The Poem

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Last Updated November 6, 2023.

William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" delves deep into the complexities of a world in turmoil, offering readers a profound exploration of societal collapse, a search for meaning, and the interplay between the secular and spiritual worlds. 


"The Second Coming" emerged in the aftermath of World War I and during the Irish War of Independence. The long-established empires of Europe were crumbling, a generation of young men had been destroyed in the war, and millions were dying from the flu pandemic. In fact, at the time he wrote this poem, Yeats' pregnant wife was recovering from this often deadly disease. All the optimism that had ushered in the century had evaporated, and the period was marked by an intense feeling of uncertainty and even despair. 


Yeats, like many of his contemporaries, grappled with the collapse of traditional orders and the search for meaning in a fractured world. Many wondered if the violent actions of humanity were tearing apart the very fabric of nature. This historical backdrop lends weight to the poem's themes and underscores its relevance as a reflection of the tumultuous era in which it was written.


One of the central aspects of the poem is its rich symbolism. Yeats uses a myriad of symbols that convey the poem's deeper meanings. The falcon's inability to hear the falconer symbolizes a disconnection between individuals and their guiding principles or authority figures. The "widening gyre" is a powerful symbol representing the increasing disorder in the world, suggesting a spiraling out of control. The "rough beast" in the desert is an enigmatic symbol of an apocalyptic force that could disrupt the established order, evoking themes of transformation and foreboding. 


Yeats also skillfully employs literary devices to enhance the poem's impact. The repetition of words in the first lines of the second stanza creates a sense of urgency and anticipation, underscoring the idea that something momentous is on the horizon. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! ...

A critical element of the poem is its allegorical use of Christian imagery. The reference to the "Second Coming" and the image of Bethlehem invoke strong Christian symbolism, particularly from the Book of Revelation. This allegorical layer establishes a parallel between the expected return of Christ and a transformative, potentially cataclysmic event in the modern world. 


Yeats believed that poets can see spiritual symbols and memories repeated throughout history. These intangible ideas come from a world beyond matter — the Spiritus Mundi mentioned in stanza two. Yeats calls attention to this cyclical nature of existence with phrases such as "turning and turning" in the poem's opening stanza and even the title of the poem itself. Yeats believed that, as sensitive and perceptive people, poets can best understand and express these repeating patterns and symbols during turbulent times. They help to bridge the gap between ordinary life and spiritual matters and offer insights into the meaning of these chaotic cycles.


"The Second Coming" is structured into two stanzas of unequal length. Additionally, the poem employs varying line lengths, creating an irregular and disjointed quality, a hallmark of Yeats' modernist style. 


This poem is also written in blank verse, meaning it lacks a conventional rhyme scheme. All this lends an unpredictable nature to the work, reflecting the uncertainty of the world when it was written.

The poem's meter predominantly adheres to an iambic pentameter, a metrical pattern featuring lines with five metrical feet, each consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. However, the iambic pentameter is not consistently maintained throughout the poem, and variations in meter are introduced. These variations infuse the poem with a rhythmic and musical quality while also introducing irregularities that resonate with the poem's chaotic themes.

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