bird imagery contributes to a coherent pattern, though not explicitly. In Jon Stallworthy's view the confusion which has surrounded the falcon image is dispelled once we realize that it was originally "hawk," but other connotations suggest that Yeats made the substitution precisely to avoid any association with "a gloomy bird of prey" (Stallworthy 18). Yeats adapted the dramatic description of the eagle that "stares on the sun by natural right" from Chaucer's Parlement of Foules:

Ther mighte men the royal egle finde, That with his sharpe look perceth the sonne.


In the next few lines Chaucer describes the goshawk as "the tyraunt with his fethres donne / And greye" (a distinctly "gloomy bird of prey") while the falcon is "the gentil faucon, that with his feet distreyneth / the Kinges hond." The "falcon-gentle," Middle English "faucon gentil," is the female or young of the goshawk, while in modern falconry the word "falcon" tends to be used only of the female of the species. This does not necessarily make her any less predatory in reality but Yeats would have been familiar with these nuances. The "brazen hawks" of "Meditations in Time of Civil War" are of an entirely different species. There are several falcon echoes throughout the poem but the opening lines have undertones which are typical of Yeats's thought and poetry. The peregrine falcon was the most popular of the birds of prey when falconry was the sport of kings, its fierce alertness and lofty bearing earning its reputation as a bird of nobility. (Chaucer links it specifically with the highest-born.) Thus the separation of man and bird offers a striking image of social and cultural disintegration, not from a simple loss of communication, in itself redeemable and lacking the symbolic dimension required for the anarchic forces it heralds, but from Yeats's anguish at the disruption of the order and cohesion, the homogeneity of the aristocratic society he so admired.

There follows a subtle interplay between this disintegration of the aristocratic ideal, anarchy and violence. Successive drafts of the poem indicate that Yeats had in mind the First World War ("bloody frivolity"), the Bolshevik Revolution (the most striking instance of the destruction of an aristocratic society by egalitarian forces), the threat of anarchy and widespread violence in Ireland, all of which seemed to confirm Nietzsche's predictions, and the prophecies of Macgregor Mathers in the late 1890s, of immense wars accompanied by and followed by anarchy (Stallworthy 18-19). Moreover, Yeats's interlocking gyres are in part an attempt to present his cyclical view of history in visual terms. The cone representing the next and imminent era, the "antithetical dispensation," rises from its base to its apex, and similar pyramidal structures have been widely used to symbolize aristocratic, hierarchic societies; while the inverted cone representing the previous two thousand year cycle, the Christian era, rises to its point of greatest expansion, a widening gyre like the one in which the falcon loses its point of reference. The Christian era had culminated in the egalitarian mass society which Yeats found so distasteful. Historically the "centre," the nadir of the inverted cone, is the birth of Christ, the "first coming." However, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" because Christianity had "dwindled to a box of toys" (Autobiographies 333). In those drafts of the poem which Stallworthy managed to decipher, the blanket-word "things," which seems to have a looseness uncharacteristic of Yeats's drive towards greater precision of statement, is the only word that never changes its form. While it implies that literally everything, the whole social and cultural superstructure, is falling apart, there are other more compact and personal associations which echo the themes already mentioned. Yeats would also have had in mind the disintegration of material objects such as his own Thoor Ballylee, itself a crumbling monument to a threatened culture and incorporating a "gyre" in the form of a spiral staircase.

Violence, which for Yeats was symptomatic of the end of one era and the birth of another, becomes widespread as the inverted cone reaches its point of greatest expansion: "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" as the mass society promulgates its disruptive ideologies, a line that creates a singular effect from the inherent ambiguity of the word "mere" and its surprising juxtaposition with "anarchy." Here it has a primary meaning as a superlative in the sense of "sheer anarchy," suggestive of vastly destructive forces, and a secondary meaning as a scornful understatement, as in the phrase "a mere bagatelle." In an early draft Yeats had written "vile anarchy," which is more emphatic but which lacks the ambiguity and internal tension of the final version. The change was completely successful and provides for the first stanza a controlled center which does hold, and which allows the subsequent images of violence to intensify. It is interesting to identify the thought process by which in successive drafts of the poem the passing of innocence gradually assumes the social and cultural dimensions of the associated imagery, from the straightforward "some innocent has died" through "Old wisdom and young innocence," "The gracious and the innocent," "ceremonious innocence," to the greater complexity of "The ceremony of innocence is drowned." It is clear that Yeats increasingly associated this lost innocence with traditional values ("Old wisdom"), graciousness and ceremony, with what he was later to describe as his chosen theme—"traditional sanctity and loveliness" ("Coole Park and Ballilee, 1931") Immediately after "The Second Coming" in the Collected Poems Yeats placed "A Prayer for my Daughter" whose last stanza reads:

