William Butler Yeats is often considered one of the finest poets in the English language. He was born in Dublin, Ireland to Irish-Protestant parents. His father was a painter who influenced the poets' thoughts about art. Yeats's mother shared with him her interest in folklore, fairies, and astrology as well as her love of Ireland. He won the Nobel Prize in literature. Yeats died in France in 1939. William Butler Yeats began his poem, "The Second Coming" in 1919 right after World War One. It is important to note that Yeats did not believe in Christianity. Magic and occult theories are important elements in Yeats's work. Yeats created an imaginary but believable religion that was cyclical. In "The Second Coming" Yeats shows us a vision of full of apocalyptic, ritualistic and mystical symbolism.
"The Second Coming" begins with a feeling of loss of control. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre the falcon cannot hear the falconer." Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" while most of the world was recovering from World War I. Yeats saw the trouble all around himself, and everything spinning out of control. The falcon representing man and the falconer representing God is symbolizing a man turning away from God and of the chaos that was there at the end of the war. The "gyre" is an important symbol in Yeats's poetry, it stands between two historical cycles: one characterized by order and growth, the other by chaos and decay.
The next two lines, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" invokes a deeper feeling of loss of control. The first line serves as a stepping stone to the images of more general chaos that will come. The poem abruptly shifts into a description of "anarchy" and an onslaught of violence in which "the ceremony of innocence is drowned." The speaker laments that only bad people seem to have any enthusiasm now. "To Yeats, the Second Coming grotesquely sketched in the poem is hardly the Christian Parousia, the celebration of the universal presence of the Savior coming on clouds of glory to judge the world". (Carvo).
"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned" describes a scene of violence and terror. This line can be a metaphor for the chaos that came at the end of the war, and all of the destruction that came with it." By presenting its ferociously partisan sentiments in the guise of disinterested cosmic vision, a poem such as ``The Second Coming'' seeks endorsement for its reactionary sentiments, and encourages readers to find confirmation for their local prejudices in the commanding universal statements of art, when those statements are in fact as local, particularised, and prejudiced as the readers". (Smith).
The last two lines in the first part of the poem are "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." If "the best lack all conviction," can they really be that good? Believing in something enough to act on it is kind of what being good is all about. On the other hand, "the worst" have all the "intensity" on their side, which is good for them, but definitely not for everyone else. After the war, things were so chaotic that you could not tell the good and the bad apart.
The second stanza of the poem begins by setting up a new vision "surely some revelation is at hand". The speaker takes the violence which has engulfed society as a sign that "the Second Coming is at hand." It's a revelation, which is when the true meaning of something is revealed. All of the previous violence and moral confusion means "the Second Coming" is at hand.
In the next lines, "The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert", the speaker has a vision while proclaiming the second coming is here. He has a troubling sight as he taps into the Spiritus Mundi, which is spirit of the world or the collective consciousness. The speaker, through his sudden, revelatory connection to the world, is given access to a vision that takes him "somewhere in the sands of the desert." The speaker sees "A shape with lion body and the head of a man". This can symbolize the sphinx, a mythical beast "with lion body and the head of a man." He could also be describing the beast from the book of Revelations.
The speaker then sees this shape "A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds". By calling its gaze "pitiless," he doesn't mean "evil" or "mean-spirited." In fact, the shape really seems to have an inhuman expression that is as indifferent as nature itself. It is "blank," statuesque, and incapable of having empathy with other humans. The slowness seems to add to the suspense and terror of the shape.
After the speaker has his vision from the Spiritus Mundi, "The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle". The speaker was left with a strong prophetic idea. He knows something that he didn't know before, namely, that this strange sphinx is a symbol that will bear on the future. These lines directly relate to the end of the war, and the magnitude of destruction that was seen during WWI, especially the advancements in weaponry and warfare that can only progress to bring more destruction. The cradle reinforces the image that something has recently been "born," and its motion also serves as a metaphor for social upheaval.
"The phrase with which the poem ends emphasises that this is a new beginning as well as a (possibly deserved) end, and Christ's rocking cradle, vexing stony sleep to nightmare, is hardly a positive image of the order now to be overthrown".(Smith). The poem ends with the question, "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" The object of the speaker's vision, which was formerly symbolized as a pitiless sphinx, is now described as a "rough beast" on its way to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, "to be born." Yeats is using the birth at Bethlehem as a metaphor of the passage of this malevolent beast from the spirit world to the real, everyday world, where its effects will be visible to everyone. By phrasing the last lines as a question, Yeats teases us with all the possibilities of what he might be describing. In the time since Yeats wrote the poem, the beast has been interpreted as a prediction of everything bad that the twentieth century has wrought, particularly the horrors of preceding wars. Yeats seem to have a sense that things were still getting worse while most people around him thought things were getting better. "To Yeats, the spirit of this world (the inversion of Spiritus Mundi) finds its metonymic expression in the Museum lions, and the extent of its vision is signaled by "A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun"(Carvo).
We can see that this work is generally viewed as a symbolic revelation of the end of the Christian era, and is one of Yeats's most widely commented-on works. Thought to exemplify Yeats's cyclical interpretation of history, "The Second Coming" is regarded as a masterpiece of Modernist poetry and is variously interpreted by scholars, whose principal concern has been to unravel its complex mystical symbolism.
Yeats may appear a poseur, an impractical Quixote, a gullible attender at seances, a dabbler in the occult, a hierophant of a religion he has himself constructed.(Stauffer).
Works Cited Entry
Carvo, Nathan A. "Yeats's THE SECOND COMING." The Explicator 59.2 (2001): 93.Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.
Smith, Stan. "The Second Coming: Overview." Reference Guide to English Literature. Ed.D.L.Kirkpatrick. 2nd ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.
Stauffer, Donald A. "A Half Century of the High Poetic Art of William Butler Yeats." The New York Herald Tribune Book Review 27.38 (6 May 1951): 3. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. Carol T. Gaffke. Vol. 20. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 12 Mar. 2011.