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William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming" and "When You Are Old"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Introduction and Text of "The Second Coming"

William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming" does not depict the universe as only or totally chaotic, yet it does complain that things seem to be heading in that direction.

Poems, in order to communicate, must be as logical as the purpose and content require. For example, if the poet wishes to comment or criticize, he must adhere to physical facts in his poetic drama.

If the poet wishes to emote, equivocate, or demonstrate the chaotic nature of his cosmic thinking, he may do so without much seeming sense.

For example, the lines, "Sometimes a man walks by a pond, and a hand / Reaches out and pulls him in" / / "The pond was lonely, or needed / Calcium, bones would do," are ludicrous on every level.

Even if one explicates that the speaker is personifying the pond, the lines remain absurd, at least in part because if a person needs calcium, grabbing the bones of another human being will not take care of that deficiency.

The absurdity of a lake needing "calcium" should be abundantly clear on its face. Nevertheless, the image of the lake grabbing a man may ultimately be accepted as the funny, non-sense that it is. Yeats' poem cannot be dismissed so easily.

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?

Ted Hughes reads "The Second Coming"

Commentary on "The Second Coming"

This poem remains one of the most widely anthologizes poems in world literature. Yet its hyperbole in the first stanza and ludicrous image in the second result in a blur of nonsense.

First Stanza: Sorrowful over Chaos

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.

The speaker is sorrowing over the chaos of worldly events that have left many dead in their wake. Clashes of groups of ideologues have wreaked havoc, and much blood shed has smeared the tranquil lives of innocent people, who wish to live quiet, productive lives.

The speaker likens the seemingly out of control situation of society to a falconer losing control of the falcon as he attempts to tame it. Everyday life has become chaotic as corrupt governments have spurred revolutions. Lack of respect for leadership has left a vacuum which is filled with force and violence.

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The overstated claim that, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," should have alerted the poet that he needed to rinse out the hyperbole in favor of more accuracy on the world stage.

Such a blanket, unqualified statement, even in a poem lacks the ring of truth: it simply cannot be true that the "best lack all conviction." Surely, some the best still retain some level of conviction; otherwise, improvement could never be expected.

It also cannot be true that all the worst are passionate; some of the worst are likely not passionate at all but remain sycophantic followers. Any reader should be wary of such all-inclusive, absolutist statements in both prose and poetry.

Anytime a writer subsumes an entirety with the terms "all," "none," "everything," "everyone," "always," or "never," the reader should question the statement for its accuracy because too often such terms are signals for stereotypes, which result from the inaccuracy of groupthink.

Second Stanza: What Revelation?

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 idea of "some revelation" leads the speaker to the mythological second coming of the Christ. So he speculates on what a second coming might entail. However, instead of Jesus the Christ, the speaker conjures up the notion of an Egyptian-Sphinx-like character.

Instead of a second coming of godliness and virtue, as is the purpose of the original second coming, the speaker wonders: what if the actual second coming will be more like an Anti-Chris? What if all this chaos of bloodshed and disarray has been brought on by the opposite of Christian virtue?

Postmodern Absurdity and the "Rough Beast"

The rough beast in this poem is an aberration of imagination, not a viable symbol for what Yeats' speaker thought he was achieving in his critique of culture.

If, as the postmodernists contend, there is no order in the universe and nothing really makes any sense anyway, then it becomes perfectly fine to write nonsense.

Because this poet is a contemporary of modernism but not postmodernism, William Butler Yeats' poetry and poetics do not quite devolve to the level of postmodern angst that blankets everything with the nonsensical.

Yet, his manifesto titled A Vision is, undoubtedly, one of the contributing factors to that line of meretricious ideology.

Hazarding a Guess Can Be Hazardous

The first stanza of "The Second Coming" begins by metaphorically comparing a falconer losing control of the falcon to nations and governments losing control because of the current world disorder, in which "[t]hings fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

Political factions employ these lines against their opposition during the time in which their opposition is in power, as they spew forth praise for their own order that somehow magically appears with their taking the seat of power.

The second stanza dramatizes the speaker's musing about a revelation that has popped into his head, and he likens that revelation to the second coming of the Christ.

However, this time the coming, he speculates, may be something much different. The speaker does not know, but he does not mind hazarding a dramatic guess.

Thus, he guesses that the entity of a new "second coming" would likely be something that resembles the Egyptian sphinx; it would not be the return of the Christ with the return of virtue but perhaps its opposite.

The speaker concludes his guess with an allusion to the birth of such an entity as he likens the Blessed Virgin Mother to the "rough beast." She—in the guise of this newfangled, postmodern creature—will be "slouching toward Bethlehem" because that is the location to which the first coming came.

The allusion to "Bethlehem" functions solely as a vague juxtaposition to the phrase "second coming" in hopes that the reader will make the connection that the first coming and the second coming may have something in common.

