William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” soon after the end of World War I, known at the time as “The Great War” (because it was the biggest war yet fought) and “The War to End All Wars” (because it was so horrific that its participants dearly hoped it would be the last war). It was also not long since the Easter Rising in Ireland, a rebellion that was brutally suppressed and the topic of Yeats’ earlier poem “Easter, 1916,” and the Russian Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the long rule of the Czars and was accompanied by its full share of lingering chaos. It’s no wonder the poet’s words convey his sense that the world he knew was coming to an end.
“The Second Coming,” of course, refers to the Christian prophecy in the Bible’s Book of Revelation that Jesus will return to reign over Earth in the end times. But Yeats had his own mystical view of the history and future end of the world, embodied in his image of the “gyres,” cone-shaped spirals that intersect so that each gyre’s narrowest point is contained inside the widest part of the other. The gyres represent different elemental forces in the historical cycles (or different strains in the development of an individual human psyche), each beginning in the purity of a concentrated point and dissipating/degenerating into chaos (or vice versa)—and his poem describes an apocalypse very different from the Christian vision of the end of the world.
The underlying metric pattern of “The Second Coming” is iambic pentameter, that mainstay of English poetry from Shakespeare onward, in which each line is made up of five iambic feet, da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM / da DUM. But this fundamental meter is not immediately evident in Yeats’ poem, because the first line of each section (one hesitates to call them stanzas, because there are only two and they are nowhere near the same length or pattern) begins with an emphatic trochee and then moves into a very irregular, but nonetheless incantatory rhythm of mostly iambs:
TURN ing / and TURN / ing in / the WIDE / ning GYRE. . . . .SURE ly / some RE / ve LA / tion IS / at HAND
The poem is sprinkled with variant feet, many of them like the third foot in the first line above, pyrrhic (or unstressed) feet, which enhance and emphasize the stresses that follow them. And the last line repeats the strange pattern of the first lines of the section, beginning with a bang, the trochee, followed by the tripping of unstressed syllables as the second foot is turned around into an iamb:
SLOU ches / toward BETH / le HEM / to be / BORN
There are no end-rhymes, not many rhymes at all, in fact, though there are many echoes and repetitions:
Turning and turning...The falcon... the falconerSurely... at handSurely the Second Coming... at handThe Second Coming!
Altogether the effect of all this irregularity of form and emphasis combined with the incantatory repetitions creates the impression that “The Second Coming” is not so much a made thing, a written poem, as it is a recorded hallucination, a dream captured.
The first stanza of “The Second Coming” is a powerful description of apocalypse, opening with the indelible image of the falcon circling ever higher, in ever-widening spirals, so far that “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” The centrifugal impetus described by those circles in the air tends to chaos and disintegration—“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;”—and more than chaos and disintegration, to war—“The blood-dimmed tide”—to fundamental doubt—“The best lack all conviction”—and to the rule of misguided evil—“the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
The centrifugal impetus of those widening circles in the air, however, is no parallel to the Big Bang theory of the universe, in which everything speeding away from everything else finally dissipates into nothingness. In Yeats’ mystical/philosophical theory of the world, in the scheme he outlined in his book A Vision, the gyres are intersecting cones, one widening out while the other focuses in to a single point. History is not a one-way trip into chaos, and the passage between the gyres not the end of the world altogether, but a transition to a new world, or to another dimension.
The second section of the poem offers a glimpse into the nature of that next, new world: It is a sphinx—“a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi... / A shape with lion body and the head of a man”—therefore it is not only a myth combining elements of our known world in new and unknown ways, but also a fundamental mystery, and fundamentally alien—“A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” It does not answer the questions posed by the outgoing domain—therefore the desert birds disturbed by its rising, representing the inhabitants of the existing world, the emblems of the old paradigm, are “indignant.” It poses its own new questions, and so Yeats must end his poem with the mystery, his question: “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
It has been said that the essence of great poems is their mystery, and that is certainly true of “The Second Coming.” It is a mystery, it describes a mystery, it offers distinct and resonant images, but opens itself to infinite layers of interpretation.
“The Second Coming” has resonated in cultures all over the world since its first publication, and many writers have alluded to it in their own work. A wonderful visual demonstration of this fact is online at Fu Jen University: a rebus of the poem with its words represented by the covers of the many books that quote them in their titles.