Analysis of W. B. Yeats’s The Second Coming

One of the most famous poems in the English language, The Second Coming is the definitive vision of the Yeatsian apocalypse. It incorporates and intensifies ideas of cyclic creation and destruction already articulated in poems like “The Magi,” “On Woman,” “The Phases of the Moon,” and “Solomon and the Witch,” and more obliquely anticipated by “Easter 1916” (“All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born”). In its unsettling concatenation of images and startling revision of Christian doctrine, the poem finds the sufficient formula for genuine mythmaking and in this respect goes beyond a poem like “The Phases of the Moon,” which, as Yeats admits, has the abstract quality of a “text for exposition” (The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats 821).

The underlying “mathematical figure” of “The Second Coming,” as Yeats states in a lengthy note to the poem, is the cone or gyre interlocked with its opposite, the vertex of the one centered upon the base of the other. This figure defines the relation not only between subjective and objective impulses within the individual, but also within the pattern of history. The end of an age, Yeats explains, “always receives the revelation of the character of the next age” and “is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction. At the present moment the life gyre [i.e., the objective or primary impulse] is sweeping outward, unlike that before the birth of Christ which was narrowing, and has almost reached its greatest expansion. The revelation which approaches will however take its character from the contrary movement of the interior gyre [i.e., the subjective or antithetical impulse]. All our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash, though in a flash that will not strike only in one place, and will for a time be constantly repeated, of the civilization that must slowly take its place” (VP 824–825). In A Vision, Yeats expresses the idea more simply: “After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war” (52; see also 263, 277; AV-1925 210–215). In its first stanza, “The Second Coming” envisions just this “expansion” of the “life gyre” in the figure of the falcon circling in a widening gyre beyond the command of the falconer, an image that Yeats had rehearsed in the fine minor poem “The Hawk” (1916). The image reverses the beatific downward gyre of the white gull in “Demon and Beast,” such that the two poems in conjunction embody the double movement of the gyres as each dies into the life of the other. The image also reprises the central image of the “The Wild Swans at Coole,” the private bereavement of the earlier poem writ large as a symbol of universal dissolution, of anarchy “loosed upon the world,” of the “blood-dimmed tide” drowning everywhere “the ceremony of innocence.” This is something like the ceremony of innocence that Yeats wishes for his daughter in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” which immediately ollows in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) and in the collected poems.


In Autobiographies, Yeats recalls his conviction as a young man that the world had become “a bundle of fragments,” but he admits that he did not foresee “the growing murderousness of the world” and quotes the first stanza of “The Second Coming” to emphasize the point (163– 166). Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in early January 1919 (YC 202); its sense of murderousness conceivably encompasses World War I, the Easter Rising, and the Russian Revolution. The Anglo-Irish War, which has its great poem in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” was then brewing, but did not commence in earnest until January 21, 1919. Yeats specifically mentions Russia in a draft of the poem: “The Germans are . . . now to Russia come / Though every day some innocent has died” (Between the Lines 17). John Stallworthy notes that by “the end of July 1917 the Russian front had crumbled in face of the enemy. In October of that year the Bolsheviks brought off their revolution, and at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, on 3 March 1918, Lenin had surrendered to the Germans: Finland, Esthonia, Courland, Lithuania, and tracts of Russian Poland. The Germans had indeed come to Russia, and I think it not impossible that Yeats, with his reverence for the aristocratic virtues epitomized by Castiglione, had in mind the fate of the Russian Royal House, as he wrote: ‘Though every day some innocent has died’” (Between the Lines 18– 19; on the Russian royal family, see “Crazy Jane on the Mountain”). In an April 8, 1936, letter to Ethel Mannin (1900–84), Yeats emphasized the political implications of the poem: “[As] my sense of reality deepens, and I think it does with age, my horror at the cruelty of governments grows greater [. . .]. Communist, Fascist, nationalist, clerical, anti-clerical, all are responsible according to the number of their victims. I have not been silent; I have used the only vehicle I possess—verse. If you have my poems by you, look up a poem called The Second Coming. It was written some sixteen or seventeen years ago and foretold what is happening” (Letters 851).

