"The Second Coming"
The speaker describes a nightmarish scene: the falcon, turning in a widening "gyre" (spiral),
cannot hear the falconer; "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold"; anarchy is loosed upon the
world; "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is
drowned." The best people, the speaker says, lack all conviction, but the worst "are full of
Surely, the speaker asserts, the world is near a revelation; "Surely the Second Coming is at
hand." No sooner does he think of "the Second Coming," then he is troubled by "a vast image of
the Spiritus Mundi, or the collective spirit of mankind: somewhere in the desert, a giant sphinx
("A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun") is
moving, while the shadows of desert birds reel about it. The darkness drops again over the
speaker's sight, but he knows that the sphinx's twenty centuries of "stony sleep" have been made
a nightmare by the motions of "a rocking cradle." And what "rough beast," he wonders, "its hour
come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
"The Second Coming" is written in a very rough iambic pentameter, but the meter is so loose,
and the exceptions so frequent, that it actually seems closer to free verse with frequent heavy
stresses. The rhymes are likewise haphazard; apart from the two couplets with which the poem
opens, there are only coincidental rhymes in the poem, such as "man" and "sun."
Because of its stunning, violent imagery and terrifying ritualistic language, "The Second
Coming" is one of Yeats's most famous and most anthologized poems; it is also one of the most
thematically obscure and difficult to understand. (It is safe to say that very few people who love
this poem could paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction.) Structurally, the poem is quite simple--
the first stanza describes the conditions present in the world (things falling apart, anarchy, etc.),
and the second surmises from those conditions that a monstrous Second Coming is about to take
place, not of the Jesus we first knew, but of a new messiah, a "rough beast," the slouching sphinx
rousing itself in the desert and lumbering toward Bethlehem. This brief exposition, though
intriguingly blasphemous, is not terribly complicated; but the question of what it should signify
to a reader is another story entirely.
Yeats spent years crafting an elaborate, mystical theory of the universe that he described in his
book A Vision. This theory issued in part from Yeats's lifelong fascination with the occult and
mystical, and in part from the sense of responsibility Yeats felt to order his experience within a
structured belief system. The system is extremely complicated and not of any lasting
importance--except for the effect that it had on his poetry, which is of extraordinary lasting
importance. The theory of history Yeats articulated in A Vision centers on a diagram made of