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The significance and meaning of the gyre in "The Second Coming"

Summary:

The gyre in "The Second Coming" symbolizes a cyclical view of history, reflecting the poet's belief in inevitable chaos and the breakdown of order. It represents the widening spiral of societal collapse and the coming of a new, tumultuous era, suggesting that history moves in recurring cycles of destruction and renewal.

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What is the significance of the gyre in "The Second Coming"?

William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming" can be quite confusing for readers who don't understand the poet's personal religious and philosophical leanings. Many readers familiar with Christian teachings equate the "second coming" of the poem with the second coming of Jesus Christ, when, according to Christian belief, he will return to earth from heaven to claim his followers. However, this was not the only idea Yeats was attempting to depict in this poem.

Like other English poets before him, including William Blake and Thomas Hardy, Yeats created a personal mythology that went beyond traditional religious teachings. His wife, Georgie Hyde Lees, whom he married in 1917, was his partner in developing his mythology. She practiced automatic writing and received messages that Yeats believed were dictated by spirits. Gyres, winding stairs, and spirals became important symbols that Yeats used to help explain the progress of history and the paradoxes of existence.

The gyre specifically figured into Yeats's understanding of historical epochs. He proposed that history consists of two-thousand-year cycles that can be represented as a gyre: a spiraling motion in the shape of a cone. As one gyre widened toward its culmination, it would spawn a new two-thousand-year spiral out of a violent countermotion. Yeats explained, "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."

With this in mind, it becomes much easier to interpret "The Second Coming." The twentieth century was the end of a two-thousand-year period, "the widening gyre." As such, it took on the character of the epoch to come. Yeats envisioned the coming two-thousand-year period as a sphinx-like creature with "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun." That creature now "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born." In this poem, Yeats implies that the horrors of the early twentieth century, namely World War I, foretold an unimaginably dire epoch that would come with the dawn of the twenty-first century.

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What is the significance of the gyre in "The Second Coming"?

The gyre is an imaginative visualization of Yeats's theory of history. Many thinkers, artists, and historians have represented historical development as a straight line; others have put forward a cyclical view of history. For his part, Yeats conceives of history as divided up into spirals, which come into being every two thousand years or so.

In "The Second Coming," Yeats heralds the imminent demise of the gyre that has existed since the birth of Christ: the Christian era. It will soon give way to a new, more frightening period of history, characterized by the undermining of the traditional aristocratic social order and its replacement by mob rule. There is a (deliberately) terrifying sense of inevitability about the arrival of the new gyre, the "second coming" of the title. In keeping with his thoughts on history, Yeats presents the impending era of violent social upheaval as something that cannot be stopped. Just as the gyre in which the first coming of Christ took place was always destined to happen, so too will be the gyre of the second coming. However, the second coming envisaged by Yeats will be of a radically different and altogether more ominous nature than that traditionally conceived by Christians.

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What is the significance of the gyre in "The Second Coming"?

The world "gyre" means spiral. In the first lines of the poem, the widening gyre is not just the circle or spiral the falcon makes flying in the air, but the idea that a cycle of history is ending.

Yeats conceived history as occurring in two thousand years spirals. According to his thinking, a new gyre or cycle of history began with the birth of Christ two thousand years ago. As he was writing the poem in 1919, it felt to him as if the spiral of Christian history had unwound to its farthest point and a new period was beginning.

The significance of this new cycle or gyre is that it is characterized by Yeats as full of darkness and violence. He sees civilization falling apart and writes that the "centre cannot hold." He imagines a Second Coming, not of Christ, but of a "pitiless" beast arriving at Bethlehem to be born.

Because of all the violence unleashed in the twentieth century, Yeats's poem was taken by many to be prophetic.

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What does "gyre" mean in "The Second Coming"?

As part of his somewhat esoteric belief system, Yeats believed that historical change could be conceived in terms of gyres. These are historical epochs, lasting for roughly 2,000 years or so. To help his readers understand this highly complicated concept, Yeats visualizes gyres as interpenetrating cones, with their interpenetration representing the passing of one historical epoch into another.

In “The Second Coming,” one gyre, or epoch of history, is about to come to an end, giving way to another. This is the epoch that has lasted since the birth of Christ. In its place will arise a completely different era, one characterized by bloodshed, chaos, and violence. Yeats senses that this gyre is in the offing by the fact that the falcon cannot hear the falconer. In other words, ordinary people—the falcon—no longer pay heed to the wisdom of their alleged social betters—the falconer—whom Yeats regards as born to rule.

Yeats's theory of the gyre, as set out in “The Second Coming,” is generally thought of as being an anticipation of the rise of fascism, in which all the old certainties of the Judeo-Christian tradition would come under a full-frontal assault. Particular lines, such as “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” certainly appear to lend credence to this interpretation.

In any case, it's clear that “turning and turning in the widening gyre” is leading inexorably to a period of human history in which very few of us would want to live.

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What does "gyre" mean in "The Second Coming"?

A gyre in "The Second Coming" refers to a spiral or a circular motion, but it also stands for the larger cycles of history. Yeats believed that an orderly gyre or cycle of history that began with the birth of Christ was ending, about to be replaced with a new historical cycle of chaos and cruelty. As the speaker puts it in impassioned terms near the beginning of the poem:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned
Yeats wrote this poem in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, a senseless bloodbath that cost millions of lives and left many in shock that such carnage could have occurred. It seemed as though a "blood-dimmed tide" had engulfed the shores of the civilized world and many felt a loss of innocence. The Victorian conviction that the world was on a path of progress and enlightenment, firmly in the grasp of benevolent Providence, was destroyed by a war that few people thought should have happened.
In the second stanza, Yeats contrasts this new and ominous cycle of history to the birth of Christ. Instead of the gentle birth of a savior, Yeats envisions a monstrous "Second Coming:"
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun . . .
He ends by asking:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
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What does "gyre" mean in "The Second Coming"?

A "gyre," in its simplest interpretation, is simply a spiral: this line, then, refers to the ever-widening spiral formation in which the falcon flies out of the falconer's reach. But Yeats was very interested in the concept of "gyres," which to him had a more philosophical meaning. A gyre, according to Yeats, represented "the precise movement" of the human mind, according to the introduction to his 1921 publication The Second Coming. He also wrote a poem called "The Gyres," which is very instructive when we are trying to interpret the meaning of the word in "The Second Coming."

In "The Gyres," Yeats says, "Things thought too long can be no longer thought, / For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth..." In this poem, all the inevitable decay and entropy he describes is encompassed by the first line's "The gyres! the gyres!" In this poem, as in "The Second Coming," the "gyre" is straightforwardly a spiral, but symbolically a representation of the inevitable onward motion of life toward a form of necessary chaos: "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold."

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What does "gyre" mean in "The Second Coming"?

I have moved this question to this group, as the reference to the word "gyre" obviously refers to this famous poem by W. B. Yeats and its first line. The poem concerns the poet's prediction of the grim future that awaits humanity, and the first startling image that is used to introduce this theme uses the word "gyre" to indicate the way that culture is disintegrating. Consider the following lines:

Turnign and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

We are presented therefore with the somewhat mysterious image of a falcon going round and round in an ever widening "gyre," or a radiating spiral, moving further and further away beyond the reach of its falconer. Of course, the further that the falcon moves away from its falconer, the harder it is for the falconer to regain control over the bird and the falcon cannot be diverted or controlled in its direction. The word "gyre" therefore refers to the spiral motion of the falcon as it flies.

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