Whatever its political relevance, “The Second Coming” shares the understanding of Autobiographies that “the growing murderousness of the world” is a mere symptom of the culture’s fall from Unity of Being into the “bitter comedy” of self-division (165). Under these circumstances, the “best lack all conviction,” being out of phase with their era and profoundly discouraged, while the worst are “full of passionate intensity.” As many commentators have noted—for example, Bornstein, Henn, and Stallworthy—these lines closely follow Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (I, lines 625–628): “The good want power, but to weep barren tears. / The powerful goodness want: worse need for them. / The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom; / And all best things are thus confused to ill” (Yeats and Shelley 196; Lonely Tower 146; Between the Lines 23). The “passionate intensity” of “the worst” most likely has a personal as well as a global resonance, recollecting those who impeded and harassed Hugh Lane, J. M. Synge, and Charles Stewart Parnell, and obstructed Yeats’s own enterprise of Irish cultural renaissance.

The second stanza, echoing the desert scene in the final stanza of “Demon and Beast,” stages the vision of destruction by which modernity is to be undone. Convinced that the “second coming” must be at hand, for the condition of the culture is unsustainable, Yeats sees “a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi,” or the “world spirit,” a version of the anima mundi that is a central concept in Yeats’s esoteric philosophy. In his notes to Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920), Yeats attributes the concept of the “spiritus mundi” to the Cambridge Platonist Henry More (1614–87) and describes it as a pervasive vital spirit that contains “all forms, so that the parents when a child is begotten, or a witch when the double is projected as a hare, but as it were, call upon the Spiritus Mundi for the form they need” (LE 271). In a note to “An Image from a Past Life,” Yeats describes the Spiritus Mundi as a “general storehouse of images which have ceased to be a property of any personality or spirit” (VP 822). In this case, the mind’s eye calls forth from the Spiritus Mundi a desert scene in which a “shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs,” while above “reel shadows of the indignant desert birds,” as if the noble, solitary falcon of the opening stanza has been reborn as its anti-self.

The image of the Sphinx had germinated for decades, inspired perhaps, as Harold Bloom and Stallworthy think, by Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” with its related vision: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand, / Half sunk a shattered visage lies . . .” (Yeats 319; Between the Lines 22–23). In Autobiographies, Yeats recalls an occult experiment that took place in 1890 or 1891 in which MacGregor Mathers induced a vision clearly anticipatory of the sphinx of “The Second Coming.” Yeats saw “a desert and a black Titan raising himself up by his two hands from the middle of a heap of ancient ruins” (161). In his 1934 introduction to The Resurrection, Yeats’s wonders, “Had I begun On Baile’s Strand [in August 1901] or not when I began to imagine, as always at my left side just out of the range of the sight, a brazen winged beast that I associated with laughing ecstatic destruction?” (Expl. 393; VPl. 932). In a footnote, Yeats explicitly identifies the beast as that which “The Second Coming” describes. Giorgio Melchiori, meanwhile, associates the Sphinx with the apocalyptic unicorn that is a crucial motif in the plays The Player Queen, The Unicorn from the Stars, and Where There is Nothing, and in the story “The Adoration of the Magi.” In Where There is Nothing, the Nietzschean iconoclast Paul Ruttledge envisions, as the symbol of his own destructive, messianic impulse, “a very terrible wild beast, with iron teeth and brazen claws that can root up spires and towers” (VPl. 1099). Thomas Whitaker discerns additional “symbolic ancestors” in “Blake’s Orc awakening after eighteen centuries of sleep, the Black Pig visiting blissful destruction upon an exhausted world, the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor (Swan and Shadow 74).

