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W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming"
W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" was written in 1919, just one year after WWI ended. The beginning of this poem reflects on how evil has taken over the minds of good Christians, and the world has turned into chaos. It is apparent that Yeats believes that a Second Coming is at hand, and he spends the last half of the poem discussing what that Second Coming could look like.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre (line 1)
Yeats imagines the world in a cyclical sphere known a gyre (shape of a cone). In Yeats' note on the text, he states that "the end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction" (2036). Yeats believes that the two thousand years of Christianity will be coming to an end, and after a violent reversal a new age will take its place. The widening part of the gyre is supposed to connote anarchy, evil, and the loss of innocence.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; (2)
The falconer in this analogy is most likely God (or Jesus), and the falcon is the follower (or devotee). Humanity can no longer hear the word of God, because it is drowned out by all of chaos of the widening gyre. A wild falcon can symbolize an unconverted Gentile; someone who has sinful thoughts, and does sinful things. A tame falcon (one who listens to the word of God) is a Christian convert. In the Egyptian culture, the falcon is used to represent sky deities (or in Christian terms, God).
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, (3-4)
Everything will fall into chaos if there is not a guiding morality such as God. The world cannot stay at the center of the gyre, because it would mean complete destruction. There has to be a reversal so that things can once again come into balance. The world has to start at the tip of the cone again, which means there has to be a violent reversal in order to make this happen.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; (5-6)
The "blood-dimmed tide" could be referring to when Moses parted the Red Sea. The Pharaoh agreed to let Moses and his people leave Egypt, but then changed his mind. The Pharaoh and his men chased after them. Moses used his staff to part the Red Sea and lead his people to safety, and the Pharaoh and his army were drowned behind them. The word "ceremony" connotes something that is not real, is just a habit, or a façade. Innocence no longer exists in the world; it is all just a show put on by humanity. The Pharaoh ceremoniously let Moses and his people go, but after they left he went after them with the intention of either killing them or re-enslaving them.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity (7-8).
Humanity is already evil, but the ones who seem to be the least evil don't have any convictions or beliefs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the most evil let their intense emotions rule them. Now is a good time to remember that this poem was written in the aftermath of WWI and the Russian Revolution, and just before the tensions came to a head in the Anglo-Irish War. The Anglo-Irish War is about the Irish wanting to separate themselves from English rule; this was a very intense time in Irish history, and Yeats being of Irish decent would have felt these tensions.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand (9-10).
Yeats is saying here that there has to be some reason why all the blood-shed from WWI happened; there has to be a rational reason why there is so much evil in the world. In the first book of John, it states "little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time" (Holy Bible, 1 John. 2.18). The second coming is to be preceded by an Antichrist and absolute chaos.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with a lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thights, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds (11- 17).
This section of the poem is Yeats' version of the Second Coming. Spiritus Mundi is "a collective unconscious or memory, in which the human race preserves its past memories. Spiritus mundi translated from Latin means spirit of the universe.
The image is very large and hard for a person to take in all at once. The desert is either the Judean desert or Egypt. In this context, I tend to lean more towards Eygpt, but in the larger context of the poem the Judean desert is also plausible. The figure of the human head with a lion's body is called a sphinx. Sphinx are said to be temple guardians; they guard royal tombs and religious temples. If the sphinx is guarding a royal tomb then the head on the sphinx is usually the head of the pharaoh buried within the tomb. The most widely known sphinx is the Great Sphinx of Giza. The head of that sphinx is said to be that of Pharaoh Khafra. The gaze of the sphinx has no mercy for humanity much like the desert sun as no mercy for those beneath its rays. It is moving "its slow thighs" toward Jersualem to be born again. Desert birds are hawks or falcons, which symbolize sky deities or God. They are indignant because they are extremely upset with what the world has become, and as the representations of the Egyptian deities they are guiding the sphinx to Jerusalem bring order to the world again.
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? (18-22)
Its highly unlikely that Yeats was referring to a literal sphinx going towards Jerusalem, but rather a figurative sphinx; something so huge that it will block out the sun forcing the world into a metaphorical darkness that will inevitably cleanse humanity. It has been two thousand years (or twenty centuries) since Jesus died for the world's sins, and the metaphorical sphinx has been lying in waiting for its time to unleash its evils upon the world.
The rocking cradle is the image of Christ and his mother. It can also be used to represent the anti-Christ being rocked by his mother. The rough beast is the anti-Christ that will bring destruction and pain to the world. This unholy creature will be born in the holy birth place of Christ.
Some believe that the "rough beast" that Yeats foresaw is Hitler, and the atrocities that he inflicted upon the Jews were what was needed to reunite humanity and bring about peace.
The speaker describes a nightmarish scene: the falcon, turning in a widening “gyre” (spiral), cannot hear the falconer; “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”; anarchy is loosed upon the world; “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The best people, the speaker says, lack all conviction, but the worst “are full of passionate intensity.”
Surely, the speaker asserts, the world is near a revelation; “Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” No sooner does he think of “the Second Coming,” then he is troubled by “a vast image of the Spiritus Mundi, or the collective spirit of mankind: somewhere in the desert, a giant sphinx (“A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun”) is moving, while the shadows of desert birds reel about it. The darkness drops again over the speaker’s sight, but he knows that the sphinx’s twenty centuries of “stony sleep” have been made a nightmare by the motions of “a rocking cradle.” And what “rough beast,” he wonders, “its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
“The Second Coming” is written in a very rough iambic pentameter, but the meter is so loose, and the exceptions so frequent, that it actually seems closer to free verse with frequent heavy stresses. The rhymes are likewise haphazard; apart from the two couplets with which the poem opens, there are only coincidental rhymes in the poem, such as “man” and “sun.”
Because of its stunning, violent imagery and terrifying ritualistic language, “The Second Coming” is one of Yeats’s most famous and most anthologized poems; it is also one of the most thematically obscure and difficult to understand. (It is safe to say that very few people who love this poem could paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction.) Structurally, the poem is quite simple—the first stanza describes the conditions present in the world (things falling apart, anarchy, etc.), and the second surmises from those conditions that a monstrous Second Coming is about to take place, not of the Jesus we first knew, but of a new messiah, a “rough beast,” the slouching sphinx rousing itself in the desert and lumbering toward Bethlehem. This brief exposition, though intriguingly blasphemous, is not terribly complicated; but the question of what it should signify to a reader is another story entirely.
Yeats spent years crafting an elaborate, mystical theory of the universe that he described in his book A Vision. This theory issued in part from Yeats’s lifelong fascination with the occult and mystical, and in part from the sense of responsibility Yeats felt to order his experience within a structured belief system. The system is extremely complicated and not of any lasting importance—except for the effect that it had on his poetry, which is of extraordinary lasting importance. The theory of history Yeats articulated in A Vision centers on a diagram made of two conical spirals, one inside the other, so that the widest part of one of the spirals rings around the narrowest part of the other spiral, and vice versa. Yeats believed that this image (he called the spirals “gyres”) captured the contrary motions inherent within the historical process, and he divided each gyre into specific regions that represented particular kinds of historical periods (and could also represent the psychological phases of an individual’s development).
“The Second Coming” was intended by Yeats to describe the current historical moment (the poem appeared in 1921) in terms of these gyres. Yeats believed that the world was on the threshold of an apocalyptic revelation, as history reached the end of the outer gyre (to speak roughly) and began moving along the inner gyre. In his definitive edition of Yeats’s poems, Richard J. Finneran quotes Yeats’s own notes:
The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to its place of greatest contraction... The revelation [that] approaches will... take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre...
In other words, the world’s trajectory along the gyre of science, democracy, and heterogeneity is now coming apart, like the frantically widening flight-path of the falcon that has lost contact with the falconer; the next age will take its character not from the gyre of science, democracy, and speed, but from the contrary inner gyre—which, presumably, opposes mysticism, primal power, and slowness to the science and democracy of the outer gyre. The “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem is the symbol of this new age; the speaker’s vision of the rising sphinx is his vision of the character of the new world.
This seems quite silly as philosophy or prophecy (particularly in light of the fact that it has not come true as yet). But as poetry, and understood more broadly than as a simple reiteration of the mystic theory of A Vision, “The Second Coming” is a magnificent statement about the contrary forces at work in history, and about the conflict between the modern world and the ancient world. The poem may not have the thematic relevance of Yeats’s best work, and may not be a poem with which many people can personally identify; but the aesthetic experience of its passionate language is powerful enough to ensure its value and its importance in Yeats’s work as a whole.
The Second Coming was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the first World War. The above version of the poem is as it was published in the edition of Michael Robartes and the Dancer dated 1920 (there are numerous other versions of the poem). The preface and notes in the book contain some philosphy attributed to Robartes. This printing of the poem has a page break between lines 17 and 18 making the stanza division unclear. Following the two most similar drafts given in the Parkinson and Brannen edited edition of the manuscripts, I have put a stanza break there. (Interestingly, both of those drafts have thirty centuries instead of twenty.) The earlier drafts also have references to the French and Irish Revolutions as well as to Germany and Russia. Several of the lines in the version above differ from those found in subsequent versions. In listing it as one of the hundred most anthologized poems in the English language, the text given by Harmon (1998) has changes including: line 13 (": somewhere in sands of the desert"), line 17 ("Reel" instead of "Wind"), and no break between the second and third stanza.
The Second Coming (poem)
The Second Coming is a poem composed by Irish poet W. B. Yeats in 1919, first printed in The Dial in November 1920, and afterwards included in his 1921 collection of verses Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The poem uses Christian imagery regarding the Apocalypse and second coming allegorically to describe the atmosphere of post-war Europe.[1] The poem is considered a major work of Modernist poetry and has been reprinted in several collections, including The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.[2]
"The Second Coming" contains images that have been tied most closely to Yeats's legacy. Modernists read the poem as a dirge for the decline of European civilisation in the mode of Eliot, but later critics have pointed out that it expresses Yeats's apocalyptic mystical theories, and it is thus the expression of a mind shaped by the 1890s. His most important collections of poetry started with The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914). Yeats's images in his poetry became sparer and more powerful as he grew older. The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair (1929), and New Poems (1938) contained some of the most potent images in twentieth-century poetry.
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.[4]
Here, Yeats incorporates his ideas on the gyre—a historical cycle of about 2000 years. He first published this idea in his writing 'a vision' which predicted the expected anarchy that would be released around 2000 years after the birth of Christ. The gyre suggests the image of a world spinning outwardly such that it cannot recall its own origin. These anxieties are closely tied to the traumas of a continent at war, and the rise of industrialism and militarism on a global scale.
According to some interpretations, "the beast" referred to the traditional ruling classes of Europe who were unable to protect the traditional culture of Europe from materialistic mass movements. The concluding lines refer to Yeats's belief that history was cyclical, and that his age represented the end of the cycle that began with the rise of Christianity:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?[5]
This poem marks the transition into Yeats's final period in which he muses on the role of the poet at the closing of an era. He returns to earlier themes of mysticism, turning inward, asking questions about the self, mortality, and legacy, as exemplified by his collection, The Tower.

W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1865, the son of a well-known Irish painter, John Butler Yeats. He spent his childhood in County Sligo and in London. He returned to Dublin at the age of fifteen to continue his education and study painting, but quickly discovered he preferred poetry. Born into the Anglo-Irish landowning class, Yeats became involved with the Celtic Revival, a movement against the cultural influences of English rule in Ireland during the Victorian period, which sought to promote the spirit of Ireland's native heritage. Though Yeats never learned Gaelic, his writing at the turn of the century drew extensively from sources in Irish mythology and folklore. Yeats was deeply involved in politics in Ireland, and in the twenties, despite Irish independence from England, his verse reflected a pessimism about the political situation in his country and the rest of Europe, paralleling the increasing conservativism of his American counterparts in London, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. His work after 1910 was strongly influenced by Pound, becoming more modern in its concision and imagery, but Yeats never abandoned his strict adherence to traditional verse forms. He had a life-long interest in mysticism and the occult, which was off-putting to some readers, but he remained uninhibited in advancing his idiosyncratic philosophy, and his poetry continued to grow stronger as he grew older. Appointed a senator of the Irish Free State in 1922, he is remembered as an important cultural leader, as a major playwright (he was one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin), and as one of the very greatest poets of the century. W. B. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923.

