The following notes are only a partial analysis of ‘The Second Coming’, but they try to show how the poem is linked with the Yeatses’ System. See also the comments in Geometry about the notes which Yeats himself wrote. (If you are a student and wish to use or cite them, please do, but avoid plagiarism by attributing them.)
‘The Second Coming’ was written in January 1919, according to what George Yeats told Richard Ellmann (The Identity of Yeats), and first appeared in The Dial and The Nation in November 1920 and then in book form in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1922). Jon Stallworthy has analysed the drafting process of the poem in Between the Lines (and the drafts also appear in the Cornell series, Michael Robartes and the Dancer), showing how Yeats originally referred to Burke, Pitt and the Germans on the Russian border, but these details were removed and much of the poem’s power derives from its prophetic generalisation and vagueness. In this it has Biblical resonances from the Prophets of the Old Testament, with its dismayed view of the current state of the world and its foreboding about what will come.
The opening image derives from the System and the widening gyre, an historical movement or trend that started at the birth of Christ, is figured as a falcon’s towering. In the System, this gyre is accompanied by a diminishing gyre which reaches its minimum at the same time as the first reaches its widest extent, which may therefore be linked to the ‘twenty centuries of stony sleep’; these gyres have the inevitability of the tides, and like them are connected to the Moon and its phases. In the symbol of the falcon, the falconer represents control but stands at the lowest point of the gyre’s apex, so that, as the falcon towers higher, it can no longer hear the controlling centre. This leads to the stark, simple statements ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’. Indeed, much of the power of the opening section derives from the simplicity of its language, as well as the accumulation of symbols and images, which proceed with an oneiric logic through a single sentence: falcon’s gyre widening, disintegration, anarchy, tide of blood, drowning of ceremony of innocence, weakness and passion.
The word ‘Mere’ means both pure and only, and the first section further emphasises the generality and absoluteness of the situation with words such as ‘everywhere’ and ‘all’. The ‘Mere anarchy’ which is loosed (by whom?) like a plague or scourge then becomes a tide dimmed by blood, recalling the bloody seas of the Revelation of St John, the flood from the mouth of the serpent and the vials of wrath (Rev 8:8; 12:15; 16:1-4). The phrase ‘The ceremony of innocence’ is linked to a poem from later in 1919, ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’, where the poet asks ‘How but in custom and ceremony / Are innocence and beauty born?’; here the phrase suggests a vague image of whatever the reader’s imagination summons (perhaps white cloth or candles?), which is then engulfed in the crimson of the multitudinous seas. The view then moves to society and the abstract groupings of its best and worst: the best are paralysed by lack of conviction, while the worst are fired with ‘passionate intensity’, possibly linked to the red tide of anarchy. Yeats is constantly wary of the intoxicating or brutalising effect of fanaticism and hatred, both in himself and others, and especially in the context of the struggle for Irish independence, the Easter Rising and the Civil War: see, for example, "Easter 1916" (September 1916); "On a Political Prisoner" (January 1919); "A Prayer for My Daughter" (June 1919); "Meditations in Time of Civil War" (1921-23), especially the last two parts, VI and VII; "Remorse for Intemperate Speech" (August 1931).
The repetitions and echoes of the first section (‘Turning and turning’, ‘loosed . . . loosed’, ‘falcon . . . falconer. . . fall’) are emphasised at the beginning of the second section: ‘Surely some revelation is at hand; /Surely the Second Coming is at hand. / The Second Coming!’ The phrase used in the drafts was ‘the second birth’, but in the final version the idea is linked far more clearly to the Second Coming of Christ, and this is reinforced by the mention of Bethlehem in the last line. Yet if this is a second coming, it is not the second coming of Christ envisaged in Revelation or the Gospels (see Matt 24, Mark 13).
