Discussion Topic

The symbolic significance of the falcon and the falconer in Yeats's "The Second Coming."

Summary:

In Yeats's "The Second Coming," the falcon and the falconer symbolize the loss of control and the disintegration of societal order. The falcon represents humanity, which has strayed too far from its guiding principles, represented by the falconer, leading to chaos and the breakdown of civilization.

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Who do the falcon and the falconer represent in "The Second Coming"?

The critical consensus is that the falconer refers to the old aristocracy, society's natural rulers, and that the falcon refers to the common people—those who've traditionally taken orders from their alleged social superiors.

Falconry is a sport traditionally associated with the nobility, so one can see why Yeats uses it as a metaphor for the radical political changes which he can see sweeping over Europe. Yeats was very much a conservative when it came to politics, and he idealized the Protestant aristocracy of his native Ireland—the "falconers," if you will—regarding them as possessed with a certain wisdom that made them the natural leaders of society.

However, as Yeats looked about him, he saw the political position of the Anglo-Irish gentry, and indeed Europe's aristocracy as a whole, being undermined by new-fangled ideologies such as Fascism, Communism, and mass democracy. To Yeats's horror, the lower classes no longer paid any heed to the natural rulers of society. Yeats doesn't say so, but this was largely because it was the crowned heads of Europe who'd brought about the bloody cataclysm of the First World War.

This is what Yeats means when he says that "the falcon cannot hear the falconer." The common folk no longer pay any attention to their supposed social betters, preferring to chart their own political course instead.

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

The falconer in "The Second Coming" is generally thought to represent Christ. The Christian historical epoch, or "gyre" as Yeats calls it, is drawing to a close. In its stead will come a new era marred by chaos, bloodshed and disorder. The figure of the falcon in the poem represents man and the civilization he has built. But because of the gyres' constant turning, the gap between the old and the new is widening, so much so that we're becoming separated from Christ. Because we are moving away from Christ, we no longer heed his message. This is what Yeats means by "The falcon cannot hear the falconer."

The falconer also hints at Yeats' fundamentally aristocratic understanding of politics. Hunting with falcons is an activity traditionally associated with the upper-classes, with "the best people" in society. For thousands of years they have been in charge of things, but now their domination is under imminent threat, about to be swept away by the coming of the new era. "Mere anarchy" is about to be "loosed upon the world," heralding the dawn of a new democratic age in which the "best (i.e. the aristocracy) lack all conviction" while "the worst" (the unruly mob) are "full of passionate intensity."

Just as we no longer hear the word of Christ, neither do we pay any attention to what Yeats sees as the innate wisdom and good sense of the European aristocracy, characteristics which make them uniquely born to rule.

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What is the symbolic significance of the falcon and falconer in Yeats's "The Second Coming"?

Yeats starts his famous poem "The Second Coming" with the image of a falcon turning about in the sky, far away from the falconer who released it. The falcon continues to turn and turn further away from the falconer. It is clear how Yeats views this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

A number of possible interpretations exist as to what this image represents. Some argue that it represents the new generation in the time of Yeats who have forsaken the artistic forms and conventions of their parents and are striking out and inventing new expressions of art and thought. This image therefore represents the death knell of the Christian era and the violent new age that will be ushered in. The poem was written in 1920 at a time when Yeats thought that Christianity's primacy in the world was all but over. Another interpretation argues that the falcon and falconer represent a division of the intellect and the emotion - that the two are separated and cannot be reunited.

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