My Interpretation:
Yeats wrote The Second Coming while Europe and much of the rest of the world was trying to recover from World War I. This was surely an important factor for him in writing the poem. Yeats saw great social troubles all around him, and remarks on a world spinning out of control.
Line 2 hints at technology progressing beyond mankind's ability to control it. The problem was evident to Yeats 80 years ago, and the problem has worsened since then. Yeats shows his concern that technology has advanced to the point where mankind can do a great deal of harm with relative ease. The world had never seen destruction of the likes of World War I, and most people were shocked at the extensive loss of human life during the war.
In the time that Yeats speaks of, the rulers of the world were caught up in imperialism and expanding circles of power to the point where they would do almost anything to accomplish their goals. The ruthless power mongers were outspoken and numerous, and there seemed to be few who dared to speak out against them in the name of peace.
At one point, I had stated here that Spiritus Mundi is a Medieval text for Christians, to inform them what they need to do to die in the grace of God. It is essentially "the art of dying well." At this point, I must offer sincere apologies. I must have been severely confused (and have a memory lapse) when I wrote that, because the text that deals with the art of dying well is in fact "Ars Moriendi". Spiritus Mundi is literally "Spirit of the World." In order to avoid making another stupid mistake, I will refrain from comment on the meaning ofSpiritus Mundi for the time-being.
Nevertheless, I believe Spiritus Mundi leads Yeats to propose that perhaps the Second Coming (of Christ) is near at hand: Judgement Day . . . . the end of the world.
Spiritus Mundi brings an image of the sphinx to Yeats' mind. Yeats sees the sphinx rising up to bring forth the end of the world. The sphinx slept in a world of nightmares for 2000 years. The nightmares were caused by the turmoils of the human race (line 20). The indignant desert birds (line 17) (a.k.a. humans who foresee the Second Coming) try to stop the sphinx (the end of the world), but their task is impossible. In the end, Yeats reveals no hope for the continued existence of mankind.
Comments by Shelly Wilkinson: regarding the interpretation, I think there are more Biblical representations than was brought out by the other comments. 1) Many people thought the second coming of Christ was "surely at hand" after the terrible loss of life and bloodshed after WWI as does Keats as he writes in his poem. This is referred to in the book of Revelations, the last book included in the Bible. 2) Spiritus Mundi "spirit of this world" is commonly referred to as Satan in the Bible, even Jesus own words while alive. 3) he does seem to describe the sphinx and it rised out of a "figuritive" ? desert or maybe he was referring to the literal desert in the mideast where Armageddon (sp?) the final war of wars is to take place, 4) also, explained by Biblical respresentations is the last stanza:
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?
Keeping in mind the overall message of the poem, the apocalypse, a rocking cradle could refer to the birth of the Anti-Christ (literal and figuratively), and Bethlehem was the birth place of Jesus Christ. The "beast" is slouching toward it's aim (Bethlehem) to wreak havoc (the spirit of this world hates humans) on this earth (even though the ultimate end and greatest bloodshed will be his defeat). Maybe Keats saw that WWI didn't resolve conflict and saw something worse on the horizon (WWII). It would have been heart wrenching to have witnessed such human waste. (all at the hands of human choices but also with the coaxing of spiritus mundi). There is a verse in the Bible that says,"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places"
Ephesians 6:12
The falcon (or possibly kestrel) was referred to in the Bible also:
Job 28:7 which refers to it's eye."That path no bird knows, Nor has the falcon's eye seen it". Their eye's are constantly watching for prey. (and in the poem the falcon didn't return to the falconer, unrestrained. . . chaos is breaking out )
Also, the lion as a beast is mentioned in the Bible, Revelations 4 but it is not as an ominous sign. Jesus was also called the lion of the tribe of Judah. However, there are several scriptures that mention the lion's predatory might and, interestingly, lions conceal themselves by day until "The darkness drops again".

Comments by T. Reese Greer:
I was reading your analysis of W.B. Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming" and noted a couple of errors. The first is merely a typo in the body of the poem wherein you entered "Spritus", omitting the first 'I' rather than "Spiritus". The second was a translation error.
"Spiritus Mundi is literally "Spirit of the World.""
In the context of the Yeats piece, 'Spiritus Mundi' is interpreted to mean 'Spirit World' as in spirits, as in ghosts, as it were. Spirits from another time or plain… (The ghosts of Christmas past?)
The only basis I have for the interpretation of Spiritus Mundi is the study of Latin. Of course, the art of translation being what it is, any word or phrase can have a number of meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. And even that can be confusing or misinterpreted based upon the translators personal biases or abilities. So one person may read something to mean one thing whereas another may interpret it to mean something else entirely. And, as you can see with the multiple possibilities for the interpretation of "Spiritus Mundi" the various interpretations can change the meaning of a statement considerably.
The Second Coming: William Butler Yeats - Summary and Critical Analysis
In The Second Coming poet’s mind was filled with gloom in consequence of the side-spread murder and bloodshed in Ireland in the course of the Easter rebellion of 1916. The Irish civil war that followed the great war of 1914-1919 and various other events in Europe added to that gloom.

The poem is the outcome of a state of mind troubled with ominous forebodings. The title of the poem suggests a new manifestation of God to man. 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 bed but it must be terror-filled for us by virtue of the simple fact that it will entitle so revolutionary a change. In the first stanza the poet describes the present state of the world-its political upheavals, the chaos and cynicism of modern civilization, the haphazard brutality of contemporary culture. The first image, of the falcon (hunting hawk) losing touch with its keeper as it flies out of range of his call or whistle, summarizes all this. The fixed point, the central belief or idea, around which our civilization (like a falcon) had revolved (i.e. Christianity) has lost its power, it can no longer hold society in an orderly structure like a wheel around it (a structure which Yeats depicts as a series of gyres, or outward-spiraling circles). Instead, things are flying away, falling apart; our civilization is disintegrating. In the second stanza the poet declares that all this chaos, confusion and disintegration must surely be the sign of revelation, a “Second Coming” of the Messiah is at hand. And even as he says this, he experiences the extraordinary vision which is the poem’s climax. He sees a vast image out of ‘Spiritus Mundi” (the world-spirit or what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung would call the racial unconscious), a sphinx-like creature, “a shape with lion-body and the head of a man,” moving inexorably across the desert. Having had such a vision, Yeats has had, as he guessed he would, a revelation-“that twenty centuries of stony sleep/Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”-that is, two thousand years-sleep of pre-Christian man was roused and troubled by the first coming, the coming of Christ. This moves the poet to wonder now, two thousand years later, as he waits for the second coming of such and earthshaking new spirit, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” Thus, the Second Coming here is not really a second coming of Christ himself, but of a new figure-in this case cruel, bestial, pitiless-who will represent the new era as Christ symbolized the old. Yeats was sure that the twentieth century, of which he had seen the calamitous beginning-World War on the continent and at home the ‘troubles’-would make the end of the primary, objective Christian civilization, and the beginning of a new antithetical, subjective civilization. Thus a new, rough beast is going to take Christ’s place in the cradle at Bethlehem, where it will “vex” man’s old sleep to a new nightmare. 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.
W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming"
W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" is one of the most misunderstood and overrated poems ever anthologized. It could have used at least one more revision.
The ludicrous image of a fetus “slouching” toward a geographical location “to be born” is never acknowledged by critics, but it is a serious flaw that simply completes the other serious flaw in Yeats’ misunderstanding of the true meaning the Second Coming.

First Stanza: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre”
In the first stanza of W. B. Yeats’ “ The Second Coming,” the speaker is bemoaning the world situation. The speaker is saying that things are getting bad, and he attempts to provide some examples and analyses. “Things” are falling apart because the center cannot hold them together.
It is like a falconer who has lost control of his falcon that is circling upward in ever-widening circles so far away from the falconer that the bird cannot hear the falconer's instructions any longer. Governments are being toppled, and bloody revolutions are killing people. Ordinary life is “drowned” in all that blood.
Then the speaker makes the observation, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” This complaint is a universal one, and every period of history is filled with this phenomenon. But, of course, this claim is an exaggeration: not all the best “lack all conviction” and not all the worst “are full of passionate intensity.”
Second Stanza: “Surely some revelation is at hand”
The speaker then muses on the idea that such turbulent times must be heralding some dramatic upheaval, and he calls it “some revelation,” but then he lands on the idea of the “Second Coming.” But the notion of the “Second Coming” is so disturbing to him that he retreats from its implications, that is, its Christian implications.
This speaker has concocted a cache of images, “Spiritus Mundi,” which he feels better satisfies his radical notion of how the world is made, so instead of musing on the return of the Christ, his mind selects the Egyptian sphinx.
Then in a pure flight of fantasy, the speaker imagines that instead of the “Second Coming,” which is a well-known prophesy, entailing a return of virtue and Godliness, the revelation he envisions is possibly something quite the opposite. Instead of Christ returning, this speaker wonders “what rough beast” might appear. Perhaps instead of Christ, an anti-Christ will appear.
The profundity of this poem has been greatly exaggerated. Yeats’ statement on poetics, which he called A Vision, has been widely analyzed. Serious critics take it seriously, when, in fact, the work is delusional, and this poem is never analyzed on it own merits without resorting to some sort of attempt to explain Yeats’ theory of the gyres.
Only two points need to be made to dismiss this Yeatsian fallacy: (1) He got the positioning of the gyres wrong; instead of intersecting, they should be stacked, with the small ends meeting. That way the explanation of historical cycles would be closer to the accurate explanation of the Yugas as described by Sri Yukteswar in The Holy Science. (2) Regarding “The Second Coming,” Yeats demonstrates that he did not understand the true meaning of the phenomenon. Instead of Christ as Jesus returning to earth, the Second Coming refers to the individual soul of each spiritually practicing devotee becoming God-realized.
Yeats’ reference to the Second Coming obviously alludes to the misconception of the phrase; that is why he implies that some “rough beast” might be in the offing. But notice that this “rough beast” is not yet born. The Second Coming of Christ is usually explained as a return of Jesus already born, not being reborn as an infant.
But the speaker surmises that this “rough beast” “[s]louches towards Bethlehem to be born.” How can it be slouching toward a geographical location, if it is not yet born? The mother carrying the fetus could be slouching toward Bethlehem, but the fetal “rough beast” simply could not do so. One can possibly accept the rough beast itself as slouching if one grants and overly inclusive poetic license to the poet for that concept.
The Second Coming, by W.B. Yeats
Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" in 1920, while the world was at once recovering from the carnage of World War I and warily monitoring the rise of fascism and communism.
By Maria Luisa Antonaya
The poem is a product of Yeats’ idiosyncratic spiritual world view, which included both Christian and occult influences. It describes what he believed to be the inevitable fall of Western Europe at the hands of a new power that would come from Africa (Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, bases its title and premise on this aspect of the poem, refuting Yeats’ view of African civilization) (1457). A close reading of “The Second Coming” shows how Yeats describes this looming era, a period of chaotic destruction that sets the scene for a new order that is unstoppable in its march towards domination.
The first stanza of “The Second Coming” depicts a mass destruction of civilization. It begins with the image of a falcon, unable to hear its master’s commands, careening out of control like a heavenly body cast out of orbit:
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,
Once that center of control disappears, the world collapses into disorder. The falcon, its animal instincts winning over its obedience to rational direction, represents the worst in human nature. Having cast off the chains of reason, it ushers in a tidal wave of uncontrollable, indiscriminate violence:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
Soon, the world is turned upside down, as are the actors in this human drama:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Those who had been considered conscientious now find their will to act paralyzed, while those who wish to harm gain momentum through their strong desires. Civilization has been razed to the ground, and the world is now ready for its new master.
The last stanzas shift the scene from wet to dry, cold flood to burning sands. We are now in a desolate landscape, “somewhere in the sands of the desert.” A question remains: might not this be a long-awaited event?
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
However, the revelation yields a bleak future:
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
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
This is a powerful image: an intelligent being of extraordinary strength but devoid of emotion, slowly but relentlessly walking towards its destiny. Woken by the sounds of destruction after “twenty centuries of stony sleep,” it stands and begins to walk “towards Bethlehem to be born,” a nightmarish Messiah whose time “has come round at last.”
Yeats, gazing into history between the horrific memories of the first World War and the threat of new totaliarian regimes, describes in “The Second Coming” what he believed might be the ultimate fate of Western European society. Weakened from war and oppression, Europe would collapse and give way to a new world power that would rise out from the desert sands.
"The Second Coming" is easily one of the most famous and frequently quoted poems in all of Western literature. Several famous prose writers have used lines from W.B. Yeats’s poems as titles to their books, and "The Second Coming" is no exception. For example, Chinua Achebe, an African writer, used part of the third line as the title of his novel, Things Fall Apart, and Woody Allen recently wrote a book called Mere Anarchy.

Yeats’s poem was first published in 1920, a year after the end of World War I, "the Great War," in which millions of European died. While many people at the time just wanted to get on with their lives, Yeats thought that European society had pretty much broken down, and the poem is a terrifying prediction of future violence. Unfortunately, the rise of Hitler and fascism in the 1930s proved him largely correct, and many find the poem disturbingly prophetic in light of the later wars of the twentieth century. However, we shouldn’t somehow think that Yeats was a depressive based on this single work, his bleakest. Many of his other poems engage with more uplifting subjects, like love and Irish folklore. Nor should we think that Yeats was defeatist. After all, he was a very active figure in Irish politics throughout his life, which was in the process of gaining its independence from England. By the time this poem was published, he had already been famous for many years, and he was awarded theNobel Prize in Literature in 1923. WHY SHOULD I CARE?
This is one of a handful of poems written in the 20th century that people from all walks of life – politicians, bankers, and scientists – are not afraid to learn and quote by heart. For one thing, you can’t accuse W.B. Yeats of being elusive or indecisive: a complaint about a lot of modern poetry. This one hits like a ton of bricks. The language is blunt and direct, but the rhythm is complicated and musical. When you repeat lines like, "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed," it’s like an entire period of history has been summed up in only a few words. Indeed, people still quote from Yeats during every war. The recent war in Iraq is no exception: for example, in 2006 a Congressman Jim McDermott gave a speech titled "The Center Cannot Hold."

Another reason the poem has been so popular is that its mysterious symbolism can be interpreted in a meaningful way by anyone, regardless or their social or political views. Some people think that Yeats is trying to steer society back to its traditional values; others say that he thinks only a revolution will lead to a new order. Above all, "The Second Coming" amounts a frightening document of how poets often have a specific perspective – a "vision" of the way things are that most of the rest of us are unable to see.
The poem begins with the image of a falcon flying out of earshot from its human master. In medieval times, people would use falcons or hawks to track down animals at ground level. In this image, however, the falcon has gotten itself lost by flying too far away, which we can read as a reference to the collapse of traditional social arrangements in Europe at the time Yeats was writing.

