One of the most resounding names in the discussion of 20th century literature is of the great William Butler Yeats. His works and even his biography are staple study materials for those who endeavor in literature studies. With that being said, it would also be important to study one of his greatest works. One of his best known works, also considered one of his finest, is the poem “The Second Coming.” Many artists claim that they were influenced by William Butler Yeats and this particular poem has been cited by other works of art. With that taken into consideration, many works of art by other artists can be considered offshoots of Yeats’ poem. It could also be assumed that in a way, this particular poem had somehow influence the art that we are experiencing today. This paper would attempt to present and analyze Yeats’ poem and look into the different aspects why it had become popular among poets and enthusiasts of poetry.
The paper would not delve into a vicious criticism of the work at hand. The main objective would be to present the poem as not merely a poem, but a work of art that needs a deeper view and profound appreciation.
Moreover, this particular poem had influenced many other artists. That would only mean that the influence of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” would be visible in many other works of art. It is an assumption that after an analysis of the poem, we would be able to determine how it had influenced other works of art. In simpler terms, if we would try to understand the poem, we would be granted a better understanding of the poem at hand and of the other works.
There is a popular notion in the world of poetry that once an author had explained his or her work, the poem is being stripped of its divine quality. It is just fortunate that the author did not design this poem in an explicit manner. Another popular notion in the world of art is that explicitness is dangerous to any form of art. And so, setting aside those popular notions, the work at hand belongs to the genre of poetry. Poetry is often coined as the art of misleading, it often leaves the readers scratching their heads. With all of that being said, reading a review before or after tackling a poem would undeniably be of great help to readers.
Before we traverse further in the discussion, it would be helpful to have a brief overview of the author’s background. The objective of this part follows the logic of an old saying that tells us that the fruit doesn’t fall very far from the tree. The relationship of the fruit and the tree is just the same case for poems and poets. That is because we can understand a work better if we have an idea of the person that had come up with the work.
William Butler Yeats is an Irish writer born and educated in the city of Dublin. He was born on the thirteenth of June 1865, and had passed away on the twenty-eighth of January 1939. As stated in the introduction, he would be a great representative of literature during the 20th century. He had endeavored in multiple genres of literature, but the most significant ones would be in drama and poetry. As a testament to his success as a writer, he had been a recipient of the highly-coveted Nobel Prize for literature (Foster 6-27). And of course, there is the worldwide readership and his influence that has spanned generations.
Since the poem is not that long, it would be better for this paper to include the poem within its contents. The inclusion of the work to be analyzed would enable us to consult the work whenever we need to. Moreover, a review of the work is undeniably essential to any analysis.
The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats
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
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 the Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of 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?
Brief background of the poem
Yeats’ poem entitled “The Second Coming” was first printed in the American Magazine “The Dial” in November of 1920. The first printing was followed by the inclusion of the poem in Yeats’ collection of poems entitled “Michael Robartes and the Dancer” in 1921. The poem is known to be written during 1919, just after World War I. (Brown 71-72)
Definition of terms
The word gyre is one of the most noticeable unfamiliar terms in the poem. A gyre basically refers to a spinning vortex. The word is usually used to allude to the movements of oceanic and wind currents. Yeats had already incorporated the term in his book “A Vision”, which was published in 1925.
Another term in poem that is calling attention is “spiritus mundi.” The term basically translates to the “spirit of the world.” The concept is in-line with Yeats’ belief that every mind of all individuals is somehow linked to a single vast intelligence (Foster 44)
And for us to understand more of nature of some of the lines, we need to consult some works of other writers.
The echoing lines in the last part of the first stanza “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” It is said that those lines are in reference to the famous passages of the story Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley. According to Yeats himself, during his childhood he had read Shelley’s book religiously and it had been an influence ever since (Foster 402)
“The Second Coming” is of course in reference to the prophecy about second coming of Christ. This prophecy could be located in the bible specifically in the books of Matthew and the Revelations.
At first glance, readers could carelessly conclude that the poem is a free-verse. The poem seemingly does not follow any rhyme scheme and meter whatsoever. But after orally reading the poem, that is when readers could easily appreciate the intricate design of the poem.
