William B. Yeats (1865-1939)
The Christian era draws to its close; now that its 'great year' of two thousand years is ending. We do not know what the new shape of things will be but it must be terror-filled for us by virtue of the simple fact that it will entitle so revolutionary a change.
The poem is one of those few compositions which can be understood if we have some knowledge of Yeats’ philosophy of history. Yeats believed that history runs in cycle. He equates it with the motion of swiftly rotating gyres or cones. The gyres rotate rapidly round a fixed center. Their circumference widens as they rotate and at last disintegration sets in. The disintegration starts at the circumference and gradually involves the center as well.
Yeats believed that the present cycle of history began two thousand years ago with the birth of Christ. Prior to it here prevailed on the continent the Grecio-Roman civilization which began in 2000B.C. with the mating of god Zeus with Leda. As a sequel to this union, Helen, Castor, Pollex and Clytemnestra were born. The Greico-Roman civilization attained its climax about 1000 B.C. when Homer composed his two epics.
The Grecio-Roman civilization collapsed after enjoying a life span of 2000 years. Christ came and a new civilization was born out of the ashes of the earlier civilization. Likewise, the Christian civilization has nearly run its course of two thousand years, and hence, Yeats believes a second coming is imminent. History repeats itself, albeit with some difference. The present wheel of history has come full circle and a new civilization is coming into being. The birth of the new civilization may strike us the death of the old, its merits may seem to us horrifying, the very idea may be like a dreadful dream. But a change is positively coming and very likely the future is already being formed in some distant region.
Eventually, The Second Coming is based upon the cyclic philosophy of gyres and reincarnation but, allowance being made for this parable convention, can be taken as a direct prophecy of imminent disaster.
Sharma, K.N. "The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats: Introduction." BachelorandMaster, 5 June 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/second-coming-introduction.html.