In the fourth line, the poem abruptly shifts into a description of "anarchy" and an orgy of violence in which "the ceremony of innocence is drowned." The speaker laments that only bad people seem to have any enthusiasm nowadays.

At line 9, the second stanza of the poem begins by setting up a new vision. The speaker takes the violence which has engulfed society as a sign that "the Second Coming is at hand." He imagines a sphinx in the desert, and we are meant to think that this mythical animal, rather than Christ, is what is coming to fulfill the prophecy from the Biblical Book of Revelation. At line 18, the vision ends as "darkness drops again," but the speaker remains troubled.

Finally, at the end of the poem, the speaker asks a rhetorical question which really amounts to a prophecy that the beast is on its way to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, to be born into the world.
Lines 1-2
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; * The falcon is described as "turning" in a "widening gyre" until it can no longer "hear the falconer," its human master. * A gyre is a spiral that expands outward as it goes up. Yeats uses the image of gyres frequently in his poems to describe the motion of history toward chaos and instability. * In actual falconry, the bird is not supposed to keep flying in circles forever; it is eventually supposed to come back and land on the falconer’s glove. (Interesting fact: falconers wear heavy gloves to keep the birds from scratching them with their claws.)
Line 3
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; * The "notion" that "things fall apart" could still apply to the falcon, but it’s also vague enough to serve as a transition to the images of more general chaos that follow. * The second part of the line, a declaration that "the centre cannot hold," is full of political implications (like the collapse of centralized order into radicalism). This is the most famous line of the poem: the poem’s "thesis," in a nutshell.
Lines 4-6
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; * These three lines describe a situation of violence and terror through phrases like "anarchy," "blood-dimmed tide," and "innocence [. . .] drowned." (By the way, "mere" doesn’t mean "only" in this context; it means "total" or "pure.") * Overall, pretty scary stuff. * Also, with words like "tide," "loosed," and "drowned," the poem gives the sensation of water rushing around us. It’s like Noah’s flood all over again, except there’s no orderly line of animals headed two-by-two into a boat. * What’s Yeats referring to here? Is this a future prophecy, the poet’s dream, or maybe a metaphor for Europe at war? There’s really no way to be sure – Yeats doesn’t seem to want us to know too much.
Lines 7-8
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. * Who are "the best" and "the worst"? * One way of deciphering them is that Yeats is talking about "the good" and "the bad." But he doesn’t use those words in the poem, and these lines are a clue as to why not. * For one thing, if "the best lack all conviction," can they really be that good? Believing in something enough to act on it is kind of what being good is all about. * On the other hand, "the worst" have all the "intensity" on their side, which is good for them, but definitely not for everyone else. * Think about that time you dropped your lunch in the cafeteria and all the people you hate laughed really hard, and all your friends were too embarrassed to do anything about it. According to Yeats, Europe after the war is kind of like that. Things are so messed up that you can’t tell the good and the bad apart. Lines 9-10
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand. * Notice how these two lines are almost exactly the same. This is where the speaker tells us what he thinks is going on, but the repetition means that he’s maybe not so sure and is slowly trying to figure things out. * It’s a revelation, he says, which is when the true meaning of something is revealed. * Not only that, but it’s a revelation according to the most reputable source for these kinds of things: the Book of Revelation. * Apparently, all this violence and moral confusion means "the Second Coming is at hand." According to the Bible, that means Christ is going come back and set everything straight, right? * We’ll see. For now, the poem is about to take another turn.
Lines 11-13
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 * So maybe we’re not saved. * The words "Second Coming" seem to have made the speaker think of something else, so that he repeats the phrase as an exclamation. It’s like, "Eureka!" It makes him think of a "vast image out of Spiritus Mundi." * To know what this means, you have to know that Yeats was very interested in the occult and believed that people have a supernatural connection to one another. It’s in the same ballpark as telepathy or a psychic connection, but not quite as kooky as those other things. It’s more like we’re all connected to a big database of communal memories going back all the way through human history, which we can get in contact with when we’re feeling truly inspired. * Literally, Spiritus Mundi means "spirit of the world." * The speaker, through his sudden, revelatory connection to the world, is given access to a vision that takes him "somewhere in the sands of the desert."
Line 14
A shape with lion body and the head of a man, * Here, he is describing the sphinx, a mythical beast "with lion body and the head of a man." * You might have seen the picture of the ancient sphinx in Egypt: it’s pretty famous. But Yeats isn’t talking about that sphinx, per se. He’s talking about the original, archetypal symbol of the sphinx that first inspired the Egyptians to build that big thing in the desert, and which is now inspiring him.
Lines 15-17
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. * In these lines he describes the sphinx’s expression and what it is doing. * By calling its gaze "pitiless," he doesn’t mean "evil" or "mean-spirited." In fact, the sphinx really seems to have an inhuman expression that is as indifferent as nature itself. It is "blank," statuesque, and incapable of having empathy with other humans. * This might not tell us much, but now we know that the sphinx doesn’t jibe at all with the way most people think of Christ. In other words, this "Second Coming" doesn’t seem to have at lot in common with the descent of Christ from Heaven as described in the Book of Revelation. * Nor does it seem to be in any big hurry to get here, as it moves "its slow thighs." * But, strangely, this slowness only seems to add to the suspense and terror, like Michael Myers chasing Jamie Lee Curtis in the movie Halloween. * Even the birds are ticked-off, or "indignant," but it’s not clear why. Their circling is similar to the gyres of the falcon from the beginning of the poem, but from what we know about desert birds, like vultures, when they fly in circles it’s often because they think something will die soon.
Lines 18-20
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, * The vision from Spiritus Mundi ends as "darkness drops again," like a stage curtain, but it has left the speaker with a strong prophetic impression. He knows something that he didn’t before, namely, that this strange sphinx is a symbol that will bear on the future. * Thinking outside the poem, it’s safe to say that he is talking about Europe’s future, and perhaps the world’s in general. * What exactly does the speaker claim to "know"? "Twenty centuries" refers to roughly the amount of time that has passed since the "first coming" of Christ. But we have already seen that the Second Coming is not going to be anything like the first. * Although 2,000 years seems like a long time to us, Yeats compares it to a single night of an infant’s sleep, which is suddenly "vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle." * The cradle reinforces the image that something has recently been "born," and its motion also serves as a metaphor for social upheaval. * It’s interesting that the infant doesn't wake up because of the rocking. It instead begins to have nightmares, much like the recent nightmares afflicting European society, whose long history amounts to no more than the first stages of childhood. It’s the terrible two’s of an entire continent.
Lines 21-22
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? * The object of Yeats’s vision, which was formerly symbolized as a pitiless sphinx, is now described as a "rough beast" on its way to Bethlehem – the birthplace of Christ – "to be born." * The "slouching" of this beast is animalistic and similar to the slow gait of the sphinx in the desert. It sounds more than a little menacing. * Yeats is using the birth at Bethlehem as a metaphor of the passage of this malevolent beast from the spirit world – Spiritus Mundi – to the real, everyday world, where its effects will be visible to everyone. * By phrasing these lines as a question, Yeats tantalizes us with all the possibilities of what he might be describing. In the time since Yeats wrote the poem, the beast has been interpreted as a prediction of everything bad that the twentieth century has wrought, particularly the horrors of World War II: Hitler, fascism, and the atomic bomb. * It is the "nightmare" from which society would not be able to awake. Of course, Yeats would not have known about these specific things. However, he did seem to have a sense that things were still getting worse while most people around him thought things were getting better. * Some readers have thought that the birth at the end was an ironic vision of the Antichrist, an embodiment of evil as powerful as Christ was an embodiment of goodness. * Others believe that the beast, even though it is described as "rough," might not be evil, but merely a manifestation of the kind of harsh justice that society as a whole deserves. In other words, things have become so violent and decadent that God’s only solution is to deploy his all-purpose cleanser.
Symbol Analysis * Line 1: The "gyre" is an important recurring symbol in Yeats’s poetry. Technically, it stands from the alternation between two historical cycles: one characterized by order and growth, the other by chaos and decay. It’s comparable to the Chinese concepts of Yin and Yang. Yeats wrote a poem called "The Gyres" in his collection The Tower, but even there it’s still pretty confusing. Fortunately, all that philosophical background isn’t essential to the poem.
Symbol Analysis * Lines 1-2: Falconing was an activity that is associated with medieval times. People with enough wealth – that is, feudal landowners – often built aviaries where they kept birds to use for hunting. The most common were falcons and hawks. As such, this activity is associated with violence, but not the kind of uncontrolled, chaotic violence that characterized World War I. Falconing was a noble activity in which the bird was tightly controlled by its master. Obviously, that is not the case here. The reference to falconing should also be read as a symbol of the virtues of the Middle Ages: order, tradition, strong religious faith, unified government, and "civilized" warfare. * Line 19: The word "stony" has many connotations here, but one of them might refer to the Middle Ages again. After all, when you think of a medieval structure like a Gothic cathedral or a castle, you probably think of a big, strong, stone building. "Stony" here suggests something that endures and lasts a long time. However, we also call a person "stone-like" when they are incapable of feeling or reacting. In addition, Yeats is using the image of an infant’s "sleep" as a metaphor for the roughly 2,000 years between the First and Second Comings. It’s easy to forget that the Middle Ages lasted around 800-1000 years, from around the 5th to the 15th centuries in Europe. Therefore, it was the longest period of the last "twenty centuries," and Yeats might be using it as representative of the period as a whole.
Symbol Analysis * Title: "The Second Coming" is an allusion to the reappearance of Christ as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. * Lines 4-6: These lines contain two more allusions to the Bible. First, the word "anarchy" calls to mind the reign of Satan on Earth before Christ comes back. However, more specifically, it also brings to mind the Biblical flood that sent Noah packing the wife, kids, and a few pets into the ark. Interestingly, the poem spans the entire length of the Bible in these lines, from Genesis (the flood) to Revelation. Yeats’s image is noticeably more violent than the Bible ("blood-dimmed tide," "drowned"). It’s like the big flood viewed from the perspective of those who didn’t make it into the ark. Another notable thing about these lines is the work being done by the word "loosed," which translates roughly to "unleashed" or "let free." It’s a word that can be applied to a liquid like water, but also has the implication of a more animalistic force. In this way, it prefaces the symbolic unleashing of the "rough beast" later in the poem. * Lines 13-14: The description of the sphinx in the desert recalls several themes from the Bible. First, as we know, the sphinx is that big stone animal that tourists like to snap pictures of in Egypt. In the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, Egypt is where the Jewish people where held in bondage until they were freed by Charleton Heston, that is, Moses. Also, these lines bring to mind the story of Christ’s temptation by Satan in the desert. So, in a sense, the desert is the devil’s home. Finally, the sphinx itself, as a mash-up of two different animals (man and lion), can be compared with similarly confused species in the Book of Revelation, such as locusts with scorpion tails (ouch!). * Line 19: "Stony sleep," "nightmare," and "rocking cradle" are part of an extended metaphor comparing the "twenty centuries" between Christ and the Second Coming as only one night of an infant’s sleep. The metaphor of sleep suggests either the relative peacefulness or the obliviousness (probably both) which characterized the "twenty centuries" between the First and Second Comings, assuming that the latter is just around the corner. * Line 22: Compared to the weird images inspired by the Book of Revelation, this one’s easy. Christ was born in Bethlehem, so that city is a symbol of the entrance of absolute and messianic forces in the world. In the case of Christ, absolute Good. In the case of the "rough beast," well, let’s just say nobody’s going to be greeting this thing with frankincense and myrrh.
Symbol Analysis * Lines 12-17: These lines are an example of symbolism, and they contain several symbols that can really be disconnected from another. In general, they represent a confused "veiled" vision of the "rough beast" described later in the poem. They are said to originate in Spiritus Mundi, a "spirit world" of images and symbols that Yeats believed to have been traditionally available to the most perceptive people (like poets) throughout history. Although lots of smart-sounding people like to say that symbols always have to "mean" something specific, Yeats thought that the best symbols couldn’t ever be fully explained in words. They are "expressive" in a way that passes beyond ordinary speech.
Blank Verse
The Second Coming" is written in blank verse, which means that has a consistent meter but no rhyme scheme. With 22 lines divided into two stanzas, it does not appear to follow a particular formal tradition. However, notice that the second stanza has fourteen lines, making it the same length as a sonnet. At eight lines, the first stanza could be thought of as a fragment of a sonnet that is "interrupted" by the full sonnet of the second stanza. However, these aren’t "true" sonnets in the classic sense because they don’t rhyme.

The meter is roughly iambic pentameter, the most common type in all English-language verse. For example, iambic pentameter was the preferred meter in all of Shakespeare’s plays. It has five two-syllable "iambs" in each line, each of which approximates the rhythm of a heart-beat (ba-dum, ba-dum, etc.). In formal language, this iambic rhythm is described as an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Each line, then, has around ten syllables.

