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ANALYSIS OF “THE SECOND COMING”


By Chad Detjen

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865. He spent most of his

childhood life in County Silgo, where his parents grew up, and in London. At the age of

15, Yeats returned back to Ireland, where he continued his education and found his love

for poetry. He became involved with the Celtic Revival, which promoted the spirit of

Ireland’s heritage, and most of Yeats’ writings were drawn from the Irish mythology and

folklore. Yeats was also involved and interested in politics and wrote about the state in

which Ireland was in and the rest of Europe was in during his lifetime. Because of this

involvement, Yeats was elected Senator of the Irish Free Republic in 1922. As Yeats

grew older, he spent a lot of time with philosophical writings and became interested in

mysticism and the occult. As his writings became more popular, he became recognized

as one of the greatest poets to come out of Ireland. Before his death in 1939, Yeats won a

Nobel Piece Prize in recognition of his work as a writer (W.B. Yeats NP).

One of Yeats’ most famous poems is “The Second Coming” (reprinted in Thomas

R. Arp and Greg Johnson, Perine’s Sound and Sense, 10th ed.(Fort Worth: Harcourt,

2001] page 404), which he wrote in 1919 right at the end of WWI . During this time,

many people believed that this war was going to be the “war to end all wars” because of

the size and the destruction that the war brought to the entire world. In total, it was

estimated that nearly 10 million soldiers were killed and another 20 million were

wounded (The War to End All Wars NP). Throughout this poem, Yeats makes notions

that he too believed that this war was going to be the end as well. The title of this poem

alludes to the Second Coming of Christ. In Christian belief, the Second Coming marks
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the end of the world, where the dead will be raised and brought to the final judgement

(Notes and Comments NP). According to Matt. 24:29, the world will be in a state of

“tribulation.” Many believe that this tribulation will be in the form of a great war or

Armageddon, and Christ will mark the end of this war (The Second Coming (NP).

The first line of the poem makes a reference to a “widening gyre.” In a book

entitled A Vision, Yeats wrote that each cycle of history is called a gyre, which is made

up of 2,000-year eras. Each of the eras, he wrote, will begin and end with some

apocalyptic event, where Christ will intervene in some way (Notes and Comments (NP).

Right from the start, Yeats sets the tone of the poem by mentioning this belief, and he

goes on to state what he believes this apocalyptic event will bring to the world. In the

following two lines, Yeats states that technology has become so great that it has disrupted

the world and has caused chaos. In line two he writes “The falcon cannot hear the

falconer.” A falcon was the name of a warplane, so it is apparent that humans have

become too technologically advanced for their own good, and because of this, the world

is in a state of “mere anarchy.”

As the Bible states, the world is now in a state or pure tribulation, and Yeats

explains this state in the next five lines of the poem. He describes the world as being in a

state of “mere anarchy.” Throughout these five lines, Yeats uses a lot of imagery to paint

a picture of what the war has done to the world. In line five he writes, “The blood-

dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” These

two lines illustrate how much destruction was caused by this immense war, that even the

innocent have been injured by this destruction. Up until this point in history, WWI was

the biggest war, and Yeats is trying to capture what it did to the world in these lines.
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Yeats ends this first stanza by stating that many do not believe that this war was the end

of all wars. “The best lack all conviction.” However, others, possibly the leaders of the

world powers are still full of hatred and passion. “The worst/Are full of passionate

intensity.” Yeats may be envisioning World War II by referring to the worst of all

people, which could be Hitler coming to power.

The first stanza merely sets up the current condition of the world after WWI. The

second stanza, however, states what this war could mean. In lines nine and ten, Yeats

states that this war is a beginning of a revelation and believes that it is the mark of the

Second Coming of Christ. As he thinks of this Second Coming, he envisions things out

of “Spiritus Mundi.” Yeats defines Spiritus Mundi as a “general storehouse of images

which have ceased to be the property of any personality or spirit” (The Collected Poems

493). Yeats begins to envision these images that are not human and do not have a spirit

like humans do. In lines 13 and 14 Yeats describes to the reader just what it is he is

imagining when he thinks of the Second Coming. “Troubles my sight: somewhere in the

sands of the desert/A shape with lion body and the head of a man.” Yeats’ description is

that of a Sphinx, which is made up of the face of a woman; the breast, feet, and tail of a

lion; and the wings of a bird. According to mythology, the Sphinx was sent to Thebes by

Hear, the Queen of Heaven and began ravaging fields and eating up people (Sphinx NP).

