An Analysis of William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”
“The Second Coming”, written by William Butler Yeats, was published nearly one year atter the end ot the First World War. and during a time when many traditional ideas were being questioned and overturned. Those who lived through the war felt that It was catastrophic (nine million people lost their lives), while still others felt the reasons for going into war were Ill conceived. In the end, many were not convinced that “the war to end all wars” had actually solved anything. The Second Coming” could be viewed as Yeats’ own commentary on what was thought to be the end of a ying era, and the beginning of more progressive one. While Yeats believes that the upheaval he’s deplctlng In his poem Is necessary, recurring, and Inevitable, he tears what It may cost society, and Is very ambivalent about what the future holds. In the first half of his poem, Yeats paints a picture that many can relate to the end times, found in the book of Revelations of the Christian Bible.
Written in prose, he describes the end of the existing world order, brought forth by death, war, destruction, and chaos. The disastrous event Yeats describes in his poem is toreordained with the image ot a gyre, or wheel. Turning and turning in the widening gyre- (1) literally means that a big wheel Is turning, This wheel could also be considered along the lines of a Wheel of Fortune card In d tarot deck, meant to reflect destiny, fate, superior forces, or movement.
In the second line, Yeats describes the chaos around him with the imagery of the falconer who’s lost control of his falcon, followed with the line “Things fall apart;… ” (3). Falconry, once considered a symbol of high status during the medieval time period, could possibly indicate a shift in social and class structures. The image Yeats may be depicting is that ot a world, which at one point had some kind of order and purpose, was now falling apart and becoming more chaotic.
The remainder of the stanza depicts a pandemonium erupting from the disorder, closing with very little hope for a positive outcome as the world’s most insidious people advance through the exploitation of others. In the second half of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”, Yeats begins to contrast the apocalypse of Christian theology with sphinx imagery found in both Egyptian and Greek mythology. This comparison relates to the Idea that Yeats was very skeptical bout the outcome to the societal upheaval that was taking place during the early 20th century.
In the 300k of Revelations, the apocalypse was ultimately regarded as d necessary evil. One in which the forces of good permanently triumph cwer the forces of evil, ushering in an era of peace where Christ reigns upon the Earth. But just as Yeats begins to consider whether this reckoning will bring forth an age of prosperity as prophesied in the Bible. h‚¬s troubled with the horrific vision ot a sphinxlike deity. This Image was said to have come from splrltus Mundl, or splrlt world, predating the Book of Revelations, and possibly time Itself.
In Greek mythology, the Sphinx was d merciless demon of destruction that was said to have guarded the gates of Thebes, testing travelers with a riddle, and devouring anyone who could not provide her with humanity wouldn’t actually get to experience a period of growth and progressiveness after the First World War, leaving him to question the purpose of these trials and tribulations, and whether they were all for naught. In lines 16 and 17, Yeats describes a flock of “indignant desert birds” (17) spinning all about the sphinxlike eity. The word indignant, meant to convey a righteous anger, is being applied to what X.
J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia regard as the harbingers of a new age, as stated in the seventh edition of Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. While Yeats never specified the species of desert bird in his poem, the word desert does hint at its biological classification. Deserts are often associated with death for the reason that so few plants and animals are able to survive its arid conditions. This would suggest that the birds may have been carnivorous in nature, eeding off the dead and putrefying flesh of the disadvantaged people indirectly caught up in the revolution.
Perhaps the desert birds are angry because they feel as though theyVe been denied their due compensation. Kept at bay for centuries, these harbingers of a new age may also be seen as opportunists ready to capitalize off of the prophecy they have long waited to see fulfilled. In the last four lines of his poem, Yeats again refers back to Christian theology. Twenty centuries ago, or 2000 years rather, was roughly the same time period in which Jesus Christ walked upon the Earth.