Yeats’s use of this meter is not as regular as Shakespeare’s. We know this right off the bat because the very first syllable has a stress on it: "Turn-ing." Also, some lines have well over ten syllables, such as line thirteen, which has thirteen syllables (and knowing Yeats, we shouldn’t assume this is a coincidence). However, most of the lines in the poem do have around ten syllables. As far as form and meter in Yeats’s other poetry goes, "The Second Coming" is fairly typical, although he was no slouch when it came to throwing down some rhymes.
The speaker of this poem is someone capable of seeing things that no one else can see. He is a poet-prophet of sorts. While Europe was setting out to rebuild itself afterthe Great War had ended, this speaker is saying, "Wait a minute, not so fast. We need to look at what kind of world we’ve left ourselves with, and what it might mean for the future." Obviously, the speaker is deeply pessimistic. He’s also not afraid to use religious imagery, although he puts his own, weird spin on it. He can be thought of as trying to repeat the achievement of the Book of Revelation, which has all kinds of amazing, memorable symbols but is also vague and wild enough that no one could say what exactly it is supposed to mean.

In the first stanza he uses a bunch of metaphors to evaluate the present state of the world, and in the second he has a weird vision, followed by "darkness" and a rhetorical question, which amounts to a prophecy regarding the Second Coming. The first person appears only twice in the poem, but the prophetic voice feels very distinct and personal throughout. Like Yeats in real life, this speaker has an interest in the occult, as we can see from his reference to the Spiritus Mundi. Otherwise, he doesn’t use a lot of fancy language; but phrases like "mere anarchy" and "stony sleep" demonstrate that he doesn’t exactly talk like a regular Joe, either. He presents himself as a moral authority and feels comfortable making general pronouncements about the state of things, such as "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Above all, he wants to be scary, and, boy, does he succeed.
Post-WWI Europe, around 1919
The first stanza doesn’t seem to have a definite location. It refers to medieval falconing, so we can imagine a guy calling to a bird in some forest or meadow, trying to catch some deer or rabbits to bring back his lord. There’s also a description of violence that is vaguely reminiscent of the Biblical flood. But, from the perspective of the speaker, the setting is post-WWI Europe, circa 1919. He’s taking an overview of the devastation wrecked on the continent.

In the second stanza, the setting abruptly shifts to Spiritus Mundi, as the speaker has a vision of a desert with a sphinx-like creature and some birds. It’s all very cloudy, which makes sense because the speaker is essentially looking into his crystal ball here. In line 18, "the darkness drops again," but we get one more image of the beast "slouching towards Bethlehem." This might be described as a memory, echo, or "after-shock" of the Spiritus Mundi vision. All in all, the poet bounces around in various mental locations without really landing anywhere specific. That’s probably a good thing, because something is seriously out of whack in this "world."

Have you ever noticed how different the first and second stanzas sound? Try reading the poem aloud – you can’t fail to notice it. The first stanza sounds super-confident because of all those declarative statements.

We think there are two ways to read the first stanza. The first is to read it like you would read a grocery list: completely matter-of-fact. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" could sound like, "Three dozen eggs; a quarter-pound of cheddar cheese; Four packages of hickory-smoked bacon." The first stanza is basically a list of everything that has gone wrong with the world, but the sentence clauses are so short that they create a lot of regularly-spaced pauses: hence, the grocery list. This would be an ironic reading.

The second possibility is to read it as if you were one of those end-of-the-world types who stand on street corners shouting about one conspiracy or another and grabbing pedestrians by the collar as if to say, "Don’t you GET IT!" This way of reading would really take advantage of Yeats’s stressed beats: "TURNING and TURNING in the WIDE-ning GYRE."

The second stanza, we think, sounds like a Shakespearean soliloquy. Shakespeare often liked to have his characters project their private doubts and fears in the form of a speech, resulting in a lot of emotional ups and downs. Here, too, the speaker of Yeats’s poem seems to be going through a lot of mood swings. First, he sounds confident with his use of the word "surely," although we’re not so convinced when he uses it again in the next line. Then, he veers off into a suspenseful portrait of the sphinx, which we would read in a low voice, as if you were narrating a weird dream you had.

Finally, we think the last question shouldn’t really be read as a question, but more like another declarative statement. The speaker seems to have figured something out – he’s got his former confidence back. He has come to some definite conclusions regarding this whole world-in-crisis thing, and now, with this summary statement, he’s going to rejoin the rest of the characters in the play (whoever they might be – use your imagination!).
The title refers to the Second Coming of Christ, as predicted in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Bible. This book, also known as the Apocalypse, is one of the strangest, most violent parts of the Bible. It’s also inspired more than a few "end of the world" panic movements throughout history (remember Y2K?). It depicts the return of Christ to conquer Satan and the forces of evil, before presiding over a thousand-year reign of peace on Earth. Yeats loved to use wild symbols in his poems, so it’s no wonder that he was attracted to the Book of Revelation, which is chock full of ‘em.

Just to give a few examples, you’ve got the Four Horsemen, seven Plagues, a doorway to Heaven, and an evil beast called the Whore of Babylon. However, Yeats had other motives for referencing the Book of Revelation. For one thing, when he wrote the poem, World War I had just ended in Europe, and a lot of people were starting to take the idea of a "war to end all wars" more seriously. They were also worried about how to tell good and evil apart. Amid this pessimistic atmosphere, Yeats adds a sinister twist to the idea of the Second Coming in his poem, suggesting that the end of history might not be heralded by the return of Christ at all, but by the coming of the Antichrist – a symbol of violence and chaos in the world.
Unexplained symbols! The weirder the better. Falcon, sphinx, "rough beast," and Bethlehem: what’s the connection? You figure it out! Yeats isn’t giving any help. This is a trait that many of Yeats’s most famous works have in common. He likes to take symbols from a variety of sources – the Bible, history, folklore, and his own plays; put them in the blender; and Presto! A Yeats poem.
Its plain language, short length, and exciting subject matter make this poem a favorite of people who usually claim not to "get" poetry.
Yeats’s unrequited love for the Irish revolutionary activist and beauty Maud Gonne is one of the great tortured love stories of the 20th century. Gonne refused to marry him in 1899, and in 1917 he proposed to her daughter! Unfortunately, Iseult Gonne also rejected him. (Source)
Yeats was really interested in mysticism and the occult. He tried and failed to establish a Celtic Mystical Order based on early Celtic myths.
ANALYSIS: SEX RATING\Unless you think "blood-dimmed" tides and sphinxes are sexy.
When poets refer to other great works, people, and events, it’s usually not accidental. Put on your super-sleuth hat and figure out why.
* "The Second Coming" refers the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament in the Bible, which prophesies the return of Christ after Satan’s reign of darkness.
Are good people still good if they don’t act in the face of chaos? Is there something awe-inspiring about people who do bad things, but who "are full of passionate intensity"? The question of how to tell good and evil apart – and whether they can be separated at all – is essential to the text of "The Second Coming."

Yeats’s generation had just witnessed the worst war in modern history (World War I) – one in which there were no "good guys," because every nation was sending its men to live for months in horrible trenches, often fighting over a few feet of land. The implication throughout the poem is that society has strayed too far from its values to act responsibly. The image at the beginning of the poem depicts a situation in which the falcon, a symbol of nobility and tradition, is "deaf" to the instructions of its master. "Innocence" is described as only a "ceremony," something that is put on for show, but perhaps not truly meant. "The best" people are said to "lack all conviction," which would seem to be a paradox. And the sphinx in the desert seems to embody a force that is neither good nor evil, but simply indifferent. By the end of the poem, the speaker’s question about what kind of "beast" is about to be born is merely the last sign of how far away society is from clear categories of "good" and "evil," compared to those found in the Bible.
Questions About Good vs. Evil 1. How does war complicate the question of good vs. evil in the poem? 2. Is there something alluring about evil when it is committed with "passionate intensity"? 3. Do you think the sphinx-like creature represents good, evil, both, or neither?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
The sphinx in the desert is best thought of as an inhuman force of nature. Therefore, it is neither good nor evil. It cares no more about the fates of people than does "the sun" that shines indifferently on everyone.
As a historical figure, Yeats embodies the ambiguities of European society at the time (the early 1900s). He was a radical insofar as he believed that Ireland should be free from the oppression of British rule, and he thought that the Irish were justified in rising up against their rulers. However, he also believed that the social hierarchies found in an aristocratic society were essential to preserving order. "The Second Coming" manifests these tensions. The image of falconing refers to a practice often associated with the noble class in medieval society, whom could afford to hunt with birds of prey. On the other hand, by referring to twenty centuries of history as only a "stony sleep," Yeats demonstrates that the achievements of history are relative, and that the established order can be overthrown at any moment. Without singling out specific people, nations, or classes, Yeats demonstrates that Europe has no one to blame but itself for its problems.
Questions About Society and Class 1. How effective does the poem suggest that social hierarchies are at preserving order? 2. If Yeats belonged to present-day society, do you think he would be a revolutionary or a conservative? 3. Does the poet imply that society would be better off if it returned to feudal social structures, as in medieval times?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Because Yeats thinks of history as moving in a gyre, the collapse of society can be seen, paradoxically, as an inevitable consequence of "progress."
Though "The Second Coming" is short, it is packed with symbols and visions that are hard to untangle. In general, the first stanza of the poem is the speaker’s metaphoric statement on the way things are, rather than on the way they will be. Drawing on the image of a falcon that has flown too far and on the notion of a catastrophic flood, the speaker sums up the spirit of his age, which is characterized by "anarchy," violence, and the inversion of values. This is the true "reality" of the situation in Europe around 1919, only expressed through symbols. In the second stanza, the speaker interprets this reality as a deeper "revelation," and a prophecy of things to come. The vision of the sphinx in the desert should be thought of as a mystical vision that comes fromSpiritus Mundi, the spirit world of eternal symbols. It is also comparable to a dream, or in this case, a "nightmare." Then the speaker's vision ends, and we are back in the everyday world. In the last three lines, he is left to ponder what the future holds in store. Needless to say, it doesn’t look promising.
Questions About Versions of Reality 1. How would you describe the difference between the "reality" described in the first and second stanzas of the poem? 2. Do you think there could be a "spirit world" full of eternal symbols like the one the poem refers to? 3. If you’ve read a religious prophecy before, how would you describe the difference between that and the prophecy in Yeats’s poem?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Although the poem consists entirely of symbolic language, the first stanza is anchored in the historical present and the second stanza represents a prophecy of the future.
In the Bible's Book of Revelation, Christ is prophesied to return to the world to engage in a campaign, called the Battle of Armageddon, against the forces of evil. Yeats uses this symbolic battle to make a comparison with the war that had just been fought in Europe (World War I), which had been thought of as the war to end all wars. The first stanza in particular is filled with the imagery of war and violence. However, according to the poem, the Second Coming had not yet occurred, and therefore that World War I was only a prelude the "real" Battle of Armageddon. The poem doesn't actually endorse the full and literal Biblical prophecy. Yeats appropriates the Battle of Armageddon as a metaphor for the end of social stability in the modern age.
Questions About Warfare 1. How do you think the poem would have been different if it had been written before the invention of trench warfare? 2. Is it easy to tell that the poem is written in response to a modern war? 3. Does the poem present a viewpoint on whether there will ever be a "war to end all wars"?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
It is impossible to tell that this poem was written in the twentieth century: it could have been written after any war.
Yeats was capable of taking the long view of history. He uses the image of the gyre, a coil that continues to expand outward, as a symbol of the fragmentation of society. Also, he conceives of the "twenty centuries" since the birth of Christ as merely one night of "stony sleep." He thought that present events were always deeply rooted in the past, whether people realized it or not. Finally, he believed that great visionaries, like poets, had access to the entire communal memory of the human race through something called Spiritus Mundi, the world of the spirit. The vision that the speaker of the poem has in the second stanza is said to arise from the mystical connection to this collective "storage room," as it were, of eternal symbols.
Questions About Memory and The Past 1. Does Yeats suggest that history is doomed to repeat itself? 2. What might the implied infant inside the "rocking cradle" symbolize? 3. What does Yeats think about the relation of Europe to its past?
Chew on This
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
If the falcon in the poem is a symbol of present-day society, then Yeats thinks Europe can no longer recognize the traditions that formed the "centre" of his own history.
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. (lines 5-8)
These lines are a big part of the reason that the poem has resonated with so many people in the 20th century. They "blood-dimmed tide" hints at the huge mass movements like Fascism and Communism that "drowned" out the few, timid pockets of reason that remained. The good people are like couch potatoes who aren’t motivated to doing anything.
"Blank and pitiless" seems scary and menacing, but is it evil? We think it’s more of an animal indifference, like staring into the eyes of a hungry grizzly bear, or at a scorching sun.
Good vs. Evil
Quote #3
And what rough beast (line 21)
Again, the amoral, animal nature is highlighted by the "beast." He’s going to be "rough" with us, but that’s not the same as being vicious or brutal. Sometimes it takes a violent shake to snap society out of its funk.
How we cite our quotes: (Line)
Quote #1
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; (lines 1-2)
The relationship between falcon and falconer is like that between servant and master. Yeats believed that a strong aristocracy was necessary to keep uncontrollable social forces in line. Without the direction of the falconer, the falcon is both aimless and dangerous.
Society and Class
Quote #2
"but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle." (lines 18-20)
This powerful image works in two ways. First, the "rough beast" is being disturbed from its "stony" or indifferent sleep. It is portrayed as an infant in a rocking cradle. But human society is what suffers from the "nightmare." The speaker is saying: you thought you’ve seen violence and bad stuff in the past, but that was like a baby sleeping compared to what you’re about to see.
How we cite our quotes: (Line)
Quote #1
"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed" (lines 3-5)
These lines are like the "nightmare" alluded to later in the poem. If you’ve seen the classic horror movie The Shining, with Jack Nicholson, remember the scene where an elevator opens and blood comes pouring out. That’s similar to the dream-like vision we get here.
Versions of Reality
Quote #2
"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 MundiTroubles my sight" (lines 9-13)
As soon as the prophetic speaker utters the word "Second Coming," it’s like he has summoned phantoms with some magic spell. His "sight" is clouded by a huge image, so that he can’t see everyday reality anymore. He has either hallucinating or having an supernatural experience.
"Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;" (lines 4-6)
These lines have often been interpreted as a description of the apocalyptic war described in the Book of Revelation, when an army of angels takes on Satan and his henchmen. This climatic battle has been depicted many times in popular culture, such as by the authors of the Left Behind book series. But we think no one has produced a sense of "Last Days" terror quite like W.B. Yeats with this metaphor of a bloody, rushing tide. Of course, in this battle, the innocent are defeated, so maybe it’s just the prelude to an even bigger war.
Quote #2
"Surely the Second Coming is at hand." (line 10)
In the Book of Revelation, the Second Coming of Christ is foreshadowed by centuries of violence, chaos, and bloodshed.
Quote #3
"twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle" (lines 19-20)
These words have proven truer than Yeats probably intended (unless you believe that he really did have clairvoyant powers!). There have been many violent centuries in the last two thousand years, but seemingly none as chaotic and destructive as the 20th century. These lines chillingly combine hints of warfare with images of infancy.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; (lines 1-2)
The loss of social order has been a gradual process. It’s like when you wandered away from your mom in a crowded place as a small kid, and you thought you could still see her, but at a certain point you realized you were totally lost. The connection between the central authority of a society – be it the aristocracy or a republican government – has become weaker over the centuries. At a certain point, the link was lost completely, like a satellite spinning out of orbit.
Memory and The Past
Quote #2
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight (lines 11-13)
The Spiritus Mundi exists outside of space and time. It contains all the memories of the collective human past. The psychologist Carl Jung described a similar idea of the "collective unconscious," which may have been an inspiration to Yeats.
Memory and The Past
Quote #3 twenty centuries of stony sleep (line 19)
The speaker has a deep historical memory. He measures 2,000 years of history as merely one night of a baby’s sleep. Now that’s what we call "taking the long view" of things!
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? (lines 21-22)