Yeats continues to describe his vision of the sphinx as having “A gaze blank and

pitiless as the sun.” He compares the face of the sphinx to a sun, which has no emotion.

The sun could also symbolize heaven or Christ. Yeats’ envisions the sphinx is the

symbol of the Second Coming, and Christ is taking this form. The remaining lines give

evidence for this interpretation. Yeats describes that “indignant birds” surround the
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sphinx as it begins to move. The birds are yet another symbol of the Second Coming;

they are angry because of the current state of humanity, and they are following Christ to

end this era of humanity and bring people to their judgement day. Yeats goes on in line

18 to describe that darkness has taken over. In Christian belief, darkness is the symbol of

the end of the world and the day of judgement. It is apparent that the end of an era is

here.

The remaining four lines give more evidence that Christ has taken the form of the

Sphinx and has come to end this part of history. In line 19 Yeats states, “That twenty

centuries of stony sleep, were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.” Twenty centuries

is exactly 2,000 years; this line brings the reader back to the first line of the poem where

Yeats mentions a gyre. The end almost ties directly with the beginning, and it is written

in a cyclical fashion to show Yeats’ belief that the world runs in cycles. 2,000 years is

what Yeats envisioned to be the end of the first period of history, where Christ will take

some form and come to Earth to end this era. It is now quite evident that the sphinx is

indeed Christ, and it is Christ who will end this period. Yeats does not believe that it is

the end of the world like many Christians believe, but he believes that it is just the end of

the first period of history, and the human race will start anew. This line also makes the

reader refer back to the first stanza, where Yeats mentions that “The falcon cannot hear

the falconer.” This exemplifies the fact that man has become too advanced and must

begin a new era in history.

The “rocking cradle” refers again to Christ. His cradle was disturbed after 2000

years, and it is time for Christ to end this period in history. After the Second Coming and

the end of the first period of history, Christ’s work is now done for the time being.
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Christ, who is still in the form of the sphinx “Slouches towards Bethlehem,” where,

according to Christian belief, is Christ’s birthplace. The last line poses the question of

whether or not Christ will spawn a new era and have humanity start fresh. Yeats did

believe cyclical periods, so this may mean that humanity will start all over again for

another 2,000 years. After another 2,000 years, will Christ come back yet again for a

Third Coming? This is the question that Yeats leaves the reader with.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this poem because it made me research many things.

Because this is a poem with a lot of biblical and mythological references, it forced me to

learn more about religion, which is something that I am not too familiar with. As I

researched the poem, I became aware of different philosophical views of the world. It

made me think about our current state of humanity where technology is almost taking

control over us. After reading this poem, I began to think that maybe our world is indeed

becoming too technologically advanced for our own good. People always say that if we

were to have another world war it would be the end of our civilization. I have to agree

with this statement, and now I begin to wonder about the Second Coming myself.

I also like how well the entire poem flows together. Yeats was a believer in

cycles, and he wrote this poem in this fashion. I think that it is amazing how deep this

poem is; I believe that Yeats designed this poem in this way to leave it up to

interpretation. All great poets are able to do this, and I think Yeats does this very well in

this particular poem. After all he was a philosopher as well, I think he is trying to make

the reader come up with his or her own philosophy about the world. You cannot help but

reflect on humanity after reading this poem, and I think that this is what Yeats was trying

to make his readers do.


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WORKS CITED

The Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats. Macmillan Publishing Company. New York, 1983.

Notes and Comments on “The Second Coming.” 13 March 2001

<http://www.stfrancis.edu/en/yeats.htm>.

The Second Coming. 13 March 2001

<http://www.mormons.org/basic/christ/second/lund_eom.htm>.

Sphinx. 13 March 2001 <http://hsa.brown.edu/~maicar/Sphinx.html>.

The War to End All Wars. 13 March 2001

<http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/special_report/1998/10/98/world_war_i/newsid_198000/198172

.stm>.

W.B. Yeats. 13 March 2001 < http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=118>.