The Second Coming

The Second Coming
By W.B. Yeats
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,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming1 is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi2
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries3 of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(1) The Second Coming refers to the promised return of Christ on Doomsday, the end of the world; but
in Revelation 13 Doomsday is also marked by the appearance of a monstrous beast.
(2) Spirit of the World.
(3) 2,000 years; the creature has been held back since the birth of Christ. Yeats imagines that the great
heritage of Western European civilization is collapsing, and that the world will be swept by a tide of
savagery from the "uncivilized" portions of the globe. As you read this novel, try to consider how
Achebe's work is in part an answer to this poem.
Ways to approach a poem…
T3C—always helpful, always important to consider
Vocabulary: make sure you understand all the unfamiliar words (dictionaries help!)
Imagery (not just sight, but sound, smell, touch, etc)
Troubling lines: what questions arise?
Patterns/repeating ideas (in this poem, for example, animals…what might each one symbolize?)
Historical background (see below)
Allusions: allusions are references in one literary work to characters, themes, etc from another
literary work or historical idea. The Bible and Greek mythology are two common sources of
allusions. Go to the website below and click on the links to read more about the allusions in this
particular poem:!.htm
Historical Context
William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” soon after the end of World War I, known at the time
as “The Great War” (because it was the biggest war yet fought) and “The War to End All Wars”
(because it was so horrific that its participants dearly hoped it would be the last war). It was also not
long since the Easter Rising in Ireland, a rebellion that was brutally suppressed and the topic of Yeats’
earlier poem “Easter, 1916,” and the Russian Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the long rule of the
Czars and was accompanied by its full share of lingering chaos. It’s no wonder the poet’s words convey
his sense that the world he knew was coming to an end.
“The Second Coming,” of course, refers to the Christian prophecy in the Bible’s Book of Revelation that
Jesus will return to reign over Earth in the end times. But Yeats had his own mystical view of the history
and future end of the world, embodied in his image of the “gyres,” cone-shaped spirals that intersect so
that each gyre’s narrowest point is contained inside the widest part of the other. The gyres represent
different elemental forces in the historical cycles (or different strains in the development of an individual
human psyche), each beginning in the purity of a concentrated point and dissipating/degenerating into
chaos (or vice versa)—and his poem describes an apocalypse very different from the Christian vision of
the end of the world.