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house Where all's accustomed, ceremonious; For arrogance and hatred are the wares Peddled in the thoroughfares. How but in custom and in ceremony Are innocence and beauty born? Ceremony's a name for the rich horn, And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

(Variorum 405-06)

Innocence is born of "custom and ceremony" which are other names for wealth ("the rich horn") and eminence ("the spreading laurel tree"), for what Yeats revered in the culture of the great houses. Indeed his own contribution to this culture may also be implied as the foliage of the laurel has long been an emblem of poetic distinction. On the other hand "arrogance and hatred" are "peddled in the thoroughfares" by political demagogues, those who "labour for hatred, and so for sterility in various kinds" (Notes to "Meditations in Time of Civil War," Variorum 827). In "The Leaders of the Crowd" Yeats describes these demagogues as slandering their opponents in order to "keep their certainty," which is compounded by a disastrous loss of confidence by those whose position has been systematically undermined by what Yeats calls "Whiggery," a "levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind." The wanton destruction of the great houses, of "all / That comes of the best knit to the best," would never enable "mean roof-trees" to acquire "the gifts that govern men" ("Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation"). The house was Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, both house and owner embodiments of the Ascendancy, the Anglo-Irish tradition Yeats so revered and of which he considered his own family to have been a part. Denis Donoghue has suggested that by this time Yeats had given up thinking of "the Big House" as an emblem of intelligence in active relation to power: "He saw it now as an aesthetic image of defeat, the enslavement of the strong to the weak" (56). This provides a context for the anguished complaint which ends the first stanza:

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

a context in which "the best" and "the worst," words whose meanings are inevitably relative and subjective, echo the sense of the preceding imagery.

Yeats shared the Nietzschean, anti-libertarian view that Christianity had culminated in an egalitarian democracy which, disintegrating into "mere anarchy," could not control the violence, the "blood-dimmed tide," it had loosed on the world, signaling the approach of a new era: "All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilisation belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash . . . of the civilisation that must slowly take its place" (Variorum 825).

Such is the foundation on which he builds the symbolic structure of the second stanza. The revelation is indeed in the nature of a lightning flash and is both intensely personal and explicitly anti-millennarian, shattering the ostensible Christian conviction that anarchy and violence herald the Second Coming. "Hardly are those words out" before he catches his first glimpse of the monolithic sphinx, the "vast image" (originally "lost image") forgotten but surviving in Spiritus Mundi: "Antithetical revelation is an intellectual influx neither from beyond mankind nor born of a virgin, but begotten from our spirit and history" (A Vision 262). For Yeats a "very ancient symbol" was more than a literary device; it was a part of the "dwelling house of symbols, of images that are living souls," and of the "great memory that renews the world and men's thoughts age after age," which he named Spiritus Mundi (Essays and Introductions 79). He bought Thoor Ballylee not because it would make a comfortable home but because the tower, "important in Maeterlinck as in Shelley," was an ancient symbol he could actually live in. Indeed it fulfilled the requirements of a perfect symbol: it visibly existed and had a physical history (Gordon and Fletcher 26). These attributes are shared by the lion-bodied "shape," which, possessing a man's head, is clearly the male Egyptian sphinx, a royal portrait type through most of Egyptian history, symbolizing both the mighty strength and protective power of Egypt's ruler. All the Egyptian sphinxes are representations of Horus, the Egyptian God of Light, who was reborn each day as the rising sun, the symbol of renewed life, and who was also the Egyptian sky-god who took the form of a falcon, a bird whose figure represented his name and was thus sacred to him. There can belittle doubt that Yeats would have been familiar with this mythology; he had even considered introducing the revelation which eventually emerges as sphinx and rough beast with the words, "Surely the great falcon must come." He had long been aware of the sphinx as an ancient symbol, and in the 1890s it had something of a vogue among those symbolist painters he most admired. Charles Ricketts, "my education in so many things" (A Vision 298), had designed Wilde's Sphinx (1894), which is "among the most perfect and wholly characteristic productions of the 1890s," while Moreau's The Sphinx appeared as an illustration in the 1897 volume of the Pageant, a magazine in whose production Ricketts had a large share and in which one of Yeats's stories appeared in 1896 (Gordon and Fletcher 96, 98). Moreover his "instructors" had impressed on Yeats the symbolic significance of the east that had affected European civilization—Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Egypt: "The East in my symbolism .. . is always human power . . . stretched to its utmost" (A Vision 257).

