My analysis of W. B. Yeats – ‘The Second Coming’

This poem was composed by Yeats in 1919, just at the end of the First World War (the ‘recovery’ period, if you like), and it was originally named ‘The Second Birth’. The poem is considered a major work of Modernist poetry and has been reprinted in several collections, including ‘The Norton Anthology of Modernist Poetry’.

The first stanza of the poem begins by describing the conditions present in the world, “Things fall apart”, “Mere anarchy”, and the second surmises from those conditions that a monstrous Second Coming is about to take place, not of the Jesus we first knew, but of a new messiah, a “rough beast,” the slouching sphinx rousing itself in the desert and lumbering toward Bethlehem. This brief exposition, though intriguingly blasphemous, is not terribly complicated; but the question of what it should signify to a reader is another story entirely.

As it was written post WW1, you would think this poem to be full of hope and youthfulness (like Europe should have been), but instead, Yeats takes a turn and instead composed this poem as a way to describe what he finds most terrifying post- WW1. 

‘The Second Coming’ seems to be written in blank verse, as it has a consistent meter (rough iambic pentameter), but doesn’t include any strict rhyme scheme. It includes twenty two lines split into two stanzas, but does not appear to follow any particular formal tradition. The second stanza of the poem is made up of fourteen lines, this suggestively creates the impression it could be a sonnet, as it uses the same line length. The first stanza, however, is only made up of eight lines, this could be thought of as a fragment of a sonnet that is ‘interrupted’ by the full sonnet of the second stanza. However, these aren’t ‘true’ sonnets in the classic sense because of the un-structured rhyme scheme. 

The title of the poem, ‘The Second Coming’, refers to the Second Coming of Christ, as predicted in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Bible. The phrase, “the second coming”, stands as a symbol of its own, gathered from the history and consciousness of humankind back to the beginning of recorded time, referred to in the poem as “Spiritus Mundi”. This book is also known as the Apocalypse and is seen as the most violent parts of the bible. Also, when Yeats wrote the poem, World War I had just ended in Europe, and a lot of people were starting to take the idea of a “war to end all wars” more seriously. They were also worried about how to tell good and evil apart. Amid this pessimistic atmosphere, Yeats adds a sinister twist to the idea of the Second Coming in his poem, suggesting that the end of history might not be heralded by the return of Christ at all, but by the coming of the Antichrist – a symbol of violence and chaos in the world.

A main technique in which Yeats uses in this poem (as well as throughout all of his poetry), is the use of unexplained symbols. Such as “Falcon”, “A shape with lion body and the head of a man” (referring to the Egyptian Sphinx), and “rough beast”. This technique of taking symbols from a variety of sources e.g the Bible, history, folklore, Greek mythology, and his own plays is popular throughout Yeats’ poetry. Yeats’ use of rich and vivid symbols in this poem creates a feeling of disaster, turning to dread at the thought of facing a change, even when such change could be an improvement.

The opening line begins with the repetition of “Turning and turning”, could be a symbol to life. And the “widening gyre”, Yeats uses this symbol throughout his poetry. Technically, it stands from the alternation between two historical cycles: one characterized by order and growth, the other by chaos and decay. It’s also comparable to the Chinese concepts of Yin and Yang. A tone of confusion and tension is set from the first opening lines. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer”, symbolising the things being out of sync and the chaos that Europe had been left with post WW1. The “falcon” may also be a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth regarding to the unnatural events occurring on the morning after the death of King Duncan, “On Tuesday last / A falcon, towering in her pride of place”. “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” could be referring to a society out of control and again, works with the line before it of the “falcon cannot hear the falconer” in adding to this idea of chaos. These two lines create a fast rhythm to the reader, projecting a sense of almost desperation. “Mere anarchy” could mean a couple of things; perhaps nothing more than confusion, or a confusion that was once held back by civilization, but is now free, and ironically, binding at the same time. When some commit anarchy, others are bound by the consequences of the anarchist’s actions and are paradoxically not free to be anarchic themselves.

The second stanza appears more prophetic, with the repetition of the first word of the two lines “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand”, the repetition of “surely” expresses the doubt that Yeats would have been feeling during the time. “Desert sand”, adds to the semantic field of religion, possibly referring to the time where Jesus was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit so that the devil could test him. “The head of a man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”. Gives no specific personification to this character that we can be drawn to or admire. This somehow repels the reader from this inhuman thing that moves closer and closer, like death. There will be a death when it arrives to its destination; the death of old ideas, and the destiny of man shot in another direction, from which it may then spiral again in yet another “widening gyre”.

There are two types of language that is used in this poem, firstly Yeats uses sinister like language, “blood-dimmed”, “drowned”, “nightmare” to express the terror occurring during the idea of Armageddon and ascension day. Also the use of religious language, “desert sand”, “rocking cradle”, “Bethlehem to be born”. These two language types used together in this poem creates a huge paradox in which is conveyed throughout the whole of the poem.

‘The Second Coming’ is considered a major work of modernist poetry and has been used/adapted in popular culture today. Here are some interesting examples I have found during my research;

  • DC Comics’ series ‘Batman: The Widening Gyre’, written by Kevin Smith, and illustrated by his lifelong friend and muse, Walter Flanagan, was titled after the opening line of this poem and draws heavily on Yeats’ themes and symbolism.
  • Stephen King’s novel ‘The Stand’ quotes the poem and heavily references the poem throughout the book. Many plot points parallel lines from the poem.
  • In the comic ‘V for Vendetta’ by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the character V quotes the poem.
  • In the TV series ‘Heroes’, Season 3 Episode 1 is titled “The Second Coming”, and the narrator recites the poem in the closing moments of the show.

– I hope you have found this blog post useful in your own analysis of ‘The Second Coming’, here are some websites that I found the most useful in my research of this poem;

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Second_Coming_(poem)

http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/yeats/section5.rhtml

http://www.shmoop.com/second-coming/analysis.html

http://voices.yahoo.com/a-poetry-analysis-william-butler-yeats-second-3366224.html

 

Thanks for reading! –

 

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