The speaker speculates that at this very moment some "rough beast" might be pregnant with the creature of the "second coming."

And as the time arrives for the creature to be born, the rough beast will go "slouching" towards its lair to give birth to this "second coming" creature: "its hour come round at last" refers to the rough beast being in labor.

The Flaw of Yeats' "The Second Coming"

The speaker then poses the nonsensical question: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

These last two lines, in order to make the case that the speaker wishes to make, should be restructured in one of two ways:

First: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to give birth?"

or

Second: "And what rough beast's babe, its time come at last, / Is in transport to Bethlehem to be born?"

An unborn being cannot "slouch" toward a destination. The pregnant mother of the unborn being can "slouch" toward a destination. But the speaker is not contemplating the nature of the rough beast's mother; he is contemplating the nature of the rough beast itself.

The speaker does not suggest that the literal Sphinx will travel to Bethlehem. He is merely implying that a Sphinx-like creature might resemble the creature of the second coming.

Once an individual has discounted the return of Jesus the Christ as a literal, or even spiritual, fact, one might offer personal speculation about just what a second coming would look like. It is doubtful that anyone would argue that the poem is dramatizing a literal birth, rather than a spiritual or metaphorical one.

It is also unreasonable to argue that the speaker of this poem, or Yeats for that matter, thought that the second coming actually referred to the Sphinx. A ridiculous image develops from the fabrication of the Sphinx moving toward Bethlehem. Yeats was more prudent than that.

Exaggerated Importance of Poem

William Butler Yeats composed a manifesto to display his worldview and poetics titled A Vision, in which he set down certain tenets of his thoughts on poetry, creativity, and world history.

The work, although seemingly taken quite seriously by Yeats’ scholars, is of little value in understanding either meaning in poetry or the meaning of the world, particularly in terms of historical events.

An important example of Yeats’ misunderstanding of world cycles is his explanation of the cyclical nature of history, exemplified with what he called "gyres."

Two particular points in the Yeatsian explanation demonstrate the fallacy of his thinking:

(1) in his diagram, Yeats set the position of the gyres inaccurately; they should not be intersecting but instead one should rest on top of the other: cycles shrink and enlarge in scope; they do not overlap, as they would have to do if the Yeatsian model were accurate;

(2) in the traditional second coming, the Christ is figured to come again but as an adult, not as in infant as is implied in Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming."

Of great significance in Yeats’ poem is the "rough beast," apparently the Anti-Christ, who has not been born yet. And most problematic is that the rough beast is "slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born."

The question is, how can any creature be slouching if it has not yet been born? There is no indication that the speaker wishes to attribute this second coming fiasco to the mother of the rough beast.

This illogical event is never mentioned by critics who seem to accept the slouching as a possible occurrence. On this score, it seems critics and scholars have lent the poem an usually wide and encompassing poetic license.

Spiritual Meaning of "The Second Coming" Explained

Paramahansa Yogananda has explained in depth the original, spiritual meaning of the phrase, "the second coming," which does not signify the literal coming again of Jesus the Christ, but the spiritual awakening of each individual soul to its Divine Nature.

Interestingly, knowledge of the actual meaning of that phrase, "the second coming," renders unnecessary the musings of this poem and most other speculation about it. Still, the poem as an artifact of 20th century thinking remains an important object for study.

Sources

William Butler Yeats' "When You Are Old"

William Butler Yeats' "When You Are Old" is one of the poet's lyrics that qualifies as a love song without the usual Yeatsian political or modernist tinge. It is likely the poet had Maude Gonne in mind as the target of this poem.

William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne

William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne

Introduction and Text "When You Are Old"

William Butler Yeats' "When You Are Old" is displayed in three riming quatrains with the scheme, ABBA, CDDC, EFFE. The speaker is addressing a loved one, yet he speaks from the stance of a suffering, unrequited lover. The poem is fashioned as a poem of subtle seduction.

(Please note: Dr. Samuel Johnson introduced the form "rhyme" into English in the 18th century, mistakenly thinking that the term was a Greek derivative of "rhythmos." Thus, "rhyme" is an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form "rime," please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Reading of "When You Are Old"

Commentary on "When You Are Old"

In William Butler Yeats' "When You Are Old," the speaker is dramatizing his feelings hurt by unrequited love in order to master those feelings. By predicting the future emotional state of his target, he laments yet assuages his present pain.

First Quatrain: Unrequited Love

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

The speaker is lamenting the love in his life that has remained unrequited. To the one who has rebuffed his offer of love he gives a command to read his future books that he is sure will be published—books that will contain the speaker's profession of love for the woman.

The speaker wants the addressee, after she has become aged and "grey and full of sleep," to read his poems and think back on his love for her. He asks her to remember the "soft look / [Her] eyes had once," but he also wants her to remember "their shadows."

