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Literary elements and themes in "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats

Summary:

In "The Second Coming," Yeats employs literary elements such as imagery, symbolism, and allusion. The poem's central themes include chaos, the decline of civilization, and the cyclical nature of history. Through vivid imagery and symbolic references to a falcon, a sphinx, and the biblical Second Coming, Yeats explores a world on the brink of an apocalyptic change.

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What imagery is used in "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats?

Two important images that occur early in William Butler Yeats’s poem concern the falcon and the gyre. The bird is in flight but separated from its handler. Later in the poem, another bird is reeling through the skies; the desert bird is “indignant,” perhaps referring to the sound of its call, which might be described as shrieking. The gyre, a geometric shape of a three-dimensional spiral (familiar to us as a tornado funnel cloud), is literally used for the falcon’s path through the air but figuratively used for the break-up of society: “mere anarchy.” The “centre” of the funnel separates into the flimsy air at the top: “things fall apart.”

Blood is another central image; both its color and liquid form are emphasized. Yeats’s words give the impression of a scene darkened (“dimmed”) by blood. While this seems an association with the “anarchy” of war, it may be ritual, as the ”ceremony of innocence” has been ended by drowning. The emphasis on the dark liquid is then contrasted with the bright desert scene that he builds up in the second stanza. He mentions the desert twice, along with the sun.

Yeats also plays the inversion of two images against each other. The “second coming” of the title clearly references the return of Jesus Christ, including the “twenty centuries” or 2,000 years since his birth, but no physical image of Christ’s return is presented. Instead, at the end, Yeats mentions the “rough beast.” This figure is likely the “vast image” of a sphinx that was just described: “A shape with lion body and the head of a man, . . . Is moving its slow thighs . . .” This figure also moves slowly and awkwardly (“slouches”) but paradoxically may be a disembodied spirit because it has not yet been born. The “stony” quality of the silence may also refer to the sphinx.

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In William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming," what does the poet imagine?

"The Second Coming," published in 1919 just after the end of the First World War (though the Allies and Axis powers were still negotiating the terms of Germany's surrender) is one of Yeats' most negative visions of the future.  Yeats is, in part, reacting to the tremendous devastation caused by WWI in England, Ireland, and the Continent, and expresses his fear that one civilization has passed away only to be replaced by a new and very dangerous one.

The first stanza includes several images, one unique to Yeats, of a loss of control:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ . . . The ceremony of innocence is drowned; . . . .

When Yeats uses the word "gyre," he's not only referring to the upward spiral of the falcon (which is no longer under the falconer's control) but also the spiraling out of control of civilization.  Yeats uses the image of a gyre--essentially, two spiral cones, each spiraling in opposite directions--to represent the duality of mankind and historical movements, both good and bad.  In "The Second Coming," the negative side of the gyre is taking control.

In the second stanza Yeats makes explicit--through Biblical imagery--the the Second Coming is at hand.  In a Christian context, the Second Coming refers to Christ's Second Coming and the beginning of universal peace on earth, but as soon as the poet employs this Christian positive image, he becomes troubled by the vision of another kind of second coming:

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,/A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,/Is moving its slow thighs. . . .

The image is, of course, the Sphinx, and its most important aspect--a pitiless gaze--foretells that mankind is not going to be redeemed by the Christian Second Coming but cursed by something monstrous and "pitiless."

In the poet's view, the Sphinx, after "twenty centuries of stony sleep," was awakened by the unbelievable devastation created by WWI and, more important, by mankind's inability to regain its morality.  Yeats' question, then, "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" brings the original reference to the Second Coming to a shattering conclusion.  Rather than the Prince of Peace arriving to bring peace to mankind, we have a perversion of the Second Coming--one in which "darkness drops again."

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State the claim of William Butler Yeats about his own poem "The Second Coming."

Yeats provided a note for his poem "The Second Coming." The first line ends with the word "gyre," and Yeats explained that word with this statement:

"The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction."

That may seem to provide more confusion than clarification, but it actually does help us understand this poem. Yeats believed in a theory of history based on 2000-year cycles. The cycle he was living in at the time (1919) began with the birth of Jesus Christ. Now that gyre was reaching the widest part of its cycle--think of it as a cone. The next cycle's beginning, the narrow end of the cone, would come from the widest part of the previous cycle. The wide part of one cycle, the end, would take on the characteristics of the coming cycle. The devastation of the Great War, recently experienced by the world, was presumed to be the nature of the coming cycle. The "second coming," then, is not the second coming of Christ as Christians understand it, but the coming of the next gyre or cycle. Thus the "mere anarchy" the world was experiencing in Yeats' day was a portent of an even more dire and dangerous world to come. 

