“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 center cannot hold”; hence, the poet declares, “mere anarchy” will be “loosed upon the world.” The ones who might have stood against social deconstruction “lack conviction,” while the ones who will share the spoils of this moral collapse “are full of passionate intensity.” “The blood-dimmed tide” slaughters “the ceremony of innocence,” and the reader faces the prospect of nightmarish violence. To relieve temporarily the tension of this dire forecast, at line 9 the poet issues a plea for deliverance from the nameless evil about to occur: “Surely some revelation is at hand.” His repetitive cry, however, serves only to register the inevitability that no deliverer will arise to defeat the foe: “Surely the Second Coming is at hand!” There Yeats parodies the New Testament doctrine of Christ’s return from heaven to Earth to judge the wicked and save the redeemed. Offered up is a much different “second coming” that proffers no element of worthy anticipation for faithful earthly inhabitants.
The “Spiritus Mundi,” or spirit of the world, cannot quite envision the grotesque shape forming with “lion body and the head of a man” in the desert, its presence noted only by “indignant desert birds” who cannot fathom its significance. Its sphinxlike inscrutability will either surprise or destroy those who seek to resolve its mystery.
In the final movement, lines 18 through 22, “The Second Coming” turns expectation into fearful dread as the poet adorns his prophecy with the portent of disaster and universal human suffering. “The darkness drops again,” and “Twenty centuries of stony sleep” are interrupted by the newly awakened monster. A “rocking cradle” has nurtured the “rough beast,” whose identity is shrouded in ambiguity in the poem’s last line. The beast “Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born,” inexorably creeping toward its destiny as the genesis of civilization’s ultimate nemesis.
Forms and Devices
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...
(The entire section is 966 words.)