The vast image "troubles" his sight, implying not so much fear as imperfect vision, like a medium's confused first contact with an unknown spirit. Indeed the shape, situated "somewhere in sands of the desert," manages to appear monumental and vague at the same time, while often in Yeats the desert symbolizes the aridity of attitudes he disliked, notably liberal-democratic individualism and Christian-Platonic idealism and other-worldliness (Variorum 828). Plato in separating "the Eternal Ideas from Nature . . . prepares the Christian desert and the Stoic suicide" (A Vision 271), and this contrast between "idealism" and "nature" or "reality"—possibly derived from, certainly confirmed by, his reading of Nietzsche—became a cardinal feature of his philosophy. The creature has a "lion body and the head of a man," a fusion of awesome humanity and potent beast, of intellect and myth; it has "put on his knowledge with his power" ("Leda and the Swan"). All the predominant associations so far (royal sphinx, bird of nobility, king of beasts) are those of majesty and power, and in his notes to the poem Yeats allows his imaginary tribe to voice his own view of the revelation, which "will not come to the poor but to the great and learned and establish again for two thousand years prince and vizier" (Variorum 825).

Thus the sphinx's gaze is "blank and pitiless as the sun," reminiscent of "the lidless eye that loves the sun," the impassive look of the proud, stern, fearless mind of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy ("Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation"). The Christian or humanitarian is likely to find this pitiless gaze repugnant, but Yeats frequently repudiated humanitarian ideals. (He thought Synge necessary to the Irish dramatic movement partly because he was "incapable of a humanitarian purpose.") The debased "primary pity" of Christianity mocks the stoicism of a Swift, a Villon or indeed a Yeats, and contradicts the law of opposites; the Good Samaritan does not need his Lazarus, "they do not each die the other's life, live the other's death" (A Vision 275). Yeats was impressed by Nietzsche's claim that his attack on "die Mitleidigen," "the Pitying," a crucial element in his critique of Christianity, was in the tradition of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Spinoza, La Rochefoucauld and Kant. Zarathustra, for example, warns his followers against pity: "All great love is above all its pity: for it seeketh—to create what is loved. ... All creators, however, are hard" (Thus Spake Zarathustra 102). Thus there is growing tension between a conventional response, pitiless = cruel, for example, and the response Yeats is inviting.

After "twenty centuries of stony sleep" the creature has difficulty "moving its slow thighs," a powerful naturalistic touch applied to the enigma but which also has its function in the poem's symbolic structure: "Does not every new civilisation . . . imagine that it was born in revelation, or that it comes from dependence upon dark or unknown powers, that it can but open its eyes with difficulty after some long night's sleep or winter's hibernation?" (Essays and Introductions 472). Stallworthy suggests that "slow thighs" replaced the "slow feet" of an earlier version because the latter sounded too human (22). It is equally likely that Yeats rejected this borrowing from Ezra Pound's "The Return," which he quoted in full when dedicating A Vision to Pound and in which he found expressed his own excitement at the re-birth or re-discovery of an ancient tradition, of forgotten values, and at the same time a sense of awe at such a fearful experience. The descriptions in this poem anticipate those of "The Second Coming" as unidentified figures return "half-awakened," with "tentative / Movements, and . . . slow feet," reminiscent both of the sphinx's labored progress and of its recent arousal after lying dormant for two thousand years (A Vision 29).

The darkness again obscures the revelation but not before it has engendered his certain conviction

That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle

implying a degree of understanding of the creature's frustration imprisoned in sleep in the Christian desert. Yeats enjoyed the description of the Christian phenomenon as a "fabulous, formless darkness" which blotted out "every beautiful thing," and "the darkness drops again" because the antithetical phases "are but, at the best, phases of a momentary illumination like that of a lightning flash" (A Vision 278, 284). They may even be embodied in some great man; when Yeats and his friends talked of Parnell's pride and impassivity (shared by the sphinx symbol), "the proceeding epoch with its democratic bonhomie seemed to grin through a horse collar." Parnell was the symbol that "made apparent, or made possible . . . that epoch's contrary: contrary, not negation, not refutation. .. . I am Blake's disciple, not Hegel's; 'contraries are positive. A negation is not a contrary'" (Variorum 835). The dialectic of a perpetual conflict between "contraries" or "two principles" provided a historical symbolism which avoided the idea that civilization continually returns to the same point, which implied development while denying progress, and which allowed him to see the world as "an object of contemplation, not as something to be remade" (A Vision 300), freeing him from any hint of reforming zeal. Thus his preference for the coming era was vindicated by historical necessity.