It’s like the oven bell going off. Ding! "Your Antichrist is ready!" The speaker has a very fatalistic view of the approach of the "rough beast." It hasn’t come because we summoned it, but rather because its hour has arrived. Its appearance is fate, and there’s no way society can avoid it.
Bring on the tough stuff - there’s not just one right answer. 1. Why do you think Yeats put so many confusing symbols in the poem? Many poets, when they use symbolism, try to make everything relate to each other. But what does falconing have to do with a sphinx or a "blood-dimmed tide," and what does either of them have to do with a sphinx and the "indignant desert birds"? Most people who read this poem want to make these things correspond to something real in the world. But we have to consider that Yeats did not want his poem to be interpreted in this way. 2. How would you explain the poem’s relationship to the Bible? Most of the symbols are very general and timeless, like something out of the Book of Revelation. But it’s also easy to tell that this is not the Bible. For one thing, Christ doesn’t show up at the end, but a "rough beast." Does the poet sound like a religious man, and, if so, what kind? 3. Why does Yeats think of history as this swirling vortex, the gyre? Because the gyre moves further and further from its center, does it mean that things are always getting worse? It should be mentioned that Yeats’s idea was highly original and not shared by everyone. There are still plenty of people, even today, who think that history is linear (except for a few blips like wars), and that society is constantly improving itself. 4. Is it possible that the appearance of the "rough beast" could be good for the world, in the end? After all, if the world is already so violent that "innocence is drowned," things can’t get much direr. Maybe Yeats thinks it’s like tearing down an old building in order to put up a new one. But, then again, there’s nothing in the poem about society rebuilding itself. 5. Do you think the poem could apply to the entire world, or is it only intended for Christian Europe? People in other civilizations, for example the Middle East, have found this to be a very compelling poem, and they have made it fit into their own views of history. Maybe it speaks most directly to people with an "apocalyptic" outlook, who think that big, sweeping changes are on the horizon.
The Relationship Between Art and Politics
Yeats believed that art and politics were intrinsically linked and used his writing to express his attitudes toward Irish politics, as well as to educate his readers about Irish cultural history. From an early age, Yeats felt a deep connection to Ireland and his national identity, and he thought that British rule negatively impacted Irish politics and social life. His early compilation of folklore sought to teach a literary history that had been suppressed by British rule, and his early poems were odes to the beauty and mystery of the Irish countryside. This work frequently integrated references to myths and mythic figures, including Oisin and Cuchulain. As Yeats became more involved in Irish politics—through his relationships with the Irish National Theatre, the Irish Literary Society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and Maud Gonne—his poems increasingly resembled political manifestos. Yeats wrote numerous poems about Ireland’s involvement in World War I (“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” [1919], “A Meditation in Time of War” [1921]), Irish nationalists and political activists (“On a Political Prisoner” [1921], “In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markiewicz” [1933]), and the Easter Rebellion (“Easter 1916” [1916]). Yeats believed that art could serve a political function: poems could both critique and comment on political events, as well as educate and inform a population.
The Impact of Fate and the Divine on History
Yeats’s devotion to mysticism led to the development of a unique spiritual and philosophical system that emphasized the role of fate and historical determinism, or the belief that events have been preordained. Yeats had rejected Christianity early in his life, but his lifelong study of mythology, Theosophy, spiritualism, philosophy, and the occult demonstrate his profound interest in the divine and how it interacts with humanity. Over the course of his life, he created a complex system of spirituality, using the image of interlocking gyres (similar to spiral cones) to map out the development and reincarnation of the soul. Yeats believed that history was determined by fate and that fate revealed its plan in moments when the human and divine interact. A tone of historically determined inevitability permeates his poems, particularly in descriptions of situations of human and divine interaction. The divine takes on many forms in Yeats’s poetry, sometimes literally (“Leda and the Swan” [1923]), sometimes abstractly (“The Second Coming” [1919]). In other poems, the divine is only gestured to (as in the sense of the divine in the Byzantine mosaics in “Sailing to Byzantium” [1926]). No matter what shape it takes, the divine signals the role of fate in determining the course of history.
The Transition from Romanticism to Modernism
Yeats started his long literary career as a romantic poet and gradually evolved into a modernist poet. When he began publishing poetry in the 1880s, his poems had a lyrical, romantic style, and they focused on love, longing and loss, and Irish myths. His early writing follows the conventions of romantic verse, utilizing familiar rhyme schemes, metric patterns, and poetic structures. Although it is lighter than his later writings, his early poetry is still sophisticated and accomplished. Several factors contributed to his poetic evolution: his interest in mysticism and the occult led him to explore spiritually and philosophically complex subjects. Yeats’s frustrated romantic relationship with Maud Gonne caused the starry-eyed romantic idealism of his early work to become more knowing and cynical. Additionally, his concern with Irish subjects evolved as he became more closely connected to nationalist political causes. As a result, Yeats shifted his focus from myth and folklore to contemporary politics, often linking the two to make potent statements that reflected political agitation and turbulence in Ireland and abroad. Finally, and most significantly, Yeats’s connection with the changing face of literary culture in the early twentieth century led him to pick up some of the styles and conventions of the modernist poets. The modernists experimented with verse forms, aggressively engaged with contemporary politics, challenged poetic conventions and the literary tradition at large, and rejected the notion that poetry should simply be lyrical and beautiful. These influences caused his poetry to become darker, edgier, and more concise. Although he never abandoned the verse forms that provided the sounds and rhythms of his earlier poetry, there is still a noticeable shift in style and tone over the course of his career.
Irish Nationalism and Politics
Throughout his literary career, Yeats incorporated distinctly Irish themes and issues into his work. He used his writing as a tool to comment on Irish politics and the home rule movement and to educate and inform people about Irish history and culture. Yeats also used the backdrop of the Irish countryside to retell stories and legends from Irish folklore. As he became increasingly involved in nationalist politics, his poems took on a patriotic tone. Yeats addressed Irish politics in a variety of ways: sometimes his statements are explicit political commentary, as in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” in which he addresses the hypocrisy of the British use of Irish soldiers in World War I. Such poems as “Easter 1916” and “In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markiewicz” address individuals and events connected to Irish nationalist politics, while “The Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan” subtly include the idea of Irish nationalism. In these poems, a sense of cultural crisis and conflict seeps through, even though the poems are not explicitly about Ireland. By using images of chaos, disorder, and war, Yeats engaged in an understated commentary on the political situations in Ireland and abroad. Yeats’s active participation in Irish politics informed his poetry, and he used his work to further comment on the nationalist issues of his day.
Mysticism and the Occult
Yeats had a deep fascination with mysticism and the occult, and his poetry is infused with a sense of the otherworldly, the spiritual, and the unknown. His interest in the occult began with his study of Theosophy as a young man and expanded and developed through his participation in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a mystical secret society. Mysticism figures prominently in Yeats’s discussion of the reincarnation of the soul, as well as in his philosophical model of the conical gyres used to explain the journey of the soul, the passage of time, and the guiding hand of fate. Mysticism and the occult occur again and again in Yeats’s poetry, most explicitly in “The Second Coming” but also in poems such as “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Magi” (1916). The rejection of Christian principles in favor of a more supernatural approach to spirituality creates a unique flavor in Yeats’s poetry that impacts his discussion of history, politics, and love.
Irish Myth and Folklore
Yeats’s participation in the Irish political system had origins in his interest in Irish myth and folklore. Irish myth and folklore had been suppressed by church doctrine and British control of the school system. Yeats used his poetry as a tool for re-educating the Irish population about their heritage and as a strategy for developing Irish nationalism. He retold entire folktales in epic poems and plays, such as The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) and The Death of Cuchulain (1939), and used fragments of stories in shorter poems, such as “The Stolen Child” (1886), which retells a parable of fairies luring a child away from his home, and “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” (1925), which recounts part of an epic where the Irish folk hero Cuchulain battles his long-lost son by at the edge of the sea. Other poems deal with subjects, images, and themes culled from folklore. In “Who Goes with Fergus?” (1893) Yeats imagines a meeting with the exiled wandering king of Irish legend, while “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (1899) captures the experiences of the lovelorn god Aengus as he searches for the beautiful maiden seen in his dreams. Most important, Yeats infused his poetry with a rich sense of Irish culture. Even poems that do not deal explicitly with subjects from myth retain powerful tinges of indigenous Irish culture. Yeats often borrowed word selection, verse form, and patterns of imagery directly from traditional Irish myth and folklore.
The Gyre

