The Center Cannot Hold: The Epigraph of Things Fall Apart

Instructor: Ian Matthews

Ian teaches college writing and has a Master's in Writing and Publishing

This lesson will look at the epigraph of 'Things Fall Apart,' taken from William Butler Yeats' poem 'The Second Coming.' The epigraph both provides a comment on the situation in Africa while Chinua Achebe was writing the novel and gives a preview of the events of the novel itself.

What is an Epigraph?

Authors sometimes put epigraphs at the beginnings of their works to give context and commentary on the work that follows. If you, the reader, are familiar with the epigraph and its themes, you'll have an idea of the themes of the larger work you're about to read. Let's look first at the poem whose first four lines give Things Fall Apart its epigraph: W.B. Yeats' 'The Second Coming'.

The Poem

The Second Coming - William Butler Yeats

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 things, 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?


What Does the Poem Mean?

'The Second Coming' is full of apocalyptic imagery, from the title to the very last line. Yeats opens with a falcon flying out of control, away from its master. This represents that something is wrong in the world. It's about to get worse as the 'blood-dimmed tide is loosed' and 'anarchy is loosed upon the world.' The poem's second stanza shows the actual Second Coming of the title, with the 'rough beast' slouching towards Bethlehem. In Yeats' vision of the end of the world, this beast's birth mirrors Jesus' birth.

Yeats, living and writing in Europe during and just after World War I, definitely saw things that would make him believe the world was coming to an end. The apocalyptic mood following 'The Great War' guides the images that Yeats uses in the poem, and that idea of the apocalypse, with ordered things falling permanently out of order, flows from the epigraph throughout Things Fall Apart.

Achebe's Context: European Colonization in Africa

Chinua Achebe's acclaimed novel, Things Fall Apart, is set in the early 1890s, around the time of the European colonization of Africa. For the real people who already lived in Africa, this was a kind of apocalypse. The 'rough beast' of the poem, in this case, is the soldiers and missionaries from Europe. Their arrival changed the existing societies in Africa permanently, in effect ending the world as they knew it. From a native standpoint, this brought a lot of chaos and even, in some cases, bloodshed.

Achebe grew up 40 years after the initial European colonization--basically, in this context, in the post-apocalypse. He was familiar with the customs of his area from before the colonization, though, and used that knowledge to inform the events of Things Fall Apart.

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