We have still to account for the transformation of the sphinx into the "rough beast" and to justify the view that we are meant to respond to that seemingly loathsome symbol with a mixture of awe and admiration, fear and favor. Yeats himself identified it with his vision of "laughing, ecstatic destruction" (Explorations 393), recalling his description of the "true personality" of Bishop Berkeley as "solitary, talkative, ecstatic, destructive," and thus inviting our approval since Berkeley, because of his opposition to the "materialistic" philosophies of Locke and Newton, represented Yeats's ideal of Irish intellectual achievement (Essays and Introductions 397). Moreover, it is in the nature of the dialectic that one era must end, and the next begin, in violence and Yeats's attitude to violence in his later years is unquestionably ambiguous. In terms of individual suffering he abhorred it; as an intrinsic element of historical necessity he accepted it, at times even welcomed it. Assuming the mask of Michael Robartes and employing a bird symbolism that illuminates the "shadows of the indignant desert birds," he wrote: "Dear predatory birds, prepare for war. . . . Test art, morality, custom, thought, by Thermopylae. . . . Love war because of its horror, that belief may be changed, civilisation renewed" (A Vision 52-53). This reads like Nietzsche at his most provocative and raises the question of whether it should be interpreted literally or symbolically. Although in both Yeats and Nietzsche references to joyful or ecstatic destruction, or indeed to an apparent glorification of war, are deliberately ambiguous, they often suggest the destruction of outdated and outworn beliefs, a "transvaluation of values." Such references are legion in Nietzsche's work. A "definite joy even in destruction" [Nietzsche's italics] is one of the prime conditions of a "Dionysian life-task" and a prerequisite of creativity: "Change of values. . . . Always doth he destroy who hath to be a creator," including self-destruction: "Ready must thou be to burn thyself in thine own flame; how couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes!" (Ecce Homo 113. Zarathustra 74, 79). If anything, Yeats's invocation to love war because its horror can have a regenerative effect is even more provocative than Nietzsche's pronouncements, one of the more notorious of which reads: 'Tour enemy shall ye seek; your war shall ye wage, and for the sake of your thoughts! And if your thoughts succumb, your uprightness shall still shout triumph thereby! Ye shall love peace as a means to new wars—and the short peace more than the long" (Zarathustra 62). I think that in such an instance there is little doubt that what Nietzsche was alluding to was a philosophical "enemy" and a personal, intellectual "war." Yet this does indicate how a philosophy which purports to be inspirational can become imprisoned in its own logical systematization. Those like Yeats who advocate a transvaluation of values do not create new values but substitute opposites in place of those they wish to destroy and Nietzsche was certainly aware of this:

The time has come when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years: we are losing the centre of gravity by virtue of which we have lived; we are lost for a while. Abruptly we plunge into the opposite valuations, with all the energy that such an extreme overvaluation of man has generated in man (Will to Power 20, section 30).

Apart from the fact that this could be read as a gloss on "The Second Coming," consider how Yeats categorized his own transvaluation of values:

After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war (A Vision 52).

The substitutions are deliberate and great care has been taken in arranging the contrasting concepts. Compare this:

A primary dispensation looking beyond itself towards a transcendent power is dogmatic, levelling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace its means and end; an antithetical dispensation obeys imminent power, is expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical (A Vision 263).

To Yeats these were statements of fact, but more significantly they were statements of preference. Accordingly we have these symbolic contraries: a rocking cradle and a monolithic sphinx, the Second Coming and the vast image with an impassive gaze, Bethlehem and beast, since the "new civilisation [was] about to be born from all that our age had rejected" (Explorations 393), and the rough beast is bound for Bethlehem because "each age unwinds the thread another age had wound" (A Vision 270).5

The predictable response to these contraries is likely to be disgust because the emotive impact of the language is determined by the values of the dying era, values nevertheless which Yeats frequently repudiated, sometimes, as in "The Gyres," with "tragic joy":

When a civilisation ends . . . the whole turns bottom upwards, Nietzsche's "transvaluation of all values." . . . Yet we who have hated the age are joyous and happy. The new discipline wherever enforced or thought will recall forgotten beautiful faces. Whenever we or our forefathers have been most Christian—not the Christ of Byzantine mosaic but the soft, domesticated Christ of the painter's brush .. . we have been haunted by those faces dark with mystery, cast up by that other power that has ever more and more wrestled with ours, each living the other's death, dying the other's life (Explorations 433-34).

