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Summary and Analysis of the Poem 'The Second Coming' by William Butler Yeats

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

This article provides a summary and analysis of William Butler Yeats's famous poem 'The Second Coming'.

This article provides a summary and analysis of William Butler Yeats's famous poem 'The Second Coming'.

William Butler Yeats's 'The Second Coming' Summary

William Butler Yeats wrote his visionary poem, 'The Second Coming', in January 1919 when he was 44 years old. Already established as a poet, theatre director, politician and esoteric philosopher, this poem further enhanced his reputation as a leading cultural figure of the time.

In a 1936 letter to a friend, Yeats said that the poem was 'written some 16 or 17 years ago and foretold what is happening', that is, Yeats poetically predicted the rise of a rough beast that manifested as chaos and upheaval in the form of Nazism and Fascism, bringing Europe to its knees.

Yeats had lived through tough times - World War 1 had seen unprecedented slaughter; several Irish Nationalists had been executed in the struggle for freedom; the Russian revolution had caused upheaval - and 'The Second Coming' seemed to tap into the zeitgeist.

'My horror at the cruelty of governments grows greater' he told a friend. His poem seems to suggest that world affairs and spirituality must undergo a transformation from time to time. Humankind has to experience darkness before the light can stream in again through the cracks.

Things might fall apart, systems collapse - spiritual refreshment can only be achieved through the second coming: a Christian concept involving the return of Jesus Christ to Earth.

  • Except that this second coming would be no holy birth of an infant Christ in a lowly manger, no Saviour.
  • Something far sinister is in prospect; an antithetical creature, sphinx-like in nature, a rough beast, slouching its way, about to be born en route to a symbolic Bethlehem.
  • This could manifest as war, huge social and political change, climate change and environmental disaster.

'The Second Coming' is a disturbing poem with memorable lines that have been used by modern writers, rock bands and others as titles for their work. It's a highly visual two-stanza creation, ending in a long, deep question.

William Butler Yeats 1920

William Butler Yeats 1920

'The Second Coming'

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 Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
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 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?

'The Second Coming' Analysis

A 22-line poem, two stanzas, in free verse, with loose iambic pentameter (mostly five stresses and ten syllables per line but there are variations), 'The Second Coming' is one of the more successful nonrhyming poems Yeats wrote.

As you read through, note the change in rhythm and texture as the narrative alters. For the whole of the first stanza and some of the second, the speaker is objectively describing events. It's as if there's a running commentary on something profound happening inside the speaker's mind.

Only at lines 12/13 is the speaker's mask taken off:

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight:

And again at line 18:

The darkness drops again; but now I know

Only when the vast image is seen (through the mind's eye?) does the speaker come alive, to put two and two together. The cycles that underpin spiritual existence have come round again: a creature somewhat like a sphinx is on the move, disturbing the desert birds as it slouches towards a symbolic Bethlehem.

The first stanza is full of dramatic verbs: turning, widening, fall apart, loosed, drowned, giving the impression of a system out of control. Note the first word is repeated to accentuate the idea of the falcon's action as it flies away from the falconer. Later on it will evolve into a very different creature.

Because of the dire situation established in the first stanza, some kind of fateful release is triggered. The result is the emergence of a sphinx-like figure from the World Soul, the Vital Spirit. It's on its way to the spiritual headquarters to be born. Just like the Christ child was 2000 years ago.

Enjambment, alliteration and assonance all play their part in these second stanza lines:

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

The final two lines are popular and well known. The rough beast about to be born after twenty centuries could take the form of a government, a tyrant, a regime - according to the cosmic and spiritual laws it would have to counteract the effects of religion, specifically Christianity.

A new civilization will be born, one that will reject what previous generations celebrated, and celebrate what previous generations rejected.

Further Analysis of the Poem

With a strong involvement in political, cultural and spiritual matters, William Butler Yeats the poet was in a unique position to write a poem as far-reaching as 'The Second Coming'.

The poem is full of exotic and unusual imagery. The first two lines for instance take the reader off into the air on the strong wings of a falcon, far away from the hand of the falconer. Control is already being lost.

Gyre means spiral or vortex, a geometrical figure and symbol fundamental to the cyclical view of history that Yeats held. As the falcon sweeps higher and higher this vortex or cone shape widens and weakens the hold on reality.

Not only is the bird representing a cycle of civilisation, but it is also a symbol for nature in its sharpest, cleanest sense. Humankind is losing touch with nature and has to bear the consequences.

  • In today's world, that means the effects of such things as climate change and global warming on our materialistic existence.

As this trend continues there is an inevitable collapse of systems and society. Again, Yeats delivers a vivid picture of the consequences, repeating the word loosed in tsunami-like imagery, as humanity descends into moral confusion.

The Second Coming relies heavily on certain words being repeated, perhaps to emphasise the cyclic nature of things. So the Second Coming dominates the start of the second stanza. The speaker exclaims excitedly and the reader has to prepare for what follows: the genesis of a spiritual creature, taken to be a sphinx, which now begins its unstoppable journey towards the historic town of Bethlehem.

There are clear biblical echoes here: from the Revelation of St John to the nativity story of Jesus, the former a disturbing vision of the Apocalypse, the latter a birth that gave hope to a sinful world.

In broad terms, the cosmic clock is ticking, alignments are being made and an existential crisis about to unfold.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP,2005

© 2016 Andrew Spacey