The gyre, a circular or conical shape, appears frequently in Yeats’s poems and was developed as part of the philosophical system outlined in his book A Vision. At first, Yeats used the phases of the moon to articulate his belief that history was structured in terms of ages, but he later settled upon the gyre as a more useful model. He chose the image of interlocking gyres—visually represented as two intersecting conical spirals—to symbolize his philosophical belief that all things could be described in terms of cycles and patterns. The soul (or the civilization, the age, and so on) would move from the smallest point of the spiral to the largest before moving along to the other gyre. Although this is a difficult concept to grasp abstractly, the image makes sense when applied to the waxing and waning of a particular historical age or the evolution of a human life from youth to adulthood to old age. The symbol of the interlocking gyres reveals Yeats’s belief in fate and historical determinism as well as his spiritual attitudes toward the development of the soul, since creatures and events must evolve according to the conical shape. With the image of the gyre, Yeats created a shorthand reference in his poetry that stood for his entire philosophy of history and spirituality.
The Swan
Swans are a common symbol in poetry, often used to depict idealized nature. Yeats employs this convention in “The Wild Swans at Coole” (1919), in which the regal birds represent an unchanging, flawless ideal. In “Leda and the Swan,” Yeats rewrites the Greek myth of Zeus and Leda to comment on fate and historical inevitability: Zeus disguises himself as a swan to rape the unsuspecting Leda. In this poem, the bird is fearsome and destructive, and it possesses a divine power that violates Leda and initiates the dire consequences of war and devastation depicted in the final lines. Even though Yeats clearly states that the swan is the god Zeus, he also emphasizes the physicality of the swan: the beating wings, the dark webbed feet, the long neck and beak. Through this description of its physical characteristics, the swan becomes a violent divine force. By rendering a well-known poetic symbol as violent and terrifying rather than idealized and beautiful, Yeats manipulates poetic conventions, an act of literary modernism, and adds to the power of the poem.
The Great Beast
Yeats employs the figure of a great beast—a horrific, violent animal—to embody difficult abstract concepts. The great beast as a symbol comes from Christian iconography, in which it represents evil and darkness. In “The Second Coming,” the great beast emerges from the Spiritus Mundi, or soul of the universe, to function as the primary image of destruction in the poem. Yeats describes the onset of apocalyptic events in which the “blood-dimmed tide is loosed” and the “ceremony of innocence is drowned” as the world enters a new age and falls apart as a result of the widening of the historical gyres. The speaker predicts the arrival of the Second Coming, and this prediction summons a “vast image” of a frightening monster pulled from the collective consciousness of the world. Yeats modifies the well-known image of the sphinx to embody the poem’s vision of the climactic coming. By rendering the terrifying prospect of disruption and change into an easily imagined horrifying monster, Yeats makes an abstract fear become tangible and real. The great beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born, where it will evolve into a second Christ (or anti-Christ) figure for the dark new age. In this way, Yeats uses distinct, concrete imagery to symbolize complex ideas about the state of the modern world.
Yeats starts out with the image of a falcon wheeling about in the sky, far away from the falconer who released it. The bird continues to wheel and gyre further and further away from the falconer. This metaphor stands for the young people who have given up the standards of their parents and grandparents for the new art, the new literature, the new music, and the other novelties of Yeats' time. The poem was composed in 1920. There is another interpretation of the falcon-falconer image, and that is the image of the head or intellect as the falcon and the rest of the body and the body sensations and feelings (heart) as the falconer. This idea is reinforced and repeated later in the poem when Yeats brings in the image of the Sphinx, which is a re-connection of these two components. In the image of the Sphinx, the head-intellect is connected to the body. That is the Sphinx isn't broken apart. The giant sculpture is still intact. The last two lines of the first stanza are simply a commentary on the times. Yeats says "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." This also suggests a dissociation between the best, which Yeats identifies as head people, the intellectuals, and the worst, whom Yeats associates with the mob who are those who react with passionate intensity not with careful intellectual study and expression. In the first stanza of the poem Yeats gives us the first bird metaphor. In the second part of the poem Yeats gives us the second bird metaphor in the form of "indignant desert birds." These creatures appear to have been roosting on the Sphinx, but when the massive beast began to move its "slow thighs" the birds became agitated and took off. The poet shows us the image a little later. The birds are flying around above the slowly moving Sphinx. At the start of the second stanza Yeats calls for a revelation, saying "Surely a revelation is at hand." And Yeats himself becomes the revelator. Yeats is a revelator because he gives us a powerful image for The Second Coming. This is the image of a "rough beast" which has the head-intellect of a man and the fierce emotions and body intelligence of a beast. Furthermore, Yeats suggests that the body movement of the beast, the "slouching" movement is what is moving the Christ closer and closer to its "Bethlehem" orbirthplace. Yeats adds the image of the head-intellect connected to the body-mind of a beast to the image Isaiah gave as a little child for The Messiah. This makes Yeats a modern revelator or prophet. It's significant that Yeats describes the Sphinx as "Agaze blank and pitiless as the sun," because spiritual masters are known to gaze blankly as they transmit "the message" to their disciples. Yeats equates this gaze and this transmission with the Sphinx, which he also uses to denote the Second Coming of Christ. After Yeats presents this brilliant visionary image, he says "The darkness drops again." His vision ends and he starts thinking again. He concludes that "twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle." This is a puzzling line, because the rocking cradle suggests the manger where Jesus was laid. But a manger doesn't rock unless some animals are jostling it about in their movements. And this again suggests that animal body movement figures strongly into this idea of Christ which Yeats presents in this poem. This poem is a riddle. Yeats ends by asking a question. Throughout the poem there are hints as to what the answer to the riddle is. But Yeats doesn't come right out and give the answer to the riddle. Yeats uses the image of a cat, ie, the Sphinx in justaposition with the two images of birds. First Yeats presents the broken image of the falcon dissociating from its trainer and master the falconer. Then Yeats presents the broken image of many birds flying around the Sphinx. But the cat itself is a single whole image. Furthermore, the cat eats birds. The cat is mightier than the birds. The idea of being mighty is amplified by the very size of the Sphinx. This suggests the power of the process which integrates the human intellect with the animal power of the bodily intelligence of the animal beast. However this idea rather conflicts with the conventional Christian idea that Christ overcomes the Beast of Revelation. So Yeats is challenging certain images in conventional Christianity. One last comment. The image of a great cat, the Sphinx, suggests a great independent spirit and heretic leader in Egypt who lived at about 1350BC and was called "the heretic Pharaoh." This man's name was Akhnaton. The image of a cat fits this man because a cat tends to be very independent minded and determined once its mind is set. The suggestion Yeats is making is that Akhnaton had something important to contribute, which is heretical. When we examine Akhnaton we find that he was a lover of nature, of animals, and of children. He also introduced naturalistic art which is a precursor of Greek science. This may be stretching Yeats quite a bit, but I thought I should throw it in. In this poem Yeats himself is presenting certain ideas which are heretical and might have offended some orthodox Christians.

William Butler Yeats,, 1919
The Second Coming depicts a country’s revelation and reflects Yeat’s experience whilst living through WWI. The poem displays apocalyptic imagery to describe the people’s overthrow of the politically corrupt government. The ‘turning and turning’ of the gyre is a metaphor suggesting the population’s awakening and the spinning motion reflects their instigation to eradicate the superior powers. The repetition of ‘turning’ suggests a slow, yet ominous transition of a people’s beliefs as ‘things fall apart’. The falcon is a metaphor representing the ruling government whom ‘cannot hear the falconer’, the falconer being the population. It suggests the obliviousness of the rulers who are unaware of the people’s infuriation. The imagery that they are falconers suggests their role as hunters and the consequent violent nature of humanity.
‘Mere anarchy’ supports such lack of government control which has a biblical connotation that refers to Satan’s reign on earth before the return of Christ. Satan represents the hatred within all individuals brought about by their intolerance to endure further suffering. Followed by ‘loosed upon the world’, the anarchy slowly breaks apart the structure of society. Evidence of ‘the best lacking all conviction’ and ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity’ highlights the indiscrimination of revolution. It affects not one specific class of people, but everyone, regardless of status. ‘Passionate intensity’ reinforces the irrational mentality of the population provoked by their anger towards corruption and unfairness.
Yeats uses a blank verse structure in which the use of repetition is a rarity. The revelation which ‘is at hand’ is repeated once more, possibly to reassure the narrator’s apprehension and fear of a lawless society.
A further reference to the Bible is apparent in Yeats’ expression of the Sphinx’s ‘shape with lion body and the head of a man’ that resides in ‘a waste of desert sand’. Because Christ was tempted by Satan in the desert, such a desolate environment is pathetic fallacy and supports the collapse of humanity, including its ‘Spiritus Mundi’.
Alliteration of ‘stony sleep’ protrudes from the line to illustrate the endurance and the withstanding of time between the birth of Jesus and the present day, that is the first and second coming.
A second depiction of nature is that of the ‘rough beast’ which acts as a harbinger that foreshadows mutiny. The beast can be in reference to Satan who’s ‘hour has come round at last’, suggesting parallelism with the public’s unrest and their ominous acts of revolt. Due to its blank verse structure, I have enjoyed analysing this poem because of its narrative and almost story-telling nature. The biblical references are subtle within both stanzas and are reinforced by the vivid imagery and the urgency of mankind’s need for belief and stability.
Yeats was born on 13th June 1865 in Dublin. His father J.B Yeats was a lawyer and his mother Susan Pollexfen was the daughter of a rich shipping family in Sligo.
Yeats father decided to become an artist and the family moved to London in 1867
However Yeats spent his vacation with the pollexfen in sligo where his consciousness developed. He loved landscape, delighted in the family lore of his grand-fathers servants and the neighbouring cottagers. Yeats was attracted by the sea and the super natural element associated with it.
Yeats was not a good student academically. He was not good at spellings, he was conscious of the fact that he could not go to university because his classic nor his mathematics was good enough for any examination. But the greatest irony is he grew to be one of the most learned among English or Irish poets. There was an inner yearning for wisdom. Yeats visited many literary societies. In 1887 Yeats joined the Hermetic Students in London. By this time Yeats had also developed a habit of composing his poems and reciting them. Yeats also started reading manuals published by theTheosophical society which he joined in 1888. This society was presided over by Madam Blavatsky. About her Yeats said “Her imagination contained all the folklore of the world.” Here Yeats also met a visiting Indian Brahmin –Mohini Chatterjee .
Yeats attended her lectures on theosophy and Indian philosophy in London and Dublin. Yeats was much impressed and later acknowledged the debt in poems titled “Mohini Chatterjee”
Yeats also met – John O’ Leary, the once exiled Fenian Leader who had returned to Ireland and presided over the meetings of young Ireland society. Leary’s patriotism and lofty idealism impressed Yeats. Leary also found many subscribers who helped Yeats publish his first book of poems about an Irish legendry hero titled –‘The Wonderings of Oisin’ (1889). Yeats now began harbouring his ambition in terms of Keats’s phrase about a poet who left “Great Verse Unto A Little Clan.”
It was about this time that Yeats also met Maud Gonne a young women who dropped in at their house to meet his father and spoke of revolution so that Ireland could win its independence from Britain. Yeats was fascinated less by her philosophy but by her great beauty. She was the women whom he wanted to marry. She was the personality who exercised most overwhelming influence upon his life and imagination. She assumed the legendary proportion in her own life time. In the coming year Yeats was to participate in countless political meetings conducted by her, write poems after poems celebrating her personality, his love , both when she was young and beautiful and after when she grew old and gaunt and seemed as if she “ look a bliss of shadows for its meat.” (Among School children)
Yeats proposed her three times over the decade and was turned down each time. Yeats mean while left the theosophical society, and was initiated into the order of the Golden Dawn;[ A Society conducting occult practices under the guidance of Mac Gegor Mathers]
Out of what he learned – Yeats concluded that the visions often repeat to him his own thoughts.
In one such vision he evoked the “lunar power”,
“I saw first a centaur and then a marvelous naked woman shooting an arrow at a star…like the centaur she moved amid brilliant light.”
Another vision – Yeats saw “a descart and black Titan raising himself up by his two hands from the middle of a hip of ancient ruins”: this image is very similar to the one Yeats describes in “The Second Coming.”
In the mean time Yeats met Lady Gregory and formed a deep and lasting friendship with her. She encouraged not only Yeats in his interest in folklore but also joined hands with him and Synage to found the Abbey Theatre. His important works include:
‘The Green Helmet’ (1910)
‘Responsibilities’ (1914)
He became less ornate and more colloquial. In 1912 Yeats met Tagore and read“GITANJALI”, he was deeply moved by the lyrics of Gitanjali and always carried an English translation. He with Shree Purohit Swami together translated the “UPANISHAD” into English. This work was called “The Ten Principle Upanishad” (1937)
In 1923 Yeats owned the Nobel Prize for literature.
He published the first version of “A Vision” in 1925.
Yeats’s Philosophy of History
An important section in A VISION deals with yeats’s philosophy of history that forms the background of many of his poem, including “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming”.
According to Yeats each era lasts for 2000 years. At the beginning of each era there is a magical union of the divine with the human, and the nature of this union determines the quality of ensuing civilization The middle period of a civilization or roughly about 1000 yrs, he believed was the peak or the golden period of a particular civilization; and for this he used the symbol of full moon, with its beauty and completeness. Thereafter the achievements of the period begin to dwindle and fade out gradually, the last few decades signifying the break-up or scattering on an era. Each era is followed by another having completely opposite qualities. An “objective” era has the outward- looking mind and a “subjective” has a inward looking mind as its dominant characteristic, although there are degrees of objectivity and subjectivity, and of-course exceptions in each case.
The Graeco-Roman civilization began with Zeus (divine) attacking and raping lead (human); Helen was born. At the peak of this civilization is the great art ‘in Phidias Ionic and Doric influence unite- one remembers Titian – and all is transformed by the full moon, and all abounds an flows’
Gradually, even the great achievements of plato and Aristotle ,begin to be less influential-the era is drawing to its close.There is the start of the union of Mary (Human) and the Dove (the Holy spirit). This is referred to as ‘the immaculate conception’ and is therefore the gentlest of unions; Christ is born and his characteristics determine the Christian era that is to follow. Christ was moved by the following: ‘primary pity ,that for the common lot, man’s death, seeing that he raised Lazarus, sickness, seeing that he healed many sin, seeing that He died .Yeats regarded the Byzantine period as the peak period of the Christian civilization. The end of an era is a cataclysmic period, all its achievements, its values being on the decline. In the last few decades there may be wars, conflicts, a general weakening of those forces that had held the civilization together.
In his poem, “The Second Coming”. It is precisely this decadence of the Christian civilization that Yeats speak of, philosophy of alternating features every 2000 years, it is the figure of anti-Christ whose coming is foretold.
The Second Coming
Some of Yeats' poetry was not acceptable to people, because of his idiosyncratic beliefs. People found his interest in mysticism and the occult to be peculiar behavioral characteristics, and when he wrote The Second Coming, many people feared the poem, because of its controversial topic: the second coming of Christ, and the end of civilization right along with Him.
The poem is in two stanzas: the first one describes the world in chaos, and the second describes what the speaker thinks is the reason. In the first stanza, things are not what they ought to be. For example, "things fall apart," and "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." No one is innocent anymore, because "the ceremony of innocence is drowned." Line 2 hints at technology progressing beyond mankind's ability to control it. The problem was evident to Yeats 80 years ago, and the problem has worsened since then. Yeats shows his concern that technology has advanced to the point where mankind can do a great deal of harm with relative ease. The world had never seen destruction of the likes of World War I, and most people were shocked at the extensive loss of human life during the war.
In the time that Yeats speaks of, the rulers of the world were caught up in imperialism and expanding circles of power to the point where they would do almost anything to accomplish their goals. The ruthless power mongers were outspoken and numerous, and there seemed to be few who dared to speak out against them in the name of peace.
In the second stanza, the speaker believes something is revealed to the world, and it must be the second coming of Christ, or Judgment Day. The speaker sees a sight "out of Spiritus Mundi," or out of the Christian beliefs. He sees a sphinx, the "shape with lion body and head of a man" awake from 2000 years of "stony sleep" while the human race lived with their wars and technology and evolution. Yeats uses imagery to show the sphinx slowly coming to bring the end of the world, while "desert birds" or people who try to stop the sphinx fail. The first line, "Turning and turning in the widening gyre"tells of Yeats' belief that the world is set in a circular pattern of ways, and the gyre widening means it is time for the next phase: the coming of Christ. The very last line,"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" leaves readers with the image of the sphinx heading towards the birthplace of Jesus, and the fear of the end of the world.
Although the poem is very powerful in its literal meaning of the world coming to an end after a 2000 year cycle, it can also be read to depict the progression of human life. Chaos may still be in the world's future, but the reason could be because of the first stanza's metaphorical meaning of technology evolving faster than human life. "The falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" may mean that humans can no longer control what they created.
In the second stanza, the speaker tells of the second coming, perhaps to warn humans to prepare themselves, but he is troubled by the sight of the end of the world, and at the end of the poem, he does not believe there is any help for the human race to save themselves.
CONCLUSION: In the “Second Coming” the self is exemplified in the falcon, that can no longer “ hear the falconer”; no revelation is forthcoming except that of anarchy unbound. In poets view the absence of either the inward sense of destiny and purpose (the falcon’s instincts) or the outward witness of history and civilization (the falconer’s call) unleashes a “blood-dimmed tide” of human misery that waits deposit exploitation. At this symbolic BETHLEHEM, westerners thus wait a new incarnation whose interest will not be humankind’s salvation but rather its subjugation.

