W.B. Yeats has been known for bringing mythical events and stories in his poems in the grandest of ways, and The Second Coming is not an exception. But this time, the completely subverts the expectations
The Second Coming is a poem that alludes to the second coming of Christ and the salvation of humanity, but as you read the poem, you’ll realize the Second Coming that Yeats has imagined is completely different from what people think of it.
From invoking imagery that can terrify even the bravest to a message that would make anyone think about the state and nature of the humanity of our times, let’s take a look at the poem and then at the analysis and meaning of the poem.
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 Coming is at hand. 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 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 centuries 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?
Simplification of the Poem
Moving slowly but surely towards the eye of the vortex the falcon failed to hear its master, the falconer Things start to fall apart, no structure can hold itself Destruction is everywhere in the world. A tide colored with blood is loose everywhere and innocence is drowned in this tide of blood. The morally good people, the best people are lacking the conviction to do anything But the wicked people are filled with the passion to take part in this destruction Some revelation is about to come The Second Coming of Christ is about to happen But the moment I think of this word, something happens The universal consciousness puts a vision in my mind that troubles me Somewhere in the sands in some desert, I see a giant creature. It has the head of the man and the body of the line and it looks with blank expression with no pity, like the sun It moves slowly, and the shadows of the terrified birds cast on its legs Darkness falls again, and now I know what is happening The rocking of the cradle has disturbed this creature's twenty centuries of sleep This rough beast has finally awakened and is going toward Bethlehem to be born.
Meaning of the Poem
William Butler Yeats was a poet whose works have shown mostly his thoughts and ideas rather than his feelings and emotions.
Almost all of Yeats’ poems had a religious framework and air to them. The Second Coming is a very different kind of poem as it talks about religious ideas but in a very different way.
The first stanza is about the chaos and the destruction that would ensue during the second coming. Yeats does not hold back when it comes to putting a terrifying image in the minds of the readers.
The Second Coming
According to the Bible, the Second Coming of Christ is a very significant moment in the future when the atrocities of mankind have reached a peak.
When war, greed, famine, and destruction have reached uncontrollable and unredeemable levels, Christ will come again to punish the wrong people and save the good ones. But this “Second Coming” is different.
Yeats starts with the conventional idea of the Second Coming with destruction everywhere. The “falcon” cannot hear the “falconer” which means that humans will start losing their sense, their understanding.
But here’s something different. Instead of the wicked people getting punished and the good people getting saved, here the good people are doing nothing while the worst people are full of “passionate intensity.”
The second stanza is when the idea of “The Second Coming” is completely flipped and turned into a terrifying, grotesque, and dangerous scene.
Yeats says that he thinks that he is witnessing “The Second Coming of Christ” but very soon, the Spiritus Mundi puts a vision in his mind.
Note: The Spiritus Mundi is an idea in which Yeats believed. It is the collective consciousness of the universe that connects every human mind.
The Terrifying Creature: The Sphinx
Yeats says that a vision is given to him wherein he sees someplace in a desert. There is a giant creature with the head of a man and the body of a lion; an Egyptian Sphinx.
This creature has a gaze like a sun; unbothered, without pity, and completely blank, which makes it even more terrifying. Imagine seeing a human face with no human emotions.
The creature moves slowly, and everything around it is scared. The birds are flying in terror. They have no idea where to go. Imagining such a scene can give anyone the chills.
Finally, Yeats understands what is happening. He says that this creature was in slumber, in a cocoon of stone. But its sleep was disturbed by the “rocking of the cradle.”
“Rocking of the cradle” means the violent things humans have done to each other and the world.
Finally, this rough and dangerous beast has awakened and is moving toward Bethlehem to be born. It is the Second Coming, but not the way people had imagined. It is not the Christ who is coming, but something that we deserve at this age.
The Message and Essence of the Poem
After distilling the entire meaning and message of the poem, we can find what Years were trying to tell through these terrifying verses. The Second Coming will happen, just not in the way that we have imagined.
The Bible says that the Second Coming will be when Christ comes and saves the good people while eternally dooming the wicked ones. But that was for an era thousands of years ago.
When Yeats wrote this poem, the world had suffered enough from the bloodshed and damages of the World War.
Yeats wanted to say that humanity has become irredeemable. Christ would only come if there are any good people left. But everyone is wicked in today’s world. So not Christ, but a beast would wake up from its slumber.
In Egyptian mythology, the Sphinx represents Ra-Horakhty. Ra-Horakhty is a form of the Sun God (hence the expression like Sun). The Sphinx is a protector, not of humanity, but of the divine.
Yeats says that when the wickedness of the entire human race has reached the zenith, the protector shall wake up from its sleep and bring destruction upon everyone.
Unlike the “beautiful” destruction that people believe, this will be a pitiless one. No one will be saved, and humanity will suffer from its own wickedness.
Just like doing wrong is considered a crime but letting something wrong happen is a bigger crime, in the Second Coming, the good people will lack action, while the bad people will take advantage.
Literary Devices of the Poem
Alliteration: The example of alliteration in the poem is:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
The darkness drops again, but now I know
Metaphor: Here are some of the metaphors used in the poem
The falcon cannot hear the falconer – Showing that human intellect and understanding will abandon us.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned – The wickedness of humans shall devour the innocence
Symbolism: The poem is rich in symbolic language, which deepens its meaning and resonance. For example:
The Second Coming
The Widening Gyre
The Rough Beast
Allusion: Yeats makes reference to a number of historical and cultural figures and events, which adds depth and complexity to the poem. For example:
- “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” – this echoes the title of Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart” and suggests a world in which traditional structures and values are collapsing.
- “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” – this alludes to the biblical story of the nativity and the birth of Christ, but again subverts the traditional interpretation by suggesting that something monstrous and destructive is coming instead.
The falcon cannot hear the Falconer
The darkness drops again
About the Poet
W.B. Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright who is widely regarded as one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century. His poem “The Second Coming” is considered one of his most famous works and is widely studied in literature courses.
This poem was a powerful tool in putting some conscience in the hearts of people who had been hardened by the atrocities and aftermath of the World War.
From the haunting imagery to the horrific outcome, “The Second Coming” will make anyone feel the fear of destruction that humanity has come to expect.
If you liked reading this poem, then you’d find these poems equally interesting as well. Take a look: