Last Updated November 6, 2023.
Societal Disintegration and Chaos
"The Second Coming" vividly captures the sense of a world in turmoil and decline. With creative metaphors, Yeats paints a picture of a society in the aftermath of warfare and revolution. This was a time when established social structures were crumbling, and chaos reigned. The opening lines immediately convey a sense of disconnection and disarray, where even the fundamental connection between the falcon and its handler is lost.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
Yeats felt that maintaining social hierarchies, especially in aristocratic systems, played a vital role in preserving order. "The Second Coming" indicates that these systems were coming undone. For instance, the poem's symbolic reference to falconry harks to a particularly aristocratic pastime. The falcon and the falconer lose their connection to each other, much like the old order is crumbling. Something new will rise up to take its place, but what that will be is unclear.
The theme of societal disintegration underscores the poem's exploration of the instability resulting from major historical events and the breakdown of established systems of order and control. In doing so, it is a stark portrayal of the mayhem and the loss of a coherent center that can occur in times of upheaval.
The Search for Meaning and Redemption
"The Second Coming" grapples with the profound existential questions that arise when a society falls apart. It suggests a yearning for a "Second Coming," which is a symbol of hope and redemption, a force that can bring order to the chaotic world. The term "Second Coming" draws from Christian imagery, suggesting the anticipation of a divine or transformative event.
Throughout the poem, Yeats portrays humanity's quest for meaning and a sense of purpose in a world that seems to have lost its path. The "rough beast" slouching towards Bethlehem represents more than just uncertainty and foreboding, though. It also implies a search for a new beginning or a path to salvation.
However, this creature is not necessarily the savior of humanity. Just what it is and how it will change the world is unknown, as indicated by the question in the final lines of the poem. The reader must wonder if humanity is even capable of salvation or if this revelation will bring about some final destruction.
Yeats refrains from presenting a clear distinction between good and evil, leaving the concept of redemption open to interpretation. The paradoxical idea that "the best lack all conviction" highlights that even those considered virtuous may not have the unwavering determination required for redemption.
The forces of nature, embodied by the sphinx's indifferent gaze, remain apathetic toward humanity's destiny, neither actively supporting nor hindering the pursuit of redemption. This ambiguity and absence of a definite allegiance to either side of morality introduce complexity to the quest for redemption, suggesting that it may be challenging and exist in a morally uncertain space.
"The Second Coming" delves into the human desire for order and purpose in the face of chaos, and it raises questions about where meaning and redemption can be found in a world that appears to have lost its bearings. It reflects the existential struggle individuals and societies often face when facing upheaval and uncertainty.