Yeats The Second Coming Yeats

The Second Coming #

Despite its misunderstanding, this is Yeats' most quoted poem. It acquires a timely relevance whenever we feel the Dionysian mindset prevails over the Apollonian. Like Hegel, Yeats believed in the dialectical pendulum swinging back and forth between order and chaos. Yeats uses the models of his gyres or spirals to illustrate his theories.

Decline and Fall of Civilisations #

Hysterical claims of imminent disaster are legendary such as Chicken Little’s prediction that “the sky is falling in” or Hanrahan’s forlorn and dire warning that “we’ll all be rooned” Prophets of doom and gloom have persisted throughout all ages enervating and sapping aspirations. Bang or whimper? Ice or fire? Divine plan or cosmic accident? Alien invaders or genetically enhanced apes? The end of the world is painful to contemplate but also hard to resist thinking about, partly because there are so many wild and scary imaginative possibilities. (tagline of movie Melancholia)

It was the publication of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1789, that resigned historians to accept the ultimate doom of Western Civilisation as all civilisations are prone to.

Oscar Spengler, author of Decline of the West, 1918 presented a worldview that resonated with post-WWI German culture. His grim view of an inexorable doom for western civilization implied acceptance of fate, but also offered a sense of freedom from the past. His historical idea influenced artists and architects, who used it as a justification for abandoning the historic styles, now no longer valid for the new era.

Spengler recognises 8 Cultures that died out: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Classical (Greek / Roman), Arabian (Magian),
Western (Faustian), Mexican (Aztec / Mayan)

His worldview also took a dim view of democracy as the type of government of the declining civilization. He argued that democracy is driven by money and therefore easily corruptible. Spengler initially supported the rise of a strong-willed leader type of government as the next phase after democracy fails.

Hegel postulated the theory of the dialectical of change; it is largely cyclical. Hegel saw the nature of change like the swinging of a pendulum, the dominant ideology is challenged by something diametrically opposite; the thesis, with its antithesis. A compromise called a synthesis is reached; this becomes the dominant thesis and in time it is challenged by another polarized opposite. A compromise is reached and the synthesis becomes the new thesis and so on.

Karl Marx seized on Hegel’s theory and developed his economic principles on this

Hegel also uses Greek gods epitomise times. Sometimes the owl of Minerva takes flight, sometimes the dogs of Ares, other times the goat of Bacchus rules. Under Apollonian rule reason and order prevail, when Dionysius is in charge duty and care are maintained.

In a letter dated May 16, 1945, Wallace Stevensposed a question as a statement:

“At the moment, the war is shifting from Europe to Asia, and why one should be writing about poetry at all is hard to understand.” Faced with destruction and death, the action of criticism feels cold and academic. Poetry, on the other hand, becomes necessary as the world crumbles. After 9/11, poetry seemed natural; many of us in New York City and its shadow carried folded copies of W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden.

If we accept Stevens’s definition of the poetic act as “the desire to contain the world wholly within one’s own perception of it,” then poems about the end are simultaneously selfish and heroic attempts at survival. Yeats laments for the diminishment of high culture, harboring anxieties around the unwashed taking over the world.

According to Richard Cooke, in The Monthly, "

Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, “The Second Coming” can only be invoked so frequently if it is misunderstood. It is not a warning about the “danger flags” of fascism at all, but a totalitarian-curious piece of pageantry for fascism, from a self-declared aristocratic fascist. When Orwell was fighting with anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, Yeats was writing marching songs for the other side – he was one of the people Orwell was talking about when he said “I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere”. This symbiosis is now less common, but still one the Apollonians have no real explanation for. Why should we “heed” this warning, if it didn’t even work on its author"?

I. Subject Matter – Context and Background #

Written during 1919, this poem deals with apocalyptic times, specifically the pandemic of what is wrongly called the Spanish flu and the problems with Irish Black and Tan uprisings, but ultimately with the much broader significance of disintegration, decline and dissolution. The poem is full of global historical allusions from an Olympian view that portend disaster, yet assures us that life will go on. References to the Sphinx and Bethlehem straddle both the pagan and Judeo-Christian religions. Yeats is very much a classicist, conservative and traditionalist preferring aristocratic order to anarchistic democracy.

The Second Coming forms part of a swag of key modernist works of art following the First World War and a world wide pandemic spread by American soldiers transported at the end of the war. Other works include: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway….. Most had personal experiences with the trauma caused by the devastation of the war and the pandemic. More people died of the pandemic than the total losses of the war. According to Elizabeth Outka, Yeats’ wife, Georgie, pregnant, contracted the flu, but survived. “Dublin is full of coffins, hearses and funerals because of so many deaths from the pandemic, that it seems his whole world is coming apart.

Outka sees evidence to read the poem as a delirium poem, with its bleeding from the eyes, nose and mouth. She attributes our cultural amnesia to the fact that epidemics are so traumatic, people want to forget. The remains a stigma because plagues are caused by filth from the fleas of rats. Primitive cultures attribute pestilence to vengeance from the gods.

Christians, refer to a Second Coming of Christ returning to usher in a thousand years of peace. They have anticipated the return of Christ for two millenia, in fact his disciples believed it would happen in their life time. Successive generations have predicted the precise time of his second appearance or the end of the world repeatedly. Precise dates have been nominated at least 100 times. As one shock jock assured us, ”if it doesn’t happen today, don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world”.