If the poem “The Second Coming” would be categorized according to a sub-genre of poetry, it would belong to the “lyrical” style of poetry. As the name suggests, lyric poems is basically a kind of poetry that, just like a song, has musical qualities incorporated within it.
And of course, to make a poem lyrical would mean to put rhymes for the poem to make distinct sounds. Although there are some, there are not many rhymes in the poem. In contrast to most classic poems, the number of end-rhymes was only reduced only into two in this particular poem. The few end-rhymes are: “hold” along with “world”, and although repetitive “hand” along with “hand.”
Although there were only a few end-rhymes, the poem was interspersed with internal rhyming. But the internal rhyming that Yeats had done is not as technical as it sounds. He had just repeated some of the words to achieve the effect of internal rhymes. As we could observe in the poem “turning and turning…”, “the falcon… the falconer”, “surely some revelation is at hand” / “surely the Second Coming is at hand” (Yeats 403)
The overall effect to the combination of the handful of internal rhymes and the few petty end-rhymes enables the poem to sound as if there are echoes. This effect is best described by the second line “the falcon… the falconer.” Brown was able to describe the effect of the poem in a more technical manner. According to him, the lack of form and the emphasis on the repetitions creates an impression to the readers that a poetry that has no form is just enough to describe the concept of “The Second Coming”—as if it is just a captured dream or a recorded hallucination. (Brown 72)
The rhyming is not only the element of poetry that some readers might overlook. Reading the poem only visually would not enable the reader to determine that there is an underlying metric pattern within the poem. This particular metric pattern is known as the iambic pentameter, a metric pattern that is often associated with Shakespeare and other classic poets. The iambic pentameter is basically a metric pattern commonly characterized by a line being made up of five iambic feet. Here is a rough illustration of the iambic pentameter: duh DUM / duh DUM / duh DUM / duh DUM / duh DUM. And now here are the lines of the poem according to the illustration of the iambic pentameter: turn ING / and TURN / ing IN / the WIDE / ning GYRE… surely LY / some RE / ve LA / tion IS / at HAND.
Although the iambic pentameter is one of the most fundamental and recognizable metric patterns in poetry, it is just understandable that it would be hard for some to locate it in this particular poem. The poem does not follow an iambic pentameter as its only metric pattern, the first lines of each stanza follow the metric pattern called trochee. A trochee is basically a line that consists of a stressed syllable that is followed by an unstressed syllable.
To analyze the poem in a technical aspect like meter and rhyme may take some time and much research. But even at the first reading, one could easily see that the poem is rich in imagery, personification, irony, exaggeration, and of course, symbolisms. Its richness as a text makes the poem a versatile piece for plain poetry enthusiasts and for those who endeavors in rigorous literature studies. Perhaps the success of the poem owes much to the fact that there are many themes that can be unearthed from the poem.
It is very likely that the one of the themes that a reader could immediately assume is that the poem takes on religion. There is a considerable count of words that connote the topic of religion. Even the title alone, “The Second Coming”, already directs us to the discussion of Christ or even Christianity in general.
The concept of the “Second Coming” is considered a prophecy. It was prophesized in the bible, particularly in the books of Matthew and the Revelations, that there would be a second reappearance of Christ. This prophecy is an integral part of the Christian faith and one of the reasons why Christians follow the teachings of the church. And just like in the bible, some also consider Yeats poem as prophetic. The form of the poem is like a prophecy of the impending randomness that we are all to experience in gyre called society.
On the other hand, it could also be that Yeats is taking the side of religion as “the falcon…” [Christians] “…cannot hear the falconer” [God]. It could be about the gradual degeneration of the level of faith of people on religion. In the phrase “the best lack conviction”, the best could be an allusion to Christians. That is as opposed to phrase “the worst are full of passionate intensity”, in which the worst could be an allusion to non-Christians. It seems that Yeats had juxtaposed Christians to the other religions. And in his portrayal it seems that the non-Christians are having the upper hand in terms of having a “passionate intensity” with regards to faith. Moreover, the birthplace of Christ, Bethlehem, is mentioned in the last line of the poem “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born”?
