W. B. Yeats' "Rough Beast" in "The Second Coming"

Updated on May 14, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

W. B. Yeats


Introduction and Text of "The Second Coming"

W. B. 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 simply to emote, equivocate, or demonstrate the chaotic nature of the cosmos, he may quite deliberately 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 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 Yeats' "The Second Coming"

Postmodern Absurdity

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.

And the postmodernists will furthermore contend that the purpose of poetry is not to communicate but to serve as a kind of place that holds the regurgitated nonsense spewed forth from the poet's seething brain. If the poet did not have this vomit pit into which he can unload, his brain would explode, they explain.

Because the poet is a contemporary of modernism but not postmodernism, W. B. 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" describes the situation, employing the falcon and falconer with the ultimate purpose of saying that things are out of control in those oft-quoted lines, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold."

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 Christ, only 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. 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.

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

The speaker speculates that at this very moment some "rough beast" might be pregnant with the creature of the "second coming," and when it is time 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 drops 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 the speaker wishes to make should be restructured in one of two ways: (1) "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to give birth?" or (2) "And what rough beast's babe, its time come at last, / Is in transport to Bethlehem to be born?"

Obviously, the speaker does not mean that the literal Sphinx will travel to Bethlehem. He is merely implying that a Sphinx-like creature might be the creature of the second coming.

Once a person has discounted the return of Jesus Christ as a literal fact, it is easy to offer personal speculation about just what a second coming might look like. It is doubtful that anyone would argue that the poem is dramatizing a literal birth, rather than a spiritual 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.

Questions & Answers

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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