In his poem originally titled The Second Birth, William Butler Yeats issues a warning to mankind concerning the inevitability that its destructive ways will give rise to a new age of darkness and anarchy. Yeats prophesizes the impending doom of humanity through the arrival of a second holy being, arisen to void the internal fissures which cripple 20th century culture. The poem encapsulates Yeats’ bleak vision of the future through violent imagery, ritualistic language, vivid symbolism, and allusions to fundamental teachings within Christianity.
The Second Coming refers to the Second Coming of Christ, as predicted in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Bible to take place after Satan’s reign of darkness. At the time of this poem’s writing, World War I had just ended in Europe and many people started taking the idea of a “war to end all wars” more seriously. It became hard to tell good and evil apart, where both the victors and the losers were left to survey the immense loss of human life and transformation of society.
In this vacuum where disbelief and a lack of faith began to permeate, Yeats envisioned a sinister twist to the idea of the Second Coming, believing that the end of history might rather be heralded by the coming of an Antichrist instead – a symbol of violence and chaos in the world. 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. This mood of stark anticipation is further empowered by the lack of all color throughout the poem, with words like “blood-dimmed” and “darkness” painting an infinitely hopeless portrait of what is to come.
The idea of Yeats being a prophet of the coming age is further emphasized through the loose meter and absent rhyming scheme prevalent throughout the poem. It is written in a very rough iambic pentameter, but exceptions are so frequent that it actually seems closer to free verse with frequent heavy stresses. Instead of consistency within structure, many echoes are found in lines such as “Turning and turning…”, or “The falcon… the falconer”, “Surely… is at hand”, “Surely the Second Coming is at hand”, “The Second Coming!”. The effect of all this irregularity in form and emphasis combined with the incantatory repetitions creates an 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 principal situation presented in the poem is that of a world falling apart and into chaos. Readers are introduced to an abysmal scene where a falcon is spiraling out of control while unable to hear the call of the falconer which released it. In fact, one of the main themes touched upon with this poem is Yeats’ fundamental concept of the gyre – a diagram made of two conical spirals, one inside the other, so as one spiral reaches its widest extent, the other reaches its minimum. Yeats envisioned the primary gyre, the age of Christianity, to be at its fullest expansion and approaching a turning point when the primary would begin to contract and the antithetical enlarge. The image of falcon and falconer can easily be applied to society and God, but also to youth and morality, or people and government. Although the process of moving far away from God is part of the cycle of apostasy that the world has gone through for years, this time because the world has gotten so bad, total anarchy has formed. Instead of doing what a tide normally does – namely growing then receding, Yeats warns that a tide of war and sin has been released upon the world in Verse 5 with the statement: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.” The entire world is drowning in this flood and no one can be considered innocent.
The transition between first and second stanzas in The Second Coming encompasses a shift in time, from a historical present to a prophetical future, as well as a change in certainty. Whereas the first stanza sounds confident and is riddled with declarative statements, the second sounds uncertain. The speaker sounds confident with his first use of the word “surely”, yet he becomes less convincing with its repeated use in the next line. The emergence of Yeats’ antithetical beast after line 13 is a culmination of his vision. In contrary to the Christian notion of redemption in the second coming of Christ, Yeats brings forth the image of a monster, not a redeemer. In verses 19-20, “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 alliteration of “stony sleep” protrudes from the line, while its metaphor of sleep suggests either the relative peacefulness or the obliviousness which characterized the “twenty centuries” between the First and Second Comings, assuming that the latter is just around the corner. 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.
The implication throughout the poem is that society has strayed too far from its values to act responsibly, and an other-worldly force is coming to rectify this. 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. Later, “Innocence” is described as only a “ceremony,” something that is put on for show, but perhaps not truly meant. The first stanza of Yeats’ poem ends with a remark stating that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” – which would seem to be a paradox. Are good people still good if they don’t act in the face of chaos? The question of how to tell good and evil apart – and whether they can be separated at all – is essential to the text of Yeats’ prophecy. Later images of the sphinx in the desert seem to embody a force that is neither good nor evil, but simply indifferent. As is evident in the line: “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” the sphinx in the desert is best thought of as a force of nature, caring no more about the fates of people as does the sun that shines indifferently upon all. 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.
In conclusion, The Second Coming is a magnificent statement about the contrary forces at work in history, and about the conflict between the modern and the ancient world. William Butler Yeats is not afraid to tweak Biblical imagery and put it to use in his own prophetical warning to mankind about its destructive nature. The poem’s pessimistic mood and rhetorical tone serve to emphasize his importance as a moral authority in the coming age. As with the Book of Revelation, Yeats includes all kinds of memorable symbols that anyone can find meaning within but nobody can be sure of what exactly is meant.