The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Second Coming,” an intense, lyrical poem of twenty-two lines, addresses a listener prepared to expect useful insight into the meaning of history. Instead, the poet offers a disturbing prophecy of cultural dissolution. The homey, commonplace images of everyday life are merged with an apocalyptic revelation about a new order that portends instability and chaos among humankind. By the poem’s last line, the reader senses the impending arrival of something hideous and devastating to human freedom and harmony, an effect wrought by the poet’s skillful inversion of familiar symbols and the promise of catastrophe delayed.

The poem can be conveniently divided into three movements: lines 1 through 8, 9 through 17, and 18 through 22. The reader is led progressively through a series of ever more ominous prophecies of upheaval and social discord. Each image is derivative of common religious sentiment of the poet’s time, expressed in familiar biblical cadences yet riven with sinister import.

William Butler Yeats begins the first movement with the mysterious image of a falcon turning and turning in a “widening gyre,” a radiating spiral, increasingly beyond the reach of its falconer/guide. Outside his command and direction, the falcon can be neither controlled nor diverted in its motion.

As a result of the falcon’s centripetal break from both instinct and training, “things fall apart” in the observer’s sensory world, and...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The key image in the first movement of the poem is the “gyre,” a device used by Yeats to exemplify his theory of history. The falcon’s orbit away from the falconer suggests a conelike, ever-widening spiral, as the poet establishes his cyclical view of civilizations passing through growth, maturation, and eventual overthrow by the forces of history. The image is left intact, however, only until line 3, when, in one of the poem’s more powerful and memorable lines, Yeats announces history’s demise: “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Poetic image melts into prosaic exposition as history, and the conventional ways in which it may be understood are rendered impotent by the violence wrought by the “mere anarchy” that is unleashed.

“The Second Coming” works as a series of nightmarish images presented sequentially and then summarily upended by the poet’s mournful, deliberate commentary on their significance. Rhythm and pacing merge to create a breathlessness in the reader that approximates that of one seeking to escape a nightmare only to discover that one is already awake. Carefully chosen verbs such as “drowned,” “vexed,” and “reel” carry the tone of impending doom while pushing the reader forward to the poem’s climax.

Crucial to the success of this effect is Yeats’s skillful juxtaposition of biblical metaphor, inverted in its meaning, and pagan history. The first and second advents of Christ were...

(The entire section is 440 words.)