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.)