The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation

This strange visionary poem seems to anticipate the terrible history of coming violence and savagery of the Second World War. The "rough beast" referred to in the second last line of the poem might almost literally be identified with Hitler, whose career in politics was just beginning at the time the poem was written. The poet's mind was filled with gloom in consequence of the widespread murder and bloodshed in Ireland in the course of the Easter rebellion of 1916.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The Irish civil war/ that followed the great war of 1914 and various other events in Europe added to that gloom.

The 'second' coming refers back to the 'first' coming of the beastly aspect of the divine in the form of the swan (in 'Leda and the Swan") to conceive and give rise to a beastly civilization after the fall of the Babylonian civilization. That coming of the destructive age marked by the conception of Helen and Clytemnestra (and the two war gods) from the rape of the swan brought down the high intellectual, ideal and spiritual kind of human, civilization of the Greeks. That rape was the conception not only of just two beautiful girls but symbolically of a destructive civilization itself. The second coming of this poem is the return of the beastly civilization, metaphorically and symbolically, as the poet could feel and envision in the face of the growing hostility worldwide after witnessing the ravages of the First World War and when he could almost certainly anticipate an even more destructive one (the second) impending upon the fate of mankind. The poem is based on Yeats' cyclical theory of history; that history moves in vast two thousand years circles, each cycle representing a civilization and religio-mystical revelation of some kind. The second coming here is not really a second coming of Christ himself, but of a new figure - in this case of a cruel, bestial, pitiless being which will represent the new era as Christ symbolized the old spiritual one. Thus, a new, rough beast is going to take Christ's place in the cradle at Bethlehem, where it will "Vex" man's old sleep to a new nightmare. "The Second Corning" is based upon his cyclic philosophy of gyres and reincarnation but which, allowance being made for this parable convention, can be taken as direct prophecy of imminent disaster.

The title of the poem suggests a new manifestation of the divine to man. In the first stanza, the poet describes the present state of the world - its political upheavals, the chaos and cynicism of modern civilization, the haphazard brutality of contemporary culture. The first image, of the falcon losing control of its keeper (master) summarizes all this. The fixed point - the central belief or idea - around which our civilization (i.e. Christianity) had revolved (like a falcon) has lost its power; it can no longer hold society in an orderly structure like a wheel around it. Instead, things are flying away, falling apart; our civilization is disintegrating. Besides, the falcon-falconer image signifies (since the medieval times in Europe), the total whole of the human being - the falcon as the will-power, and the master as the conscience; now when the falconer (or soul/conscience) is losing control of his falcon (body/desire/instinct/will power) the disaster is certain. Human beings are becoming more like animals because of this losing of control by the driver on the moving vehicle.

"Things fall apart: the center cannot hold". The falconer has lost control over the falcon, which does not hear his call. Falcon symbolizes the intellect, and falconer the spiritual and emotional make-up of man. Intellect, i.e. science, technology and rationalism, is too much with us, and it is leading us to wholesale annihilation. As a result, sheer anarchy has been let loose upon the world. There's violence, and bloodshed on all sides. "The blood-dimmed tide" is suggestive of Biblical as well as historical situation of a blood-bespattered situation of the world in the nineteen thirties. The purity and innocence is everywhere threatened with extinction. The body of a lion with head of human being is seen coming out of some distant desert and advancing slowly with clumsy movement towards Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ. This powerful poem is the poet's vision that the Christian civilization was nearing the end of its allotted span of two thousand years, and new phase was about to begin.

In the second stanza the poet declares that all this chaos, confusion and disintegration must surely be a sign of a revelation, "A second coming (of the beast) is at hand". And even as he says this, he experiences the extraordinary vision, which is the poem's climax. He sees "a vast image out of "Spiritus Mundi" (the world-spirit or what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung would call the social unconscious. A sphinx-like creature, "a shape with lion body and the head of a man," is moving across the desert. "That twenty centuries of stony sleep/ were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle" - that is, that the two thousand years sleep of Pre-Christian man was roused and troubled by the first coming, the coming of Christ. This moves the poet to wonder now, two thousand years later, as he waits for the second coming of such an earth-shaking new spirit, "what rough beast, its hour come round at last/ slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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Sharma, K.N. "The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation." BachelorandMaster, 5 June 2017,