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What literary devices does Yeats use in "The Second Coming"?

Literary devices in "The Second Coming" include the following:

antithesis: Antithesis is when two contrasting ideas or images are put together. A central motif of this poem is that the second coming Yeats envisions contrasts sharply with the second coming promised in the Bible. This is not Jesus the savior returning to earth to establish the kingdom of God. It is the exact opposite, a second coming of a primal evil loosed upon the world. Imagining the pitiless beast coming to Bethlehem to be born is also antithetical to the idea of that location as the birthplace of Jesus, who is understood as the prince of mercy and peace. 

aphorism: An aphorism is a short, pithy statement of universal truth. When Yeats writes 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity
he is communicating a central truth about his time.  
imagery: Yeats leans heavily into imagery in this poem, as most poets do. Images are words that convey what we can experience with the five senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Yeats uses the image of a gyre turning round and round in the first stanza. He focuses on visual imagery in the second stanza, as he paints a picture of a beast with the body of a lion and the head of a man moving slowly towards Bethlehem. 

repetition: While the poem doesn't use a conventional rhyme scheme, Yeats builds a sense of rhythm, especially in the beginning of the poem, by repeating words such as "turning," "surely," and "Second Coming." 

simile: Simile is a comparison using like or as. Yeats writes that the beast has "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," which conveys the sense of a blinding, relentless stare. 

understatement: When Yeats writes "mere anarchy" is loosed, the word "mere" devalues something important. Loosing anarchy on the world is not inconsequential, so the statement  functions as a form of irony by saying the opposite of what is meant. Yeats wants to jolt us into the understanding that this anarchy is important and is not something to shrug off. 

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What literary devices does Yeats use in "The Second Coming"?

Yeats uses many different literary devices in his poem "The Second Coming." One that is a hallmark of his poetic style is half-rhyme, which we see in "gyre/falconer" and "hold/world". He uses many metrical variations, especially initial trochaic substitutions. He uses alliteration in several places, most dramatically in "beast ... Bethlehem ... born" and "darkness drops". The end of the poem is technically a rhetorical question. There are several places in the poem where Yeats uses metaphor , especially in the opening:


     Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;


where the falcon stands as a metaphor for humanity which has lost its direction and is unable to "hear" the voice of the divine. The figure of the beast which heralds the Biblical apocalypse is also used metaphorically by Yeats in this poem.

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What literary devices does Yeats use in "The Second Coming"?

Allusion

The title of Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," is a Biblical allusion to the return of Christ in the Book of Revelations and the judgment of man.  Particularly in the second and final stanzas of the poem, Yeats also references the rise of the Antichrist and the beast, two figures who are prophesied to rise during the Great Tribulation, especially in the final lines "what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" 

Metaphor:

Yeats uses the metaphor of sleep in these lines:

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

to compare the two thousand year span of time between Christ's original appearance and the second coming.  Yeats' metaphor reveals that the 'sleep' has been uneasy through his diction and the use of the word "stony" which has the connotation of hardness and general lack of comfort.

Symbolism:

Yeats uses the falcon in the first stanza as a symbol for order and civilization.  Falconry was a genteel practice, usually for noblemen, in the Middle Ages, but the fact that the falcon can no longer hear the falconer suggests a disruption in the connection between man and nature.  Moreover, the lack of connection between the two reinforces the speakers' belief that "things fall apart" and the old traditions of man, like falconry, have no place in these new turbulent times.

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What symbols does Yeats use in "The Second Coming"?

I think that one can find many examples of Yeats employing symbolism throughout his work.  Since the question is asking for how it is used, I would focus on the symbols present in my favorite Yeats poem, "The Second Coming."  The use of symbolism is profound in trying to evoke a particular mood of the poem.  Yeats wishes to bring out the moral, political, ethical, and social confusion of the world that faced consciousness in the wake of World War I and the uncertainty that abounds as a result.  When we survey the landscape of this setting, Yeats compels us to do so by rendering symbolic images of a world fraught with fragmentation and doomed by dissolution.  The symbolic meaning of "the falcon cannot hear the falconer" or "the centre cannot hold" help to bring out this idea.  Yeats' uses symbols to help represent what is happening in Europe and the world of the time.  This heightens the impact of the poem for it allows the reader to make connections on both social and personally introspective levels for the symbols apply to both.