The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats
One of the best things I ever did in life was to minor in English literature. Only being rather clueless, I took a bunch of lit courses as electives because they appealed to me, and then found myself one course shy of a minor - however, I hadn't taken the lit courses that one would take to get the usual minor in English at Susquehanna University, where I went to college. See, instead of taking the usual survey route, I had taken a course in English Romantic poets (surprise!), one in early 20th century American literature, another in early 20th century British literature, and one other course that eludes me. I had started after the early folks (like Chaucer and Shakespeare), and skipped the Victorians and so forth. Luckily, the professor who was the head of the English department sat down with me and we sorted out an independent English minor (does that not sound exactly like what you'd expect to hear about me? Because in a moment of absolutely shocking self-reflection, I have to admit that it does. *sighs at own waywardness*) And so it was that I ended up taking a course on the Realists (that I absolutely hated - DO YOU HEAR ME, JUDE THE OBSCURE?) and wound up with a minor in (wait for it) "Late 19th- and early 20th-century British and American literature". I kid you not.

Anyhoo . . . one of the poets I spent time learning about in my early 20th-century British lit class was William Butler Yeats, who I grew to love. We read quite a number of his selections from my Norton Anthology, and I rather suspect that he was one of the professor's favorites as well. And my professor was big on explaining Yeats's cyclical theory of history, etc., which is why you'll be hearing about it in my explication as well . . . see, I have at this moment forgotten my professor's name, but I've remembered all he taught me about Yeats's inverted spirals and such, including what they looked like on the chalk board, so I am going to share some of that with you. Because this is one of my favorite poems in all the world, and making sense of it is worthwhile, I think.

The rest of this post is a reprise from April 3rd, 2009, as part of my National Poetry Monthseries.

Which reminds me: Anyone have any requests for the sort of thing(s) they'd like to see next month, when National Poetry Month starts? Because I'm open to ideas. I've been thinking perhaps a series on poetic terms or poetic devices or poetic forms. Or else perhaps a series on the work of a single poet - Frost, Dickinson, Shakespeare, or Wordsworth come to mind, but I'm open to suggestions. Anyone have any preferences? Anyone? Bueller?

The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Many people assume, based on the title, that this poem is about the second coming of Christ, as foretold in Revelations or the Gospels. That assumption is incorrect. Yeats's poem depicts a male sphinx, awakened from 2000 years of sleep, stalking through the desert toward Bethlehem, where the next "pure soul" will be born, thereby starting the spiraling cycle (in which Yeats believed) anew.

To make sense of the poem, it pays to know a bit about Yeats's life and world view. First and foremost, Yeats was Irish, and kept company with Irish revolutionaries including the great love of his life, Maude Gonne. Yeats was also an occultist, and a member of the Golden Dawn. Yeats and his wife, who was purportedly a medium, believed in a System in which life is patterned after the Great Wheel of time, a wheel with 28 spokes (derived from the moon cycle). Each soul moves through all 28 phases of the wheel; each complete rotation of the wheel takes 2000 years.

Yeats was a believer in opposites -- not just that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, but for every being there is a "mask" -- equal and opposite. He conceived of interlocking (and opposite) spirals -- one is at its widest point when the other is at its base, and vice-versa. These correspond to roughly 2100 year cycles, with something resembling equipoise every 1050 years. For a complete understanding of his theory, read A Vision by Yeats; various summaries can be found on the internet, with a decent representation of the Cycles of History to be found at The gyre of which Keats speaks in the first line of the poem is the outward spiral; if a falcon were to follow the spiral, it would eventually travel so far from the falconer as to be unable to hear commands anymore, and would therefore lose the centerpoint of its gyre and destabilize its path.


This can be classified in part as a war poem, first written in 1919, shortly after the end of World War I, when everyone was trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Revolution was still sweeping Europe, including the Russian revolution and, more personal to Yeats, the struggle for Irish independence. In the earlier draft of this poem, Yeats complained "And there's no Burke to cry aloud, no Pitt", referring to two denouncers of the French Revolution. He also made reference to Germany invading Russia; both references were removed, thereby making the poem less specifically about a particular world situation, and rendering it more prophetic in tone.

The first stanza

The first four lines describe the state of the world -- the falcon, a bird typically associated with royalty (or aristocracy) has flown ever higher and wider and farther from its source, until it reaches a point where it has lost contact with its source, the falconer. Oh, how I love the next line: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold". I picture a pot on a potter's wheel, flaring out nicely but suddenly wobbling and losing its form. These lines are a refences to the political situation in much of the world at the time -- the old kingdoms were no longer able to hold their shapes, and were blown apart, frequently in violence and bloodshed. The folks who should be there to denounce it lack conviction; only the worst elements in society have "passionate intensity."

The second stanza

After setting the stage, Yeats tries to make some sense of it. He grasps for reasons, as the first three lines reflect with their repetition: "Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand./The Second Coming!"

Here the poem turns to a vision, which Yeats attributes to Spiritus Mundi (or "the world spirit"), a Zeitgeist type of phrase. He describes his vision of the male-headed sphinx (in Golden Dawn parlance for the mystics in my readership, a representation of Sandalphon, with various connections to Elijah and Enoch, who is historically the entity charged with determining whether a child will be male or female). In the vision, the sphinx "is moving its slow thighs," a sexual turn of phrase, as it moves in the desert.

"The darkness drops again" puts an end to the vision, and Yeats shares its meaning. Twenty centuries of sleep in the desert have ended. A rocking cradle -- here, a sign of instability and not an item of comfort -- has put the sphinx on the move. I can't help but wonder whether the cradle reference is a reference to civilization, which was at the time reeling from so much strife. In any case, Yeats indicates that it was a sign that something big was coming, and that things were about to change (and a new pure soul would be brought into existence, to start the turning of the wheel again).

It bears mention that Yeats paid homage to his two favorite poets, William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley in this poem, first with a nod to Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," and then with a phrase ("stony sleep") borrowed from Blake's "The Book of Urizen." Yeats held both poets in high esteem, and believed that "Prometheus Unbound" should be understood as one of the world's sacred texts.

The final phrase of the poem, "what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" is one of Yeats's best-known lines, and one that sticks in the brain, years after reading it for the first time in college, where I also learned about the spirals and cycles and read "Leda and the Swan" and more Yeats. And more Yeats.

From the title of W.B. Yeats poem, "The Second Coming", one might expect to read about the glorious return of Christ to save his followers. However, Yeats portrays a dismal world where anarchy reigns over the innocence of man. The passage portrays a dark and foreboding atmosphere that serves as a warning to what may lie ahead for humankind if we continue on our current path.

The poem appears to be written in free verse which adds to the poems references to "things falling apart" and "anarchy loosed upon the world." This lack of structure within the poem helps the reader feel as if they are a part of Yeats' condemned world.

Yeats uses this poem to show his views of the world and its "right" paths of science, democracy and heterogeneity which are now beginning to come apart. This is shown in the first stanza. The lines "The falcon cannot hear the falconer", "the center cannot hold" and "mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" show the disintegration of our society. He follows this with the description of a "blood-dimmed tide", which could represent war tearing apart our civil world. It seems Yeats wishes to show us that we are approaching an inevitable end to humanity as we know it.

In the second stanza, we are introduced to the second coming. However it does not appear to be the Savior for our problems. Instead Yates writes of a sphinx with a "blank and pitiless" gaze. Why Yeats chose this image to represent the coming of a new age seems mysterious. However, from this image, we now know that a change has been set in motion. The gaze of the sphinx could stand for how this new messiah will look upon its people. Next, we are presented with an image of darkness. Our world of the past appears to have given way to a new time. In the final line of the poem we are left with a question of what `rough beast' will be our second coming. It appears that our new world that will follow is still in question.

Overall, the poem seems to convey the author's thoughts on our world's status and how he believes that we are destined to see the birth of a new age due to the direction of our society. This transformation is brought on by our own actions and how we have let our world develop. However, we are left with an open ending to the poem, which shows our future may still be undetermined.
W.B. Yeats 'The Second Coming' has been on my mind recently. I last encountered the poem while reading Stephen Kings apocalyptic novel, 'The Stand.' The lines, "The falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," were penned by the colonel, whose hubris and negligence allowed a superflue to be unleashed on the world. The first half of the novel takes typical 1980s America and turns it into a wasteland of decaying corpses and paramilitary groups vying over the last pickings of industry. I think of it now, and have been over the last few months. Now, when we stand at what may be the fulcrum in American, excuse me, United States history, the apocrayphal lines, "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold," call out to be redressed.
As men we build and build, our entire lives spent in the act of creation, whether it be building a home, a business, writing an essay, and of course, the bearing of our young. And we are the builders. But there are destroyers as well, and sometimes, it is hard to tell the difference. For even an association of destroyers have created something. And yet, the centre cannot hold rebounds at us now in light of that fact. For as St. Augustine said:
"And even when men are plotting to disturb the peace, it is merely to fashion a new peace nearer to the "heart'' desire; it is not because they dislike peace as such. It is not that they love peace less, but they love their kind of peace more."
For though it can also be said, that such a peace, based as it might be, on the rapine of civilized society, is a peace, it relies on a permanent class of prey. For when the waste is completed, where can predators turn, but on themselves and each other for sustenence. We casually call dub this evil, and yet When there is no such dearth, it is commonly called the "circle of life" and is annointed by the holy water of accepted science. The prey far outnumber the predators, and typically the predators only kill the weak and the old. The strong survive, the weak perish, evolution moves on, unforgivingly. To quote from Stephen King, "The world moves on." Social Darwinism is the meeting of German nihilism and the ghost of American secularity. And though as a theory it originated on the continent, with the admirable Herbert Spencer, it did not reach it's full flourish until it was established on the giant laboratory table that was the New World. Spencer was a liberal, believe it or not, "If every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man, then he is free to drop connection with the state -- to relinquish its protection, and to refuse paying toward its support." This is NOT the cause of the conservative, but indeed the words of an anarchist. The father of social darwinism did not suggest that to the conqueror go the spoils ... But here in the United States, the colonial experiment--the last gasp of mercantilism--social darwinism became the norm only after what remained of Austro-Hungarian eloquence migrated here in the bloody aftermath of two world wars. It has become the order of the day, for the conservative, who cannot believe in anything, to justify his own immorality with the righteousness of his own blunders. To him we say, "Don't you care if him you hurt is me?" To us, he replies, "The end justifies the means." To him we cry, "what are your ends?" We are hoping of course, expecting even to hear, "The end is a just society." But to our utter surprise, he answers honestly-- "No, the end is me." And we mourn, because we know he's correct. Our friend Henry Miller tells us:
"Only the killers seem to be extracting from life some satisfactory measure of what they are putting into it. The age demands violence, but we are getting only abortive explosions. Revolutions are nipped in the bud, or else succeed too quickly. Passion is quickly exhausted. Men fall back on ideas, comme d'habitude. Nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours. We are living a million lives in the space of a generation."
He is a killer. He might not ever, actually hurt another person in his entire life. But the greatest killers in the world were equipped with pens or pulpits. His entire life is based on his own strength--and at the end of it, when he is "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything," we hear him complain bitterly that no one cares about him, that "the world has moved on," that "kids today have no respect!" Can he not taste the bitterness of eating his own words--his own life. We are born into this world helpless. We end our lives in this life similarly, to live a life not somehow in the service of those who cannot help themselves can only be dubbed nihilism.
And yet, men do not make good prey. As we remember from "The Most Dangerous Game" Richard Connell's short story on the same subject, Rainsford escapes his predator! We must remember that men are not deemed weak by themselves. Nietzsche himself was not a well man, and a riding accident as a young man forced him into early retirement. And yet, the power of his pen, though likely underappreciated in his own time, still sets young (and old) hearts aflame. In fact, Nietzsche, who despised religion, oft complimented the Jews, on turning their 'weakness' into strength by maintaining solidarity. How is a man made weak? When he leads, or when he follows? When he acts, or does not? By what he can and cannot do?
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Some have taken it to mean, as Maynard Hutchins once wrote, that "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from an ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment." And I agree, for it is so. Yet, it is also so for the other side. A lie is a simple thing to cover up when no one asks or pretends not to see, but any questioning must by necessity create another lie. And so the lie spreads, like an infection sometimes. For as it grows in size and power, it corrupts and eats away at the truth. One of my favorite Nietzschaen maxims begins, ""I have done that," says my memory. "I cannot have done that" says my pride, and remains adamant. At last - memory yields." Such is the danger we face today. However, our position is likewise filled with equal chance--equal chance that the yeast will die, and this pastry will flatten as the hot air leakes out. THe story of the matzoh is a telling one. The Jews did not have time to let the bread rise before they were forced to flee. So, the yeast died, and they did eat their bread flat. But perhaps the lesson of passover is something slightly more subtle than this traditional moray, perhaps, the flattened bread we eat reminds us that sometimes, we must examine ourselves and those around us. To take a second look at the hot air that surrounds us, to remember, that what we are is essentially points of matter spaced galaxies apart. To eat the Matzoh is to taste the wasteland. To taste in a single bite, layers upon layers of destroyed civilization: to remember what we have lost.
I said earlier, that we stand at the fulcrum. There are many ways to move a boulder, but one is a lever, and a lever requires a fulcrum. What is this fulcrum? With our boulder it is a stone a hundredth the size and weight of the boulder, placed just so. In our history, it is likewise a time and a place, just so, from which the whole thing can be shifted. And we are quickly approaching this time. When it became evident, as many here knew from the start, that the government was lying in its reasons and methodology, then it became evident that things would change. When a few tiny lies, magnified into a few thousand lives lost, trillions of dollars, and a stagnating economy reliant on foreign investment and labor, (much like Weimar,) the vast unthinking heart of this country would have to move. Our arteries are clogged with the fats of a thousand propaganda machines, advertisements, mindless entertainments and the basic fear of not 'going along to get along.' Which revolutionary said that men would not fight so long as they had something to lose?
We have the power now, to bring us back from the brink of this bleak prospect. The age demands violence, says Miller, and I ask what age hasn't? We must not capitulate! We must NOT give in, though our biology tells us, kill or be killed. We cannot! And we must show that this is not weakness but strength, great over-powering strength. As much as I despise it for its ritualistic potency, the old adage "What Would Jesus Do?" is the popular remedy for this age old curse. If the son of God, allowed himself to be tortured and executed rather than persecute his assailants, then we owe him nothing less! The science-fiction classic "Dune" by Frank Herbert puts it in a different light: the old witch holds a poisoned needle to the young man's neck, while his hand is placed in a box that simulates the burning of his hand to a cinder. Are you a man, or are you a beast, she whispers hoarsely in his ear, threatening him with the needle if he should draw his hand out of the fire. And though it pains him to feel the layers of his flesh peeling off and flaking away in the blaze, he does not submit to the pain. He rules his emotion and his fear, and is thus judged human. But this does not make him cold, nor does it make him bitter. Nor should it with us. The strength of civilization is judged not on cold Malthusian number crunching, or Mill's "the greatest good for the greatest number," but by how we judge the smallest, and the meanest of men. We must say, to the politics of hate and indifference, "Stretch out a helping hand to the fallen man to raise him, or shed bitter tears over him, if he faces ruin, but do not jeer at him. Love him, remember that he is a man like you and deal with him as if he were yourself, then shall I read you and acknowledge you" (Ivan Goncharov.)
We must do this, always as rememberance. Because our society would not be the first to have fallen. As the bombs destroy baghdad, and what's left of the Imperial City of Babylon, we must remember the lessons our forebears have written with costly, bloody, eloquence.
"The wise warrior must consider how ghostly it will be when all the wealth of this world stands waste, just as now here and there through this middle-earth wind-blown walls stand covered with frost-fall, storm-beaten dwellings. Wine-halls totter, the lord lies bereft of joy, all the company has fallen, bold men beside the wall. War took away some, bore them forth on their way; a bird carried one away over the deep sea; a wolf shared one with Death; another a man sad of face hid in an earth-pit." Anonymous, The Wanderer
I'll close with the second half of the Second Coming. Much more chilling than the first.
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 thighs, 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?