Those shadows alerted the speaker to the fact that his love for her would remain unfulfilled, especially because those shadows were "deep."

The speaker emphasizes the physical condition of the addressee for "when [she] is old," she will be "grey," "full of sleep," and "nodding by the fire." All of these are weakened states that bemoan the lack of a partner.

Although the speaker projects the poem into the future and imagines that the addressee will read it only in the future, he knows she will read it as a young woman, and he hopes she will reconsider her coolness toward him, accept his love, and not be "nodding by the fire" alone in the future but with him.

Second Quatrain: Loves the Real Person

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

The speaker then refers to the situation that is galling him, that many more men than he have "love[d] [her] moments of glad grace," and they have also loved her beauty. But he establishes his uniqueness, again offering a hint of persuasion, by suggesting that he alone loves the real person she is.

The speaker alone can "love the pilgrim soul" she is and, no doubt, will continue to be.

Not only does he understand her because he loves her true self, but he also accepts and loves her when she is feeling moody; he loves "the sorrows of her changing face." He insists that he is the one who can accept her as she is. He loves her inner beauty as well as her outer beauty.

Third Quatrain: Imagining Rarified Love

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

In the final quatrain, the speaker dramatizes the future moment when the addressee will be reading this heartfelt poem has addressed to her. She will experience sadness as she bends down to tend to the fire.

He foretells that she will "murmur" in her melancholy that "Love fled / And paced upon the mountains overhead / And hid his face amid a crowd of stars."

The woman would not honor the man by accepting his love when he offered it to her, and that love escaped like smoke that ascends and disperses into the rarified air. He asks her to imagine his rarefied love, and therefore the speaker himself, as he is slowly walking in the mountains where he seems to vanish among the "stars."

The speaker wishes to have the woman experience sadness in the present for what he claims she will have lost in the future by not accepting his affection and love. He is sad that she will not reciprocate his affection, and he is dramatizing his feelings in an attempt to master them.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Who is the "rough beast" in W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming"?

Answer: The identity of the"rough beast" is open to interpretation.

Question: What is the symbolic meaning of stone for Yeats?

Answer: Stone symbolism in many Yeatsian texts is employed to suggest rigidity, unchanging positions, even stubborn radicalism.

Question: Where does the rough beast in Willaim Butler Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming," head towards?

Answer: In the final two lines of the poem, the speaker asks, "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Your question is based on a false premise because, in this poem, there is, in reality, no "rough beast" to be heading anywhere. The speaker is simply musing on "what rough beast" because he knows that Mary and Joseph traveled to "Bethlehem" where Jesus the Christ was born, which would then be considered "The First Coming," an event that is never named such.

The speaker concludes his guess with an allusion to the birth of such an entity as a "rough beast" as he likens the Blessed Mother to that "rough beast." She, as this new-fangled creature, will be "slouching toward Bethlehem." Where else? After all, that's where the First Coming came!

Question: In W.B. Yeats "Rough Beat," what does the line "The falcon cannot hear the falconer" mean?

Answer: The speaker is likening the seemingly out of control situation in society to a falconer losing control of the falcon as he attempts to tame it. Everyday life has become chaotic as corrupt governments have spurred revolutions. Lack of respect for leadership has left a vacuum which is filled with force and violence.

Question: Was W.B. Yeats a Christian?

Answer: Yeats was not a practicing religionist. Instead of being a devotee of a spiritual path, he was more of a student. He nurtured an interest in the Eastern Religions and Philosophies and even compiled a translation of a section of the Upanishads with Swami Sri Purohit, a Hindu pundit from Maharashtra, India.

Question: When did William Butler Yeats die and where?

Answer: William Butler Yeats died on January 28, 1939, in Cannes, France.

Question: Is William Butler Yeats a British poet?

Answer: William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865.

Question: Why does the rough beast appear after “...twenty centuries of stony sleep...” in the Yeats poem, "The Second Coming"?

Answer: According the speaker of the poem, the rough beast appears and "slouches towards Bethlehem to be born."

Question: In the poem "The Second Coming", is the "rough beast" supposed to be thought of as the Egyptian Sphinx?

Answer: No, the likeness of the Sphinx is simply a trope about which Yeats has his speaker speculate.

Question: Is Yeats a postmodern poet?

Answer: No, Yeats is by all means a great poet of abundant good sense. Nevertheless, on occasion in his works, one will find signs that he became tinged with the stain of the beginnings of postmodernism, or more accurately simply moderism. Yeats died in 1939 during the heyday of modernism; postmodernism didn't stir until about three decades after Yeats' death, but some of the modernists did begin to show signs of things to come. Yeats' failure with this poem can be laid squarely at the feet of postmodernist twisted logic and artistic failure.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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