The Second Coming – W. B. Yeats – Analysis

The Second Coming

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 Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

Comments …

It is Advent now and the lead up to the celebration of the birth of Christ. In this poem Yeats considers the lead up to a second coming – the inference is the coming of another being to the world whether or not a second coming of Christ.

The first eight lines of the poem define the nature of a world scene as the prerequisite to such an event. This is not a pleasant view for ‘the best lack all conviction’ the worst ‘full of passionate intensity’. It is as though the world has lost contact with its creator – the falcon not hearing the falconer. And that memorable line ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’.

Yeats also suggest the world will know intuitively when it is time for a second coming. For Yeats it is the ancient image of the Great Sphinx that comes to mind – a sculpture that was created about 2,500 years before the birth of Christ. And Yeats identifies a second coming with the underlying ‘Spirit of the World’ made manifest through this ancient sculpture. But what has invoked the pending birth of this somewhat terrifying mystical monster?

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle

Well, I think the answer is in the above lines – ‘twenty centuries of stony sleep’. When Christ came into the world everything was turned on its head and life suddenly became a little uncomfortable. This is made so very clear on a practical level in the T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’.

The question is has the world responded to any measurable extent to the message of Christ. In Yeats’ scenario it looks like the answer is an emphatic ‘no’. He was writing after the end of the First World War, but what of today – I will leave it for the reader to contemplate on how our world is changing.

Looking at this poem perhaps the ‘response’ to a ‘non-responsive world’ is the coming of something quite frightening exemplified by a slouching sphinx crawling towards Bethlehem to be born.

Alternatively, the slouching sphinx may be the world that we are currently creating. We are perhaps in the process of slouching towards the birth of quite a monster.

Footnotes …

Gyre … a circular course of action, in the context of this poem perhaps a historical cycle of about 2000 years.

Spiritus Mundi  -a Latin term that literally means, ‘world spirit’.

According to William Butler Yeats this is a universal memory and a ‘muse’ of sorts that provides inspiration to artists.

The Great Sphinx of Giza from Wikipedia

The Terrifying One; literally: Father of Dread, commonly referred to as the Sphinx, is a limestone statue of a reclining or couchant sphinx (a mythical creature with a lion’s body and a human head) that stands on the Giza Plateau on the west bank of the Nile in Giza, Egypt. The face of the Sphinx is generally believed to represent the face of the Pharaoh Khafra.

It is the largest monolith statue in the world, standing 73.5 metres (241 ft) long, 19.3 metres (63 ft) wide, and 20.22 m (66.34 ft) high. It is the oldest known monumental sculpture, and is commonly believed to have been built by ancient Egyptians of the Old Kingdom during the reign of the Pharaoh Khafra (c. 2558–2532 BC).

see T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’  

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