“The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats is a poem about the apocalypse. It was written around the end of WW1, when lots of things were changing, and the world seemed to be changing so fast it was like Armageddon. Thus Yeats wrote this poem to show his thoughts on chaos, and how from all these bad things, even more bad could be coming. The new century was meant to be a bright and exciting new time, and yet everything seemed to be going so badly wrong. The tone of the poem is very pessimistic and confused, showing disorder. The use of both evil language “blood-dimmed”, and religious language, “Bethlehem” creates a confused feeling. The use of enjambment, the varying line lengths and lack of rhyme also adds to the idea of chaos.
Throughout the poem Yeats uses Biblical language to tie into the religious side of the apocalypse. ‘The Second Coming’ itself is a phrase to describe when Jesus will return and decide who goes to heaven. Yeats says:
“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
The repetition of “surely” shows his doubt, as if he doesn’t know whether all the bad things happening means that the apocalypse is nigh. The whole phrase has overtones of prophetic grandeur. By saying ” some revelation” Yeats is referring to the book of Revelations in the Bible, in which the prophecy of the apocalypse is forseen by St John. Yeats references a verse of Revelations when he says “the blood-dimmed tide” – the verse stating that the star Wormwood would fall to earth and the waters turn to blood. This is an image filled with connotations of both religion and death – showing the nature of the apocalypse. Revelations is full of odd creatures, and this fact seems to be reflected by the line “A shape with lion body and head of a man” – obviously a reference the Egyptian Sphinx. The reference to the “desert sand” could refer to Jesus’ time in the desert where the devil tempted him.
The line “That twenty centuries of stony sleep” is a reference to Jesus being out of the world for twenty centuries. The word “stony” has connotations with Jesus’ resurrection – as the stone was rolled away from the tomb, and Jesus was not there. At the very end of the poem Yeats says:
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
This rhetorical question seems blasphemous – it is as if Yeats is describing Jesus as a “rough beast”. The effect of the word “slouching” adds to the image of a lazy rough beast. The use of the word “Bethlehem” reminds us of Jesus’ first birth – so maybe Yeats is trying to say that the Second Coming will not be pleasant, it will be a “rough beast” (looking at Revelations it definitely doesn’t seem like an optimistic time).
Yeats also uses references to the time he lives in falling “apart”. He states that “Mere anarchy is loose in the world” – maybe referencing the fall of the Tzars in Russia, or the World War. The use of the line “The falcon cannot hear the falconer” suggests disorder, and could be interpreted as a metaphor for mankind losing it’s connection with God. The use of the word “falcon” makes it sound refined, as only the upper classes would own falcons. Again the phrase “the centre cannot hold;” also suggests that mankind has lost it’s connection with the centre, the centre being a metaphor for God (as God is portrayed as the centre of life). Yeats suggests that everyone is guilty, that “innocence has drowned”.
The first line, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre” could be interpreted in many ways. When I first read it I thought the word “turning” was a reference to the phrase, ‘turning in your grave’ – and thus the word was used ironically as according to Christian belief all of the dead leave their graves and rise to heaven during the apocalypse. However the “widening gyre” is a reference to the idea of gyres – something W.B Yeats was fascinated with, as he loved the spiritual and the occult. A gyre is a vortex, yet in the spiritual terms it’s the idea that lives pull in at death and then contribute to the next life – thus all the lessons learned in one life are used in the next. It is visualised as two cones, with the points touching to show the lives connected. Thus the word “turning” could be interpreted as a reference to the circle of life, and past lives.
Thanks for reading,