The Second Coming Criticism
by William Butler Yeats

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Donald Weeks (essay date 1948)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 68,450 words.)