Yeats' The Second Coming: A Poem of Postwar Apocalypse

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  • 0:05 The Poem
  • 2:53 The Widening Gyre
  • 4:26 A New, Chaotic Age
  • 7:53 The Second Coming
  • 10:39 The Poem's Meaning
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this video, we'll discuss Irish poet W.B. Yeats' most famous poem, 'The Second Coming.' Written after the devastation of World War I, it uses a religious metaphor to capture a Europe in chaos and on the brink of change.

The Second Coming - The Poem

In many ways, poet W.B. Yeats is viewed as the big granddaddy of Modernism. He's sort of like the progenitor of it all, in a way. He's of an older generation than many of the people we think of as Modernist poets, but he was extremely influential to them. He's older - again, kind of big granddaddy figure. Ezra Pound actually stayed with him for a few winters in a cottage in southeast England - they were hanging out, writing poetry, fighting over who left dishes in the sink.

And this poem in particular, 'The Second Coming,' is important not only as a work of Modernist poetry but also as a work that directly comments on the social condition post-World War I that spurred the development of Modernist poetry. It's kind of two-fold significant.

It's published in 1920, which is in the latter part of Yeats' career - he dies in 1939. So he's getting to be kind of an old dude by this point. World War I lasted from 1914-1918. It was notable for being unexpectedly violent and destructive because old methods of waging war, like trenches, were combined with new technology, like better guns, that produced battles that went nowhere and killed everyone.

As you might notice in the title, 'The Second Coming' is an overtly religious reference - you can't hear that term without thinking of the Second Coming of Christ. (I'm a lifelong lapsed Episcopalian and I still hear that. Maybe you don't.) But that's what Yeats is going for - an immediate Jesus reference, essentially.

So what's Yeats doing with this kind of religious language, and how does it relate to World War I? That's what we're going to look into. First we're going to take a look at the poem. It's short and seems kind of blasphemous (no pun intended...) to split it into pieces, so we're going to just read the whole thing out:

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; 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.

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?

Where to start?

The Widening Gyre

First of all, what is this widening gyre that Yeats discusses in the opening line? This refers to Yeats' admittedly very weird philosophy of how history works. You know how we usually picture history as a timeline? You might even have one for yourself. Mine begins at my birthday and has hash marks at graduation, when I got my car, and when I first saw Lord of the Rings - or how the timeline for A.D. (or C.E. for 'common era') begins at the birth of Jesus - Year 0.

Yeats had a much weirder model for the progression of history. Basically, he envisions it as two really big cone-shaped structures that are facing opposite ways in space, overlapping so that the nose of one rests in the center of the mouth of the other.

A 'gyre' is a path that you'd make if you traveled on the cone in a spiraling-outward way. So 'Turning and turning on the widening gyre' is the idea that as history progresses, we're going round and round and the circling is getting wider and wider. I can practically see you sitting there, banging your head at the computer, saying 'Why does this matter?'

It matters because Yeats had this idea that 1920, or post-World War I in general, was just about the time when they were transitioning from the outer gyre to the inner gyre - so we're about to turn around and start going back the other way to the narrow point of the second one that's in the wide mouth of the first one.

First Stanza Analysis: A New, Chaotic Age

It's basically just a giant metaphor for 'stuff is changing' - the character of the next age is going to be different than this past one. It's worth keeping in mind that every generation thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket. You've probably heard a ton of studies that prove that today's college students don't have any empathy, no attention span, and all this stuff. And the Internet is ruining the world, and we're all going to be robots!

People have thought the world was going to be ruined forever - we're not the first. Yeats was not the first or the last. The Modernists writing at that time really thought that something big was happening post-World War I in terms of the character of the age and the character of the time.

The gyre model implies, in the way that it widens and then collapses in onto the point and goes the other way on the other cone, that there's a certain amount of increasing chaos - things get looser and looser until it collapses back down.

So we get the next line ('the falcon cannot hear the falconer'), and we realize that technically, that first description might have been describing the bird's path - this falcon flying in this widening circle - but the metaphor still works. The world is out of control. The falcon and falconer image adds to the sense that communication is totally hampered by the widening of the gyre. The falconer's over here, the falcon's over there, and the falcon's totally going to get loose - things are going to get away from us - loose falcons flying everywhere - crazy times, chaos, widening gyre - that's what that all means.

We get to the next bit and see 'Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold' - that really reinforces this. The gyre grows too wide to be comprehended and confined, and there's no sense of where the center is anymore. If 'things fall apart' sounds familiar, that's because it's the title of a famous book you may have had to read in school called Things Fall Apart by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It focuses on the changes experienced by the Igbo people as colonists and missionaries came into their world, so it's used to signal a similar type of change that Yeats is getting at in his poem as well.

The repetition of 'loosed' in the next two lines ('mere anarchy is loosed' and 'The blood-dimmed tide is loosed') furthers this idea that we're flinging things around - things are getting far apart and aren't bound together anymore. It also a little bit connotes the releasing of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - they're loosed onto the world - as described in Revelation (that book in the Bible that describes the Second Coming - again, lapsed Episcopalian - I know this stuff, kind of).

In any event, it's bad. The loosing is bad, clearly. All these images are super violent, dark, and warlike in a way, and that makes sense both in this World War I context and in the Revelation context because stuff gets bad in that part of the Bible (I hear).

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

This further emphasizes that the world is on its head. There's a reversal going on - maybe the people that we see as the best are waffling around and don't know what to do, and the people we see as the worst have gained momentum - they're the pointy bit on the end of the new gyre that's going that way.

Second Stanza Analysis: The Second Coming

Then at the beginning of the next stanza, we get to the title of the poem, so it must be a good part.

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

So he's saying that all of this signals that something big must be coming, some 'revelation,' and then he specifies that it's the 'Second Coming,' but this seems to bother him. That Latin term, 'Spiritus Mundi,' that comes in there is Latin for 'the soul of the world.' Yeats is using it to mean sort of a communal understanding of knowledge. As I told you, he had all these hocus pocus ideas about history and society and whatnot - this is just another one of them.

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