The poem is in some respects an attempt to achieve a poetic ideal, what Nietzsche called the "return of language to the nature of imagery" (Ecce Homo 106), and Yeats is using language in the same provocative way that Nietzsche did. His antithetical rhetoric creates tension between a conventional response to words with certain accepted moral overtones and the reaction he is inviting. Thus the massed imagery of the second stanza becomes increasingly disturbing, culminating in the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem, a provocative device favored by Yeats, often involving the use of oxymoron or paradox, because belief is not something we desire but comes from shock (Explorations 426). There is the "terrible beauty" of "Easter 1916;" the "turbulent child of the Altar," another symbol for antithetical revelation and a further contrast to the rocking cradle (A Vision 204); his invitation to love war because of its horror and because belief will be changed and civilization renewed; the frightening paradox of the last line of "A Bronze Head," where his extreme pessimism concerning contemporary civilization made him wonder "what was left for massacre to save." Above all there are the dichotomies between the dying and burgeoning eras, in which goodness, democracy and peace will give place to evil, aristocracy and war. To Yeats the reverential attitude to the Second Coming, the rocking cradle and Bethlehem indicated the superficiality of the Christian/Humanitarian viewpoint compared with the fearless acceptance of "reality." This is not to imply that the rough beast holds no terror but that the terror is fundamental to a proper understanding of reality:

I think profound philosophy must come from terror. . . . Whether we will or no we must ask the ancient questions: Is there reality anywhere? Is there a God? Is there a Soul? We cry with the Indian Sacred Book: "They have put a golden stopper into the neck of the bottle; pull it! Let out reality!" (Essays and Introductions 502-03).

Or as Yeats expressed it elsewhere, assuming the mask of Ribh in the last of the "Supernatural Songs:"

Civilisation is hooped together, brought Under a rule, under the semblance of peace By manifold illusion; but man's life is thought, And he, despite his terror, cannot cease Ravening through century after century, Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come Into the desolation of reality.

(Variorum 563)

One of the memorable sensations of Yeats's childhood was seeing a lost design by Nettleship, God Creating Evil,6 a vast, terrifying face, a woman and a tiger rising from the forehead, which seemed blasphemous but at the same time profound: "It was many years before I understood that we must not demand even the welfare of the human race, nor traffic with divinity in our prayers. It moves outside our antinomies, it may be our lot to worship in terror: 'Did He who made the lamb make thee?' ' (Essays and Introductions 425).

The rough beast symbol offers contradictions or contradictory meanings that can co-exist, this being in the nature of the complex form. Yet often in Yeats, as in Blake and Nietzsche, apparent contradictions are complementary aspects of some profound truth. To some extent Blake's lamb and tiger were the inspiration for Yeats's contraries of rocking cradle and rough beast, which do not reflect a clash between Christian values and imminent chaos or a new barbarism, but between the contemporary, orthodox view of Christ and a Christ who "was still the half-brother of Dionysus," a figure partly grounded in myth, a "legitimate deduction" from the creed of St. Patrick. Such a deity embodied that "Unity of Being Dante compared to a perfectly proportioned human body, Blake's 'Imagination,' what the Upanishads have named 'Self: nor is this unity distant and therefore intellectually understandable, but imminent, differing from man to man and age to age, taking upon itself pain and ugliness, 'eye of newt, and toe of frog'" (Essays and Introductions 518). This echoes Nietzsche's references to the Hellene's "longing for the ugly," the resolute will to pessimism, to tragic myth, "to a conception of all that is terrible, evil, mysterious, destructive, fatal, at the basis of existence." This was a manifestation of a transvaluation of aesthetic values and became essential to his own aesthetic of tragedy and the sublime (Ecce Homo 152, 68). Nietzsche admired those he identified as the first European artists with a "universal literary culture," particularly Wagner and the representatives of French romanticism, who were "great discoverers in the realm of the sublime as also of the loathsome and dreadful . . . hankering after the strange, the exotic and the monstrous, the crooked, and the self-contradictory" (Beyond Good and Evil 194-95).7 Yeats was also impressed by such an aesthetic transvaluation; as artistic "synthesis" was being carried to, and beyond, its limits, as the new gyre began to stir, he was excited by the "discovery of hitherto ignored ugliness" (A Vision 300). Thus the rough beast can appear genuinely disgusting as it slouches along and yet even this is a facet of its "divinity." It is perhaps not too fanciful to suggest that Yeats may have had at least at the back of his mind the experience of an acquaintance who, "seeking for an image of the Absolute, saw one persistent image, a slug, as though it were suggested to him that Being which is beyond human comprehension is mirrored in the least organised forms of life" (A Vision 284).

