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The Second Coming
The "spiritus mundi" (Latin "spirit of the world")
Things Fall Apart: A Guide to William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”
About.com Guide http://poetry.about.com/od/poems/a/2ndcomingguide.htm
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 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.
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