Many see religion as a dominant theme of the poem because Yeats is known for his fascination with the spiritual and the mythological. The words that can be associated with religion are ceremony, revelation, Spiritus Mundi, and Bethlehem. As a support for Yeats’ reputation of having a fascination for the spiritual and the mythological is the inclusion of a sphinx-like creature. This sphinx-like creature could be located in the line “a shape with lion body and the head of a man.” Yeats seems to have a fondness of mythological creatures such as the sphinx. There are many other works of Yeats that cite the sphinx. It should be taken into consideration that the sphinx is regarded as a religious icon in ancient Egypt.
Aside from religion and spiritual themes, themes that take a political and societal tone are also present in the poem. The line “the falcon cannot hear the falconer” could be roughly interpreted to the subordinate cannot hear the leader. And if the gyre is considered as a metaphor for the society, it is constantly widening. In relation to the poem, a widening gyre would mean that the spinning would be more turbulent. Yeats may have wanted to say that as time passes, the problem of the degeneration of society is getting more and more out of hand.
Yeats had also seemingly stated his view of the society. The line “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” could be alluding to the arguably degeneration of the society as it is swaying away from the old ways and adopting new ideas.
But perhaps out of all the lines of the poem, the line “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”, is the line that gives the poem a political flavor. The inclusion of the word “anarchy” alone is almost enough to lead readers to the theme of politics. If the reader would read Yeats’ “The Second Coming” during times of political instability, the reader could even generalize that the poem is basically about revolutions, insurgencies, activists, and the likes. The first line “turning and turning in the widening gyre” could simply mean that political instability is an ongoing trend in our societies. The second line “the falconer cannot hear the falconer” refers to the constituents of the tyrannical leadership. The people are refusing to hear the falconer’s [tyrant’s] commands.
But Yeats had shown in this particular poem that he could be antirevolutionary. Yeats presents the consequences of a revolution “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” The picture that line paints in our minds is a typical picture of revolutions. That line could trigger images of dilapidated buildings, monuments and homes. That line basically refers to the chaos that revolutions could bring. The chaos that the poem had painted would be followed by the inclusion of the word “anarchy.” Then it would all be amplified by the line “the blood-dimed tide is loosed, and everywhere.”
Yeats had also expressed his view on the topic of social classes in this poem. The last lines of the first paragraph “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity” is begging the question: who are the “best” that are lacking conviction, and who are the “worst” that are full of passionate intensity? It is not unfamiliar to us that in discussions of social classes, categories are determined as either black or white. An individual could just either be rich or poor, educated and uneducated, and other determinants of social classes. It appears that Yeats’ view is that the privileged strata of the society is lacking faith and the working-class and medium-income part of the society are full of passionate intensity. This portrayal of Yeats is a common scenario in revolutions. The privileged part of the society seem to lack conviction when radical social change is about to happen.
Yeats poem would lead the reader to the irony that the poor is the more active participant in the revolutions. That is despite the poor’s depressed and financially-lacking state. It seems that the common scenario in a revolution is that the rich is just standing in the background. That is just understandable as the rich and the poor would always think differently. As the poem says it “the best lack all conviction”, they do not want any part of the revolution. A likely reason is that they do not want to take part in the revolution is that because of the nature of the word revolution.
Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is certainly a controversial poem. Controversial not just because of it is a hybrid of free-verse and form, but also because of the themes that it generates. Nonetheless, the success of the poem is undeniable. The very evidences for that is its inclusion to many anthologies and publications. But the very testament of the poem’s success is that it continually calls controversy even up to this date.
Moreover, the title “The Second Coming” is just aptly given to the poem. Just like the religious concept of the second coming of Christ, the poem also takes such mysterious quality. The “first coming” for the poem would be its first publication in 1920. But as opposed to the religious second coming, the poem seems to reappearing again and again. It seems that the past and the future generations would still appreciate the poem for being one of the greatest poems ever written.