Yeats was convinced that in two or three generations secular thought would have to accept that "mechanical theory" had no reality. Then it might be possible to recapture the sense that, in the words of the Syrian in The Resurrection, there is something human knowledge cannot explain, something of supreme importance that "lies outside knowledge, outside order"—the irrational, the supernatural, myth. Yeats's Christ is a living part of a great tapestry, much older than "the child born in the cavern"; it is the embodiment of his belief that "the supernatural and the natural are knit together." He was sure that this belief would become generally accepted and that it would regenerate European society: "To escape a dangerous fanaticism we must study a new science; at that moment Europeans may find something attractive in a Christ posed against a background not of Judaism but of Druidism, not shut off in dead history, but flowing, concrete, phenomenal. I was born into this faith, have lived in it, and shall die in it" (Essays and Introductions 518). This is not a plea for irrationality, but a desire to redress the balance between mechanical theory and myth, to reach an acceptance of reality of which myth, the supernatural, that something which "lies outside knowledge, outside order," are an integral part. Yeats's critique of Christianity and what he considered its ramifications—humanitarianism, democracy, scientific rationalism—was not an attempt to destroy an old tradition so much as an attempt to revive an even older one, to reassert a morality which Christianity had destroyed, or at least had stood on its head, to recapture a world-view which existed before "the umbilical cord which united Christianity to the ancient world" was cut, in which nobody can say where Christianity begins and Druidism ends.

Nietzsche conceived of Christianity as "hostile to life," an attempt to deny "the doubt and terror of reality." He thus invented a "fundamental counter-dogma," an anti-Christian counter-evaluation of life: "I baptized it, not without some impertinence—for who could be sure of the proper name of the Antichrist?—with the name of a Greek God: I called it Dionysian" (Ecce Homo 140, 156). In the Greek pantheon Dionysus, like Christ, was a God who died and was reborn; he was also a god of vegetation and animal life who took on different animal forms, one of which was the lion. (Cavendish 147).8 We have already seen that the Egyptian sphinx—part man, part lion—was a physical manifestation of just such another God, Horus, also represented by the figure of the falcon and revered as the rising sun, born afresh daily, the symbol of renewed life. Such an intricate pattern of ideas, symbols and myths cannot be coincidental nor entirely unconscious. It is a part of that pattern of thought which seemed to the poet as "natural and logical" as his style, and which gives to the sphinx/rough beast symbol the "imaginative richness of suggestion" that Yeats intended it to have.

"The Second Coming" is emblematic of the astonishing effect Yeats claimed his philosophy was having on both the intellectual content and the style of his poetry, and of the "intricate passion" that was beginning to characterize his work at this time. More than any other poem it marks the change to a more idiomatic use of language, a terse complexity of thought and imagery, an energetic muscularity of rhythm, in a word the "masculinity" he sought to achieve. L. A. G. Strong in a letter to Yeats expressed admiration for his ability to conjure up "with one swift, wrought phrase, a landscape, a sky, a weather and a history" (qtd. in Henn 111), and I have discussed what might be called Yeats's rhetoric of history. The idea of historical recurrence provided him with a consistent, even deterministic, interpretation of past and present and more importantly a prediction for the future. It helped him to come to terms with the violence of the contemporary world as an integral, necessary, even positive manifestation of a period of historical crisis. It also freed him from any suggestion of a revolutionary, or even a reformist, intention since the dialectical movement of history was itself in the process of engendering a civilization of which he could approve. This would be the antithesis of the two-thousand-year Christian era which he believed had culminated politically in a movement founded on Hobbes and popularized by the Encyclopaedists and the French Revolution, and which, having exhausted itself, was useless for centuries to come. However, in his preface to A Vision Yeats anticipated the predictable question and so asked it of himself: did he actually believe in his system, that history fixed from "our central date," the first day of "our era" (the birth of Christ), can be divided into contrasting periods of equal length? His answer was that he regarded them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawings of Wyndham Lewis, or the ovoids in Brancusi's sculptures: "They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice" (25). They were thus the building blocks of his mature aesthetic, one which produced in his late poetry what is probably the finest body of work of any poet writing in English in the twentieth century.