The poem moves from generality to a vision experienced in the first person, which Stallworthy characterises as ‘that most common Yeatsian pattern of an objective first movement passing into a more subjective second movement’ (Between the Lines, 24). An image emerges from ‘Spiritus Mundi’, the world’s creative and active mind (cf. Anima Mundi, the world-soul), which recalls a vision that Yeats himself experienced when the Tattwic symbol of Fire was pressed to his forehead by Mathers (Au 185-86). Here, however, the figure is not a Titan emerging from ruins, but a figure in ‘sands of the desert’ like the Sphinx at Giza, which is itself probably an image of solar deity, ‘A shape with lion body and the head of a man’. (It is worth noting that the sphinx was regarded in the Golden Dawn as a combination of elemental forces, particularly the ‘Sphynx’ of their Enochian magic, and with this appearance represents the combination of Fire and Air, or Leo [lion] and Aquarius [human] [see RGD 659 ff.], possibly therefore linked with the coming age of Aquarius.*note) But Yeats deliberately does not call it a sphinx, describing rather than naming it, and another source of the symbol’s inspiration was slightly different: in the Introduction to The Resurrection he notes how, at around the time of writing On Baile’s Strand (1904), ‘I began to imagine, as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast which I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction’, noting that the beast was ‘Afterwards described in my poem "The Second Coming."’ (Ex 393, VPl 932). The Sphinx also appears, named in another poem from 1919, ‘The Double Vision of Michael Robartes’, where it takes on the Greek female form, ‘A Sphinx with woman breast and lion paw’, and it is possible that Yeats associated the term more fully with the murderous inquisitor of the Oedipus myth, since the name literally means strangler. In ‘The Double Vision’ the Sphinx is one of the ‘heraldic supporters guarding the mystery of the fifteenth phase’ (AV B 207), at which a new religious dispensation starts, and symbolises the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which presides over the start of an antithetical dispensation (see below; for more on this poem, see ‘The Double Vision of Michael Robartes’).
The image of ‘The Second Coming’ is no heraldic emblem but moves, its pitiless inhumanity reflected from its human head, and the reeling of the desert birds echoes the falcon’s towering at the opening of the poem. The ‘slow thighs’ emphasise its physicality and almost sexual aura. At this stage the vision ends, but the poem’s speaker then moves on to a conclusion: ‘now I know’. What he knows, however, is couched in the most gnomic terms: ‘That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle’. Given Yeats’s idea of the two-thousand-year cycles, one of which started at Christ’s birth, we have an appropriate period (though the first printing in The Dial had ‘thirty centuries’, the drafts and all later versions have ‘twenty’); but who is the sleeper? is it the stony sphinx or the world? Elsewhere, Yeats refers to the representative of the antithetical tincture as ‘Old Rocky Face’ (‘The Gyres’ VP 564; 1936-37; possibly the Delphic Oracle or Shelley’s Ahasureus, see NC 359) and it is possible that he saw the ancient polytheistic past associated with the antithetical as having lain in stasis during the cycle of monotheism, associated with its opposite, the primary. The antithetical awaits revivification, like ‘mummy-wheat’ which will sprout when it is sown again, and its dormancy has been a kind of stony sleep which might well regard the ascendancy of its opposite as a nightmare (see the Tinctures). The rocking cradle appears to allude to the baby Jesus, yet Christ is almost never pictured as lying in a cradle, rather the beasts’ manger, so that in some respects Yeats divorces the nightmare’s stimulus from Jesus and it may be linked to the ‘Babe’ of ‘The Mental Traveller’, who is reborn in a reversing cycle of victimage, which Yeats links to the reversing cycles of A Vision and the birth of a ‘child or era’ (AV B 257 & 277). The final question mark makes the last clause ambiguous, since the phrase can be read in two ways: ‘now I know. . . what rough beast’ and 'what rough beast?’. The question, though, predominates, since even within the framework of Yeats’s System the future is uncertain: the broad outline is inevitable, but the ‘particulars are the work of the Thirteenth Cone or cycle’, which represents the divine (AV B 302), so that A Vision itself ends in a series of questions. Yeats therefore knows that this coming is of a ‘rough beast’ (another echo of Revelation, see Rev 13), that the beast’s hour has ‘come round at last’, the phrasing indicating the cyclical nature of this hour, and that it slouches towards Bethlehem, but still questions its nature. The word ‘Slouches’ adds to the sinister aura, with its precise, feline blend of casualness and stalking, but despite the sensuousness of this verb and of the ‘slow thighs’, the beast has not yet been born into the physical world.
