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Spiritus Mundi: Definition & Overview

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Instructor: Debbie Notari

Debbie Notari received her Bachelor’s degree in English and M.S. in Education Literacy and Learning for Grades 6-12. Debbie has over 28 years of teaching experience, teaching a variety of grades for courses like English, Reading, Music, and more.

William Butler Yeats' poem, 'The Second Coming' demonstrates his personal conception of 'Spiritus Mundi' as a universal memory and muse of poetic inspiration. Explore an overview of his philosophy through the three stanzas of this ominous poem. Updated: 09/21/2021

Definition of Spiritus Mundi

Spiritus Mundi is a Latin term that literally means, ''world spirit.'' In Spiritus Mundi, there is, according to William Butler Yeats, ''a universal memory and a 'muse' of sorts that provides inspiration to the poet or writer.'' To Yeats, Spiritus Mundi is the source of all ''images'' and ''symbols,'' a ''collective unconscious.'' Spiritus Mundi is difficult to understand, but we will unpack it as best as we can.

W.B. Yeats married a woman, Georgie (or George) Hyde-Lees, who was thirty years his junior. George was interested in the occult and astrology. One day, in an effort to assure her husband that he had made the right choice in marrying her (he had proposed to two other women before George), she started doing what she called 'automatic writing.' She would sit in a trance and write, often as Yeats asked her questions. Both Yeats and Georgie believed that they were receiving communication from a superior spiritual source, or being. Out of these sessions came Yeats' philosophy of Spiritus Mundi, among other ideas which he published in his book Visions.

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  • 1:10 'The Second Coming' poem
  • 1:38 Stanza one
  • 2:38 Stanza two
  • 3:37 Stanza three
  • 4:22 Lesson summary
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The Second Coming

Yeats uses the term Spiritus Mundi in his poem ''The Second Coming.'' Let's take a look at the message of that poem in order to better understand his use of the term. ''The Second Coming'' is a 3-stanza poem with an ominous tone of impending change and doom. Yeats wrote the poem after World War I, when many Europeans were reeling from the devastating violence and effects of the war's destruction. To some, it may have symbolized an apocalypse.

In stanza one, Yeats says:

''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.''

Yeats presents the vivid picture of a falcon that cannot hear its master's voice. The bird circles wider and wider, but is lost. Yeats sees chaos and a breakdown of order in society. Some moral center is lost, which ''cannot hold.'' He voices an increase in violence and a loss - even a death - of ''innocence.'' The last two lines reveal Yeats' disillusionment as he states: ''The best lack all conviction, while the worst (a)re full of passionate intensity.'' There is purposeless passion.

Stanza two states:

''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: a waste of desert sand;

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

Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.''

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