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What symbols does Yeats use in "The Second Coming"?

In his pre-apocalyptic poem "The Second Coming," William Butler Yeats focuses on the menacing chaos of the present, the looming horror of the future, and his personal view of the progress of history.

The first stanza evaluates the state of contemporary society. Writing just after the Great War, Yeats was appalled at the deterioration that had occurred. Because of the toll the war had taken and the new ways it found of maiming and killing, many people fell into despair when they contemplated what mankind had become. Yeats speaks of the loosening of traditions that previously held things together and the resulting "anarchy." The very character of humanity seems to have plunged to new depths where innocence is a thing of the past and good people can no longer be relied on to stand for their convictions when evil people seek to take control. The despair and alienation this stanza describes was mirrored by other writers and poets, including T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land.

In the second stanza, Yeats moves on to consider the future in light of the present. Realizing that recent and current events portend even worse trouble in the future, he envisions a "rough beast" arising from the sands. Although it is impossible to predict the specific horrors that lie ahead, Yeats imagines they will be characterized by this image whose expression is "blank and pitiless as the sun." This suggests a time when compassion and kindness will be squelched and baser instincts will prevail.

To understand the third stanza, one must be familiar with Yeats's personal view of the progress of history. He believed that history consists of two-thousand-year gyres that begin at a vortex and widen as the centuries pass. The culmination of one gyre is the birth of the next gyre's vortex. The widest part of the gyre takes on the characteristics of the gyre to come. Thus Yeats believed that the horrors of the early twentieth century were infused with the character of the gyre to come, and that made him tremble for how terrible the next gyre would be.

Yeats uses his poem to explore the present and the future and to apply his personal theory about the progression of history.

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What symbols does Yeats use in "The Second Coming"?

"The Second Coming" was written in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War. It is an apocalyptic poem, and it draws on Yeats's theory of the universe as outlined in "A Vision." In this theory, Yeats represents time as two rotating (one clockwise, one anti-clockwise) conical spirals, or gyres, one inside the other. When time reaches the end of one of these gyres, it reaches the end of one historical phase and, by passing onto and along the other gyre, the beginning of another. The "widening gyre" of the first line, then, is a reference to the impending change of historical phases, the end of one time and the beginning of another. This is the central premise of the poem—that one time (or gyre) is coming to an end, and another, a sort of dystopian, chaotic, post-apocalyptic time, is just beginning.

The central theme that emerges from this premise is the chaos and sinfulness of the world as Yeats saw it. This is an understandable worldview, of course, if we remember that the world had just passed through four years of devastating global conflict. The chaos is suggested in the poem especially with lines like "Things fall apart" and "Mere anarchy is loosed," while the sinfulness is implied by the lines "The ceremony of innocence is drowned" and "The best lack all conviction." The last quotation implies that there are no principles or moral certainties now, not even among "the best" of people.

The result of this chaos and sinfulness is the "rough beast" which emerges in the second stanza. This is the creature born of the world described in the first stanza and which has come, it seems, to impose its "pitiless...nightmare" upon what is left of that world.

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What symbols does Yeats use in "The Second Coming"?

The predominant theme in "The Second Coming" is that of a culture or society coming unhinged. Yeats uses apocalyptic language and imagery to suggest that society has reached, or is nearing, the point at which its social and cultural foundations (reason, Christianity, scientific progress) are eroding underneath it:

The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...

It is important to realize that Yeats was writing one year after the astonishing carnage of the First World War, in a period of extreme pessimism about Western society. It was easy for intellectuals like Yeats to imagine that society was in peril, and indeed, it seems a reasonable assessment even nine decades later. As noted above, Yeats deliberately invokes biblical references to the end of the world. The title, after all, is "The Second Coming," but significantly, he does not see this "second coming" as ushering in the reign of God on earth. Rather, he seems to imagine that things will be worse, that frightening forces are about to be unleashed. In a final passage, eerily prescient given the events of the Second World War, he wonders:

...what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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What are the main themes in Yeats's "The Second Coming"?

Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" in 1919, in the wake of the cataclysm that was World War I. Additionally, Ireland, his homeland, was in the midst of a violent uprising against British rule, and the Bolshevik Revolution rocked Russia. This turmoil seemed to confirm a notion that scholars observe Yeats had held for some time—that world history was essentially cyclical. This theme is expressed in the image of the falcon, which is spiraling beyond the control of the falconer. Yeats suggested, in a haunting and evocative way, that the two-thousand year era of Christianity was coming to an end, ushering in a new era. This millenarian, apocalyptic vision is another major theme of the poem. But Yeats does not envision the arrival of a new two thousand year era of peace, rather darkly imagining a "rough beast . . . [that] slouches toward Bethlehem to be born." The end of the Christian era evokes the possibility of a new era of barbarism and possibly human misery and degradation. This pessimism, shared by many of Yeats's contemporaries, is another important theme of the poem.

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What are the main themes in Yeats's "The Second Coming"?

The poem `The Second Coming`by William Butler Yeats invokes both traditional Christian iconography and a mystical account of the world set forth by Yeats himself in his book A Vision, which identifies the world as existing in a set of recurring cycles, called gyres.

The notion of a second coming in traditional Christianity is take from Revelation, and presumes that at some point in the future, Jesus Christ will return to the world to judge both the living and the dead. This return will be preceded by an apocalyptic period in which various disasters are unleashed upon the world, including the four beasts. Many of the prophesies in Revelation are set in the environment of the Holy Land, and represent a return of Jesus for his second coming to the place of his first incarnation.

Although the chronology and setting are Christian, and the sense of millenial ending typical of the fin de siecle, and the condemnation of moderrnity also shared with many of the poets of the period:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. ...

and the notion of anarchy having replaced Christianity as the centre of the world are shared by poets from Matthem Arnold (caught between two worlds, one dying and one unable to be born) and T. S. Eliot.

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What are the main themes in Yeats's "The Second Coming"?

Yeats published "The Second Coming" in 1920 as part of his larger collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer, which also included Easter, 1916," Yeats' contemplation on the results of the Easter Rebellion that concluded with the phrase "A terrible beauty is born," the reverse of his sentiment about the Second Coming.

From first line to last, Yeats' principal theme in "The Second Coming" is the breakdown of order and the turning of society from potential stability to inevitable instability.  Every image in the poem is meant to instill the uneasiness that Yeats himself felt at the end of WWI, which was formally ended in 1919, but seemed to Yeats and others not to conclude the hostilities between the Allies and, principally, Germany and Austria, but to create conditions in which greater evils faced European societies:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. . . . (ll.1-3)

Yeats chooses the image of an out of control falcon in part because falconry, a common sport of the upper class in European societies, is well known to his audience and immediately creates an emblem of a society in which normal control is lost: the falcon, which should respond immediately to its controller, the falconer, is spinning upward in an ever-expanding circle, the result of which is that the "centre cannot hold"--the beginning of chaos for this society.

Other images in the opening stanza--"anarchy is loosed;" "blood-dimmed tide loosed;" "the ceremony of innocence is drowned"--dramatically illustrate Yeats' belief, based on his private mythology of how the world alternates between good and evil periods, that the world has entered a period characterized by lack of control and, more important, the advent of evil destructiveness.

Playing upon the positive connotations of The Second Coming, that is, the second coming of Christ and a thousand years of peace, Yeats calms his readers:

Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand./The Second Coming! . . . (ll. 9-11)

At this point, the reader hopes that, despite the negative and threatening images of the first stanza, Yeats refers to the traditional Second Coming, which will usher in peace, but he immediately crushes this hope when he refers to

. . . a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi/ [which] Troubles my sight; a waste of desert sand. . . . (ll. 12-13)

Spiritus Mundi is important because it means the spirit of the world or, better yet, the spirit which animates the world, and this spirit "troubles" the poet's mind as he contemplates something, which he cannot yet see clearly, coming out of "a wast of desert sand."  These images are, of course, consistent with the terrible images of Stanza 1, but they also point to a much more specific threat to humanity than a "blood-dimmed tide" or anarchy.  Something lurks in the desert, and we know that it's not going to be good.

The threat to Yeats' world, and ours, the thing that is the result of the anarchy and bloody tide, finally lurches into sight at the end of Stanza 3, and we finally understand the ultimate perversion of the Second Coming:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats has transmuted the Second Coming of Christ, the most positive of symbols, to the most negative, the advent of rule by a "slouching beast," not born in Bethlehem but moving threateningly toward it in order to convert the birthplace of Christ to the birthplace of the beast--most likely meant to be seen as the Sphinx, an enigmatic monument that guards the pyramids at Giza in Egypt.

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