The beast’s birth at Bethlehem links it to the birth of Jesus, but Bethlehem is more a symbolic state than a geographical place (like Blake’s Jerusalem, for instance). In the System of A Vision, Yeats indicates that the coming Avatar, or divine incarnation, because it is antithetical will be multiple rather than single, and he represents the classical predecessor of Christ in a variety of ways. In one guise, the counterpart is Oedipus, who ‘lay upon the eath at the middle point between four sacred objects. . . and he sank down soul and body into the earth. I would have him balance Christ who, crucified standing up, went into the abstract sky soul and body. . . .’ (AV B 29). In the poem ‘Leda and the Swan’ (also titled just ‘Leda’), however, he sees the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan as the heroic age’s key moment: ‘I imagine the annunciation that founded Greece as made to Leda. . . .’ (AV B 268). It is the counterpart to the annunciation to Mary by the Holy Ghost, represented by a dove, and he titles the section of A Vision on historical cycles ‘Dove or Swan’. Leda’s daughter, Helen, precipitates the Trojan War and her other daughter, Clytemnestra, kills her husband, Agamemnon: ‘A shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead’. It is a form of this classical antithetical annunciation, similar to that of the Swan but different, which will be repeated.
The poem’s power of image and language is to some extent independent of Yeats’s own ideas, and by using Biblical echoes, both in style and reference, Yeats gives the poem an immediacy, which some of the other poems that derive from the System of A Vision lack. It draws on the cultural context or schema in which we tend read it, giving expression to millennial dread and the feeling that we live in times of unprecedented upheaval, whether or not we actually do.
‘The Second Coming’ also has a intrinsic linguistic vividness that is witnessed by the frequency with which is quoted. From Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, almost every phrase in the poem has been used, usually more than once, to entitle a book or an article of greater or lesser impact (there is a collage version of the poem at deuceofclubs.com that uses some of these to build the poem from book-covers; some bits work better than others). Even relatively small modifications of language weaken it considerably, as is evidenced by Joni Mitchell’s generally respectful reworking, ‘Slouching Toward Bethlehem’.
Yeats had written in 1900 that: ‘It is only by ancient symbols, by symbols that have numberless meanings besides the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon, or the half-score he knows of, than any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of Nature. The poet of essences and pure ideas must seek in the half-lights that glimmer from symbol to symbol as if to the ends of the earth, all that the epic and dramatic poet finds of mystery and shadow in the accidental circumstances of life’ (‘The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry’, E&I 87). The symbols that he uses here similarly partake of a wider symbolism of ‘numberless meanings’ rather than just the ones which are linked to his System and the poem’s immediate inspiration, so that although a knowledge of Yeats’s ideas certainly clarifies elements in the poem, ‘The Second Coming’ has no single explanation.
For further details about A Vision and the context for "The Second Coming," see the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012) available for free download from Clemson University Digital Press.
*Note: An earlier version of the page linked the image of the sphinx to the angel Sandalphon, the Archangel of the lowest Sephirah, Malkuth, the Kingdom, often identified with the planet Earth. This was taken from a secondary source and I now find that it is not supported in any Golden Dawn documents that I can discover. In coloured versions of the Tree of Life (the Minutum Mundum), the Golden Dawn shows Malkuth as four (dirty) colours representing the elements and in some other respects sees it as the union of the four elements. I think this attribution was based on a confusion of the Sphinx, representing a combination of the elements, with the archangel of Malkuth/Earth, or over-identifying the correspondences.Return to text