The sphinx recurs far more complexly in “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes,” where, along with the Buddha, it flanks the dancing girl who embodies the transcendental stasis of the 15th lunar phase. In A Vision, Yeats calls the sphinx an image of the “outward-looking mind, love and its lure” and Buddha an image of the “introspective knowledge of the mind’s self-begotten unity,” and he notes that these figures stand “like heraldic supporters guarding the mystery of the fifteenth phase” (AV 207). The sphinx of “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” seems a symbol of eternity rather than an agent of apocalypse, but it shares with the sphinx of “The Second Coming” its blank and pitiless stare, a motif likewise significant in poems as diverse as “A Bronze Head,” “The Cat and the Moon,” “The Phases of the Moon” (lines 84–88), “The Statues,” and “Upon a House shaken by the Land Agitation,” and indicating a vision of something beyond the world or an attunement to an invisible behest. In A Vision, Yeats, commenting on different traditions of statuary, hints at the significance of the blank eye: “When I think of Rome I see always those heads with their world-considering eyes, and those bodies as conventional as the metaphors in a leading article, and compare in my imagination vague Grecian eyes gazing at nothing, Byzantine eyes of drilled ivory staring upon a vision, and those eyelids of China and of India, those veiled or half-veiled eyes weary of world and vision alike” (275–277; see also 280).

In its chilling final lines, “The Second Coming” crossbreeds its dark cyclic vision with the traditional Christian mythos of the second coming (see Matthew 24) and revelation (see Revelation 13). Like some mutant Christ, the rough beast, “its hour come round at last,” slouches toward Bethlehem to be born, not in initiation of a final heavenly peace, but in perpetuation of the violent revolutions of history and in annunciation of the birth of a new age, as in “The Magi” (“round” in this case has a literal signification). As Richard Ellmann writes, “The final intimation that the new god will be born in Bethlehem, which Christianity associates with passive infancy and the tenderness of maternal love, makes it brutishness particularly frightful” (IY 260). Yeats provides the relevant metaphysical framework in A Vision: “At the birth of Christ took place, and at the coming antithetical influx will take place, a change equivalent to the interchange of the tinctures. [. . .] The approaching antithetical influx and that particular antithetical dispensation for which the intellectual preparation has begun will reach its complete systematisation at that moment when, as I have already shown, the Great Year comes to its intellectual climax” (AV 262–263). Where the primary era of Christ is “dogmatic, levelling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace its means and end,” the antithetical era of the beast will be “expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical” (263). Yeats punctuates the entire discussion by quoting “The Second Coming’s” description of the sphinx, the physical and mythic symbol of the “antithetical influx” he describes. As to when this revelation was supposed to occur, Lady Gregory records in a journal entry of November 3, 1925, Yeats’s prediction that the next revelation—that of “The Second Coming”— will come “perhaps not for another two hundred years” (Lady Gregory’s Journals, I, 600–601).

Yeats explores similar ideas of annunciation in “Leda and the Swan,” which also pictures the violent birth pangs of an antithetical age. As Giorgio Melchiori writes, Yeats considers the Trojan war that was set in motion by the rape of Leda, the birth of Christ, and “an indefinite event due to happen in our century”—the birth depicted in “The Second Coming”—to be the “three fundamental crises in world history, each of which reversed the established order and ushered in a new cycle of civilization” (Whole Mystery of Art 85).

Bloom, Harold. Yeats; Bornstein, George. Yeats and Shelley; Ellmann, Richard. The Identity of Yeats; Lady Gregory. Lady Gregory’s Journals (vol. 1, ed. Daniel J. Murphy); Henn, T. R. The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats; Kelly, John S. A W. B. Yeats Chronology; Melchiori, Giorgio. The Whole Mystery of Art: Pattern into Poetry in the Work of W. B. Yeats; Stallworthy, John. Between the Lines: Yeats’s Poetry in the Making; Whitaker, Thomas R. Swan and Shadow: Yeats’s Dialogue with History; Yeats, W. B. Autobiographies, A Critical Edition of Yeats’s A Vision (1925), Explorations, Later Essays, The Letters of W. B. Yeats, The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, A Vision.

Categories: Irish Literature, Literary Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Poetry

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