I have attempted to divest the language and imagery of "The Second Coining" of the preconceptions that have been grafted onto it, preconceptions that were not Yeats's, and to explore what he intended to be its suggestive complexity. The following quotation from Richard Ellmann may be taken as indicative of the interpretation of the poem which has gained widespread currency:

In spite of his promise . . . that the next era would be subjective and preferable to the present, the god of that era, who rises from the desert sands . . . is no beneficent Dionysus but a monster. The poet's vision of horror surmounts his vision of the cycles. . . . Whatever the new dispensation can bring, it inspires only a sense of horrible helplessness to avert what no man can desire. . . . Yeats is not fond of Christianity .. . yet at the end of the poem he envisages something far worse. The final intimation that the new god will be born in Bethlehem, which Christianity associates with passive infancy and the tenderness of maternal love, makes its brutishness particularly frightful (164-65, 259-60).

While this recognizes that Yeats had little veneration for Christianity, it invests the poem's Christian allusions with a sense of reverence which not only did he not share, but towards which he was deeply antagonistic. Because of a failure, or an unwillingness, to respond to Yeats's antithetical rhetoric in the way he intended, such an interpretation not only attributes to him value judgments he did not make, they are to all intents and purposes the opposite of those he did make. For Yeats, "all things are from antithesis" (A Vision 268) and his rhetorical juxtapositions produce a dialectical tension as in the text he confronts: the center with a centrifugal force it cannot control; a blood-dimmed tide and the ceremony of innocence; the best and the worst, a lack of conviction and a passionate intensity; a stony sleep vexed to nightmare and a rocking cradle; a slouching, rough beast and Bethlehem. These are reinforced elsewhere by terror and beauty, horror and renewal, love and war, massacre and salvation, an altar and a turbulent child. Compared with such dynamic antitheses, the idea of a "beneficent Dionysus" would have been to both Yeats and Nietzsche a simple, and meaningless, contradiction in terms.

For Nietzsche the dionysian attitude was a passionate affirmation of life, of all aspects of life, including tragedy and pessimism, the doubt and terror of reality, pain and suffering. It led him to what he believed was his supreme philosophical insight, Eternal Recurrence, which was not so much Yeats's cyclical view of history as the recognition that this life is our eternal life, the willingness to affirm and relive each of life's experiences, however painful, again and again throughout eternity—"amor fati," the apotheosis of the present moment. In a sense this was Nietzsche's attempt to reclaim and reaffirm his own life, one which he believed had been unusually filled with pain and suffering. Yeats's idea of historical recurrence was a fusion of the personal and the world-historical. On the one hand it justified his rejection of the values and beliefs of the age, an age he characterized as looking beyond humanity to a transcendent power, as democratic, leveling, egalitarian, anarchic, heterogeneous, feminine, humane—"tender" qualities symbolized here by a rocking cradle, Bethlehem and The Second Coming. On the other hand it made it possible for him to reclaim for a future age those values he cherished, a future that would obey imminent power, would be aristocratic, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh and surgical—"hard, astringent" qualities symbolized by a monolithic sphinx and a rough beast.

Thus the confrontation between the Second Coming and the rough beast occurs in Yeats's work in numerous forms, many of them Nietzschean in tone. Also writing out of a profound contempt for his age and what he considered to be its predominant values, Nietzsche almost willfully invited his contemporaries to misunderstand his rhetoric, his "philosophizing with a hammer": "Caesar Borgia as Pope! Do you understand me?" (Complete Works 16: 228). Not surprisingly most of them didn't. Nevertheless, this is a provocative assertion of a consistent theme in Nietzsche's work, the clash throughout human history of "Renaissance" and "Reformation" values—the confrontation between a "higher" order of values that are "hard" and "noble," that "say yea to life," that "assured a future," and "the opposing values of degeneration," which he characterized as the morality of decadence: "Have you understood me? Dionysus versus Christ" (Ecce Homo 24, 136, 145). What he was doing in fact was inviting his readers to be daring enough to understand him, and the same challenging themes and idioms are to be found in Yeats. In A Vision there is the same confrontation between Christianity and paganism, and between Christian and Renaissance values, which Yeats, like Nietzsche, loved to embody in representative mythological or historical figures; for example, the tender passivity of a Saint Catherine of Genoa and the hardness, the astringency of a Donatello or a Michelangelo (291).

