Literature

A Short Analysis of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’

A summary and analysis of one of W. B. Yeats’s most famous poems by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘The Second Coming’ is one of W. B. Yeats’s best-known poems, and its meaning has eluded many readers because of its oblique references and ambiguous images. What follows is a short summary and analysis of the poem. What does ‘the second coming’ refer to, and how does it fit with Yeats’s own beliefs?

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?

The poem, in summary, prophesies that some sort of Second Coming (traditionally, this is the return of Christ to Earth, as was promised in the New Testament) is due, and that the anarchy that has arisen all around the world (partly because of the events of the First World War, though the tumultuous events in Yeats’s home country of Ireland are also behind the poem) is a sign that this Second Coming cannot be far off. (Yeats wrote ‘The Second W B YeatsComing’ in 1919, and it was published two years later in his volume Michael Robartes and the Dancer.

In the run-up to the millennium, the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ – traditionally, anyway – many people began to consider the possibility of this ‘Second Coming’ more.) The ‘gyre’ metaphor Yeats employs in the first line (denoting circular motion and repetition) is a nod to Yeats’s mystical belief that history repeats itself in cycles. But the gyre is ‘widening’: it is getting further and further away from its centre, its point of origin. In short, it’s losing control, and ‘the centre cannot hold’.

But what sort of Second Coming will it be? It’s almost been ‘twenty centuries’, or 2,000 years, since Christ came to Earth in human form and was crucified; what ‘rough beast’ will reveal itself this time? Perhaps it will not be a Christ in human form, but something altogether different. The reference to Spiritus Mundi, literally ‘spirit of the world’, is, like the ‘gyre’, another allusion to Yeats’s beliefs: for Yeats, the Spiritus Mundi was a sort of collective soul containing all of mankind’s cultural memories – not just Christian memories, but those from other societies.

‘A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun’ suggests something altogether different from Jesus Christ – it’s got more in common with the Sphinx, that giant stone sculpture of a human-cat hybrid found near the Pyramids at Giza (Yeats’s word ‘gaze’ even faintly suggests ‘Giza’), which belongs to a different civilisation from the Christian one, and indeed predated it.

Similarly, the other famous sphinx, the one that posed a riddle about mankind to Oedipus, belongs to yet another religious and cultural tradition: the ancient Greeks. The effect of this is to decentre Christianity (‘the centre cannot hold’, after all) from its apparently secure place in western civilisation, and to question what form a ‘Second Coming’, if it occurs, might take. Perhaps other civilisations, after all, have been waiting for their deities to return.

The famous lines in the first stanza of the poem describe a time of chaos:

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.

‘Things fall apart’ was used by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe as the title of his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart – tellingly, about the chaos that empire had created on the African continent (compare Harold Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ speech about Africa). Although these events – African countries gaining their independence from European imperial powers – were quite a way off when Yeats wrote the poem, they are nevertheless relevant since they point up another context for ‘The Second Coming’: the First World War, only recently over when Yeats wrote ‘The Second Coming’, had also shaken up empires, and, indeed, led to the fall of four of them (the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, German, and Russian).

Note how Yeats’s words in the above passage suggest the chaotic nature of world events and the disaster this spells: loosed and world suggests this worldwide anarchy, only for the two words to become joined in that doom-laden word, worst, a few lines later. Worldwide chaos is the worst thing that could happen right now, and is bleakly ominous.

Indeed, although the poem is unrhymed, like many poems written around this time – such as poems of the First World War by Wilfred Owen and others – it utilises other techniques that stand in for traditional rhyme: pararhyme (hold/world, man/sun), repetition (at hand/at hand), and what we might call semantic rhyme (sleep/cradle). These are worth analysing and pondering on in more detail. And then we have the wordplay:

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 word order in that final line, with the verb ‘Reel’ being placed before the noun, summons up the spectre of a homophone, ‘Real’ – but shadows are not real, so this is an illusion, a desert mirage.

Indeed, like another great modernist poem about the fallout of the First World War, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ fuses images and themes involving apocalypse, the desert, religion, and the fall of civilisations. The poem also carries echoes of Shelley’s enigmatic poem ‘Ozymandias’, which we’ve analysed here.

Many of Yeats’s most celebrated poems end with a question: ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ (‘Among School Children’); ‘Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?’ (‘Leda and the Swan’). ‘The Second Coming’ is another such poem. It’s elusive and ambiguous, defying any straightforward analysis. Partly this is what makes it so compelling: it is a poem that asks questions, rather than providing answers. We haven’t tried to offer any easy answers here, but merely drawn attention to some details of the poem which are of interest.

About W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.

His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).

Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

For more on Yeats, see our analysis of his popular poem ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ and our commentary on ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. The best edition of Yeats’s essential poetry (and some of his prose and dramatic works) is The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). It also has a very helpful introduction and copious notes. We’ve offered some tips for writing a brilliant English Literature essay here.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: W. B. Yeats by George Charles Beresford, 1911; Wikimedia Commons.

9 Comments

  1. Pingback: A Short Analysis of Yeats’s ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ | Interesting Literature

  2. I always took it as a dark Advent poem. The final line “…and what rough beast its hour come at last slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” is actually quite horrifying as though something terrible has lurched from the shadows instead of the meek and gentle savior the world expects. This poem and “The Two Trees” are two of my favorite verses of all time. I think they show how much of a mystic Yeats was, something I knew since high school but only realized how much so lately. Excellent analysis by the way, too!

  3. I love Yeats, but is it wrong that I looked at that picture and though of Mark Ruffalo?

  4. Pingback: A Short Analysis of Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ | JCU // Creative Writing Workshop

  5. Thanks for this. Great poem but I’ve never really understood it so this is really helpful.

  6. Thanks for posting this analysis of a great poem by Yeats.

  7. There is a movie clip I combine with this poem which has Hopkins as Nixon and he’s speaking with Sam — who is the head of the CIA. The context is perfect.

  8. Yeats was connected with Theosophy, a spiritual movement that began in the 19th century, and continues today in places like Halcyon, California. The Theosophists hold to the idea of cycles, which could explain his emphasis on that.

  9. It sounds as if we are in that period right now.