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...Washington Irving “Little minds are tamed and subdued by misfortune; but great minds rise above them.” Washington Irving, a well-known short story author in the nineteenth century, spoke these words of wisdom. Washington Irving became famous in America for his fine works from The Specter Bridegroom to Rip Van Winkle to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. These satirical sketches are all based on the local areas in New York where Irving resided. His adventures through life spread the word of his writings and he became one of the first renowned short story writers in Europe. Washington Irving was born in New York, New York on April 3, 1783. His mother, Sarah, and father, William Irving, Sr., had eleven children including Washington. He was named after the United States first president, George Washington who was sought to be the greatest hero of all time to his parents. “… He attended the first presidential inauguration of his namesake in 1789” (Biography Channel). Irving was privately schooled and later went to study law in New York after his return from travelling Europe. In 1804 he travelled to France and Italy, while writing journals and letters. When he returned in 1805, Irving continued law school but did poorly for he barely passed the bar exam. (Biography Channel). After Irving finished his studies, he went on to write humorous essay with his older brother William Irving, Jr., and James Kirke Paulding. The Salamagundi papers published the essays in 1807 to 1808....

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The True Meaning of Rip Van Winkle

...The True Meaning of Rip Van Winkle In order for a prosperous future to occur, the present must be secure and the past must not be forgotten. Much can be said though, about the advance of mankind throughout the ages, with complete disregard to the woes and struggles of the past. Furthermore, while it would appear that the brawls of the present are almost always shaped to lend perception of a greater future, history dictates that this is not always true. In this vein, the story of America is not that much different than other epics from our past. From great reason, our ancestors sought significant change. Change brought about revolution both in the literal and intrinsic sense, and soon broader horizons quickly unfolded into an unprecedented amalgamation of opinion, social action and success. Throughout this time however, America has not been absent its critics, nor has it been isolated from internal critique either. One such example of this internal American critique can be found in Washington Irving’s, “Rip Van Winkle.” Therefore, the purpose of this brief work is to discuss the theme of Irving’s timeless masterpiece and offer critical insight as to its deeper meanings. The tale of Rip Van Winkle is set in the whimsical wilderness of the Catskill Mountains in pre-revolutionary America. As the story portrays, Rip is a simple man caught between his own ferocious hedonistic motivations, and the insurmountable demands of his condescending and oppressive wife (Perkins). ...

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Washington Irving

...discovery that his wife is dead. In time, Rip’s daughter, son, and several villagers identify him, and he is accepted by the others. One of Irving’s major points is the tumultuous change occurring over the twenty years that the story encompasses. Rip’s little Dutch village had remained the same for generations and symbolized rural peace and prosperity. On his return, everything has drastically changed. The village has grown much larger, new houses stand in place of old ones, and a Yankee hotel occupies the spot where the old Dutch inn once stood. The people are different, too. Gone are the phlegmatic burghers, replaced by active, concerned citizens. Rip returns as an alien to a place that once considered him important; he discovers that life has passed on without his...

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Vocabulary Work

...the law and charmed the jury. He always did, and losses were infrequent (罕见的,稀少的)now. Part of it came from being able to select the cases he had the expertise to(有把握) win. (有专长) Not about the case. That was fine. It was something else. Something about Allie. But damn, he couldn’t put his finger on it.(染指) A life like that makes you empty inside, and you’re looking for someone who will magically fill that void. (空虚) It was so unexpected, yet uplifting, and as the words began to replay in her mind, she realized how sorry she would have been had she decided not to see him again. (意外的)(令人振奋的) In a couple of seasoned moves,(在一些老调的影片中) long since mastered by habit, he had it in the water working its way upstream with himself as the pilot and engine. (控制,引导) He spent the next twenty minutes splitting and stacking(伐木) logs. He did it s easily, his stroke(击打) efficient, and didn’t break sweat. She passed an art gallery on Front Street, almost walked by it in her preoccupation, then turned and went back. (全部精力)(全神贯注,入神) The artists were either uninspired or lazy, she thought. (没有感觉的)(无灵感的) After a few minutes of abstraction, she did a rough sketch of the street scene as seen from her room, amazed at how easily it came. (分心) Since she didn’t have a model, she visualized it in her head before starting. And though it was harder than the street scene, it began to take form. (形象化) If anything, his attraction for her had grown stronger overnight, more intense...

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Politics In Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle

...In Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, one may think the story is for entertainment, but there is also the key point of Politics which is of more importance and can be reflected on with a better perspective. Rip Van Winkle was a gracious and charitable man whom many people from his village admire with sincere respect. He had a caring heart for both people his age, and for children, but did not have a good home life. He was constantly nagged by his wife and was lazy. Unlike working, Rip spent his days away from home fishing and hunting. According to Wyman, Rip ventures out to the mountain to hunt, encounters the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon crew, joins in their revealing, and falls unconscious. After his twenty-year sleep, Rip experiences...

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Washington Irving's 'Rip Van Winkle'

...Washington Irving was born in 1783 after George Washington, which he later met and was blessed  him.  Encouraged by his brothers to pursue writing at early age. Due to a yellow fever breakout in 1798  he was sent to live with friends of the family in a nearby town. There he became familiar with another  town named sleepy hollow a town known of ghost stores. As a young boy he also visited Johnstown New  York as he travelled there he passed through the Catskill Mountains.  Irving stated the “Catskill  Mountains had the most witching effect on my boyish imagination “although he opposed the war of  1812 he later enlisted when the British attacked Washington.    His book “Rip Van Winkle” written in 1819 during a time, America was changing...

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The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

...Irving’s tale, written in 1820, also works with antiquity, but in a different manner: it lives out colonial cultural anxieties of Irving’s present, as he seems to be concerned with constructing archetypes of folk and with placing folk culture in the new American literary landscape. Examining the two versions of the tale, then, provides a fascinating peek into the transformation of concerns and values in America from Irving’s nineteenth century landscape to Burton’s twentieth (on the verge of twenty-first) century. Burton makes several significant moves that modify the basics of Irving’s tale, frequently at the cost of the folk elements of Irving’s version. The frame narrative of Irving’s story—the tale, part of a series titled “The Sketch Book,” begins with the preface “Found among the papers of the Late Diedrich Knickerbocker—is completely done away with (Irving 41). What is more, the second narrator of the story, who is narrating to Knickerbocker “at the corporation meeting of the ancient city of the Manhattoes,” is also disposed of (Irving 61). There is no narrator at all in Burton’s film, and the action that...

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Headless Rip Van Winkle

...with his dog and meets a group of people who he drinks with; then falls asleep and wakes up 18 years later. What Tom and Rip both failed to realize is that their decisions came with grave consequences in the end. They both ended up in terrible situations that they thought would not happen. Tom Walker’s outcome was far worse than Rip Van Winkle’s. Tom made a deal with the devil shortly after his wife had died. The devil ended up coming for him years later. The devil put him on a horse and took him back to the swamp to finally kill him (Irving 10-15). Tom failed to realize that his decisions would come with grave consequences in the end. Rip Van winkle set out for the woods with his rifle and dog because he wanted to get away from his home life. When he was out, he encountered a group of inhumane beings and drank liquor with them. When Rip woke up, he then found out that 18 years had passed and most of his family had been dead or gone off somewhere, except for a daughter and his grandchild (Irving 13-23).He was happy he still had family. Although Rip’s outcome was not as bad as Tom’s; they both did not realize that when they made their decision, it would come back and haunt them later. Rip’s decision was running from home and drinking with inhuman beings; and Tom’s decision of making a deal with the...

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Indirect Characterization Of Rip Van Winkle was old with a square built. He takes Rip more into the hills and into the amphitheatre. Rip helps serve the other patrons. Rip was nervous and afraid of the crowd. However, over time he became more relaxed and began to drink along with the crowd. This made Rip fall asleep and he awoke with no dog, rusted gun and a beard that is one foot long but 20 years later. In the story, “Rip Van Winkle” Washington Irving created the American Mythology. The ideas, characters, setting, and mood help us to enjoy this story. I think my favorite part was how they explain the death of Dame Van Winkle. You would expect someone like her to die in that way. I was happy to see that Rip was reunited with his family. He was able to enjoy once again his lazy life. ...

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How Does Irving Use Satire In The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow

...Irving uses satire in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to blur the line of fantasy and story. Many stories during the time focused on the idolized hero. A hero that the everyday man could not measure up to. Irving decided to take the normal hero story and turn it on his head. He introduced a hero that didn’t get the girl, didn’t fight for love, and didn’t defeat the monster. Throughout The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving satirizes the the refined American and thus helps define the “new” American nation. The many cases of satire in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow come through the character is Ichabod Crane. Crane is a refined and intelligent man who comes to Sleepy Hollow for a teaching job. Even though, he is intelligent and outwardly respectable, he still believes in the unknown or supernatural and this where Irving begins to define the new nation. Crane’s interest or belief in the supernatural is creating a flaw that having too much knowledge can lead to a sense of false logic. Irving imagines a nation where Americans have the perfect balance of common sense and book sense. By creating a hero with such a flaw he shows what being to intelligent can do to you and your surroundings. Especially in a town that is “ "given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions; and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air” ( 6 ). Another specific case of satire in Ichabod Crane is shown in his horse ride to the Van Tessel party. Irving describes...

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