Ultimately, however, despite their often contemptuous rhetoric, neither completely rejected Christian values. Nietzsche did believe that European culture in the second half of the nineteenth century needed a transfusion of those "hard," "noble" qualities he admired, a radical injection of will:

Nowadays the taste and virtue of the age weaken and attenuate the will; . . . consequently, in the ideal of the philosopher, strength of will, sternness and capacity for prolonged resolution, must specially be included in the conception of "greatness": with as good a right as the opposite doctrine, with its ideal of a silly, renouncing, humble, selfless humanity, was suited to an opposite age—such as the sixteenth century, which suffered from its accumulated energy of will, and from the wildest torrents and floods of selfishness (Beyond Good and Evil 137).

Nevertheless, this was not so much a complete transvaluation of values as a question of reorientation, of readjusting an internal balance of personality. He hoped for a Superman who would be not some future world-historical figure, but an individual ideal to be pursued by all strong, free spirits, "the Roman Caesar with Christ's soul" (Will to Power 380 section 983). While to some extent this was also true of Yeats (his concept of a Christ who was still the half-brother of Dionysus was almost certainly influenced by Nietzsche's slogan, "Dionysus versus Christ"), he thought more in terms of a historical dichotomy, of a dialectical "balance" provided by the alternating supremacy of opposing values, symbolized variously by the turning of the Great Wheel, by the whirl of interlocking gyres, or by the partial gyrations of the alternating rise and fall of the two ends of a seesaw. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche also claimed that "all the celebrated figures of the Greek stage—Prometheus, Oedipus, etc.—are but masks of this original hero, Dionysus. There is godhead behind all these masks" (229). When dedicating A Vision to Pound, Yeats wrote:

I would have him [Oedipus] balance Christ. . . . What if Christ and Oedipus or, to shift the names, Saint Catherine of Genoa and Michael Angelo, are the two scales of a balance, the two butt-ends of a seesaw? What if every two thousand and odd years something happens in the world to make one sacred, the other secular; one wise, the other foolish; one fair, the other foul; one divine, the other devilish? (27-29).

With such a culture change foul becomes fair, the devilish becomes divine. In "The Second Coming" this metamorphosis is taking place.


1 For other examples of critical responses referred to here see Davie 76-79; Ellman 257-60.

2 See Bloom 317-25; Bohlmann 178-79 (although his interpretation of the poem is necessarily very brief in the context of his general thesis, in my view it comes closest to the meaning Yeats intended); Jeffares 238-44; Melchiori 35-42; Stallworthy 17-25; Weeks 281-92.

3 For discussions of Nietzsche's influence on Yeats see Bohlmann; Thatcher 139-73.

4 Yeats's philosophical system is set out in A Vision. For explanatory accounts see Bloom 210-91; Ellmann 146-64; Schricker 110-22; Stock 122-64.

5 In the light of Yeats's consuming interest in Thus Spake Zarathustra, there is a remarkable similarity between Yeats's symbolism in "The Second Coming" and Nietzsche's in "The Three Metamorphoses": "But in the loneliest wilderness happeneth the second metamorphosis: here the spirit becometh a lion; freedom will it capture, and lordship in its own wilderness. Its last Lord it here seeketh: hostile will it be to him, and to its last God.... My brethren, wherefore is there need of the lion in the spirit? .. . To create itself freedom, and give a holy Nay even unto duty: for that, my brethren, there is need of the lion. To assume the right to new values—that is the most formidable assumption for a load-bearing and reverent spirit. Verily, unto such a spirit it is preying, and the work of a beast of prey" (43-44).

6 Gordon and Fletcher suggest that the drawing known as God with Eyes Turned upon His own Glory was the work Yeats referred to (93).

7 Zarathustra actively encourages his followers to embrace such an aesthetic: "Ye are ugly? Well then, my brethren, take the sublime about you, the mantle of the ugly" (63). Yeats suggested that Synge's tragic view of reality manifested itself as a "hunger for harsh facts, for ugly, surprising things" (Essays and Introductions 308), while according to Robert O'Driscoll, Yeats considered Synge to be "the living embodiment of the philosophical principles he was discovering in Nietzsche" (qtd. in Bohlmann 47).

8 For other non-Nietzschean discussions of Dionysus see Gernet 48-70; Flaceliere 11-87. For discussions of Nietzsche's concept of Dionysus and the Dionysian see Bohlmann 40-47, 59-62; Kaufmann passim; Silk and Stern chapters 3-10.


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Further Reading