The paranoid 1950’s foresaw a radioactive demise in On the Beach, set in Melbourne while Melancholia predicts an unknown planet on a crash course towards earth. T.S. Eliot foretold an ending “not with a bang, but a whimper”.

II.Sound Effects #

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

The poem begins with an alarmist tone of chaos and loss of control where all our central certainties appear to have been destroyed. Order has crumbled. There is a strong mood of foreboding – pessimism - but it is later balanced by a detached though powerful tone of authority, gravitas and optimism; an assurance that all is not lost and that historically we will survive any calamity.

The repetitive alliterative “Surely some revelation” and “Surely the Second Coming” denotes a more positive assurance of continuity.

III. Themes, concerns, issues - values #

Yeats uses the symbol of Ireland as microcosm of the rest of the world to illustrate his eccentric view of the historical cycles. The cone has reached its utmost expansion and the age is one of political discord.

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 convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“The blood dimmed tide” likely refers to the slaughter of six million young men during the First World War.

The last two lines best illustrate his opposition to modernity, populism and change. His was a nostalgia for the ancient Ireland/World that remained aristocratic and authoritarian –an Oligarchy:

We Irish, born into that ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineaments … Yeats, The Statues (l. 28-32).

The threat to order came not from Nazism or Communism (he supported fascism and Mussolini) but from Democracy – “the mob” – “this filthy modern tide” and he also supported eugenics to protect us from “its formless spawning”.

The lines: That twenty centuries of stony sleep/Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, are perplexing. They appear accusatory. Yeats, as many others sees Christianity as a malign force in supressing open minded scientific inquiry by its demands of faith – the scholastic logic of Don Scotus that prefers a priori thinking. The “nightmare” could refer to the blood soaked Holy Wars that ravaged the Western World from the time of the Innocents of Bethlehem through to the First WW.

While Yeats warns that the world is in the grip of anarchy and rages against fanaticism and hatred, he does not brood over the present. He sees hope for the future:

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

This is not the Second Coming referred to by Christians but likely from the East. Yeats hopes that with the explosion of the cone or gyre of history some supernatural influx will usher in a new antithetical age, classical and aristocratic. Thus there is no need for despair.

Even though men and civilisations perish; life, especially as shown through Art, can conquer time and will survive into the future.


Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climactic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc


Gyres – Yeats’ special term for his spirals of history’s cycles. For a full explanation of Yeats’ gyres @

Most people believe in the continuity of history or patterns of similarity, such as George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the Past are condemned to repeat it to which others have responded: - History does repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the next time as farce” ( Marx) and “*Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up” * to Mark Twain’s sardonic, “*History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot”. *

**Falconer - fledgling falcons and other birds of were trained to return to their masters on command by the reward of food. From medieval times the training of falcons, as part of hunting, enjoyed the reputation of dutiful, loyal and servile birds.

“Blood-dimmed tide” - War – especially WWI.

“ceremony of innocence” Yeats loved pomp, pageantry and ceremony.

“Spiritus mundi*” *(literally “spirit of the world”) is a reference to Yeats' belief that each human mind is linked to a single vast intelligence, and that this intelligence causes certain universal symbols to appear in individual minds. We know that Yeats was anti-science and anti-rationalism, believing that mystical visions and spiritual intuition were often more reliable.

Shape of Lion body.. a likely reference to the Sphinx in Egypt – an enigmatic pagan spiritual symbol. The simile, “pitiless as the sun” reveals Yeats’ theory about a vast indifferent universe.

rough beast’ (another echo of Revelation, see Rev 13), that the beast’s hour has ‘come round at last’,


Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.
Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.

Yeats uses arcane diction – words with specialised meanings – to add weight to his assertions. The word “gyre” refers to his personal view of the cycles of history.

Repetition- “turning and turning”, “falcon… falconer”, “loosed… loosed”, “surely… surely”, “the Second Coming… The Second Coming!"

“revelation” There is a biblical resonance to much of the language; “rocking cradle” , “rough beast” and “Bethlehem”

The verb ‘Slouches’ adds to the sinister aura, with its precise, feline blend of casualness and stalking, but despite the sensuousness of this verb and of the ‘slow thighs’, the beast has not yet been born into the physical world.

The lines:

The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

likely refer to his abhorrence of populism in democracy and he may have read Bertram Russell’s quote: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of self-doubt.


This would have to be Yeats’ most famous poem. It best illustrates his reaction to modernity and change. His was a nostalgia for the ancient Ireland/World that remained aristocratic and authoritarian –an Oligarchy:

We Irish, born into that ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineamentsThe Statues (l. 28-32).

The threat to order came not from Nazism or Communism (he supported fascism and Mussolini) but from Democracy – “the mob” – “this filthy modern tide” and he also supported eugenics to protect us from “its formless spawning”.

Yeats differs from many of his contemporary writers who appear to succumb to despair believing that the world is on a fatal downward projectory; Yeats is much more sanguine (positive) adopting an optimistic prescient world view that though the west is in decline, the Orient will provide hope for the future.