The Second ComingEdit
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 poem was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War. It was first printed in The Dial of November 1920, and afterwards included in Yeats's 1921 collection,Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
While the various manuscript revisions of the poem refer to the Renaissance, French Revolutions, the Irish rebellion, and those of Germany and of Russia, Richard Ellman and Harold Bloom suggest the text refers to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Bloom argues that Yeats takes the side of the counter-revolutionaries and the poem suggests that reaction to the revolution would come too late. Early drafts also included such lines as: "And there's no Burke to cry aloud no Pitt," and "The good are wavering, while the worst prevail.".
The word gyre in the poem's first line may be used in a sense drawn from Yeats's book A Vision, which sets out a theory of history and metaphysics which Yeats claimed to have received from spirits. The theory of history articulated in A Vision centres on a diagram composed of two conic helixes ("gyres"), overlapping each other, so that the widest part of one cone occupies the same plane as the tip of the other cone, and vice versa. Yeats claimed that this image captured contrary motions inherent within the process of history, and he divided each gyre into different regions that represented particular kinds of historical periods (and could also represent the psychological phases of an individual's development). Yeats believed that in 1921 the world was on the threshold of an apocalyptic moment, as history reached the end of the outer gyre and began moving along the inner gyre.
The lines "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" can be read as a paraphrase of one of the most famous passages from Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, a book which Yeats, by his own admission, regarded from his childhood with religious awe:
- The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
- The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
- The wise want love, and those who love want wisdom;
- And all best things are thus confused to ill.
In the early drafts of the poem, Yeats used the phrase "the Second Birth", but substituted the phrase "Second Coming" while revising(Citation needed). The Second Coming of Christ referred to in the Biblical Book of Revelation is here described as an approaching dark force with a ghastly and dangerous purpose. Though Yeats's description has nothing in common with the typically envisioned Christian concept of the Second Coming of Christ, as his description of the figure in the poem is nothing at all like the image of Christ, it fits with his view that something strange and heretofore unthinkable would come to succeed Christianity(Citation needed), just as Christ transformed the world upon his appearance. This image points rather to the sinister figure of Antichrist that precedes the Second Coming of Christ.
The manticore or sphinx like beast described in the poem had long captivated Yeats' imagination. He wrote in the introduction to his play The Resurrection, "I began to imagine [around 1904], 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". However, there are some differences between the two characters, mainly that the figure in the poem has no wings.
The phrase "stony sleep" is drawn from the mythology of William Blake. In Blake's poem, Urizen falls, unable to bear the battle in heaven he has provoked. To ward off the fiery wrath of his vengeful brother Eternals, he frames a rocky womb for himself: "But Urizen laid in a stony sleep / Unorganiz'd, rent from Eternity." During this stony sleep, Urizen goes through seven ages of creation-birth as fallen man, until he emerges. This is the man who becomes the Sphinx of Egypt.
- Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven, 2004.
- ↑ Haugheny, Jim (2002). The First World War in Irish Poetry p.161. Bucknell University Press.
- ↑ Bloom, Harold. Yeats. Oxford University Press US (1972) p.318
- ↑ Yeats, William Butler. Michael Robartes and the Dancer Manuscript Materials.Thomas Parkinson and Anne Brannen, eds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1994).
- ↑ Albright, Daniel. Quantum Poetrics "Yeats's figures as reflections in Water".Cambridge University Press (1997) p.35
- ↑ See http://www.yeatsvision.com/Geometry.html (consulted October 2009)
- ↑ See http://www.yeatsvision.com/History.html (consulted October 2009)
- ↑ Slouching toward Bethlehem
- ↑ Childs, Peter.Modernism.Routledge (2007) p.39
- The Second Coming at Poets' Corner
- Hypertext version at University of St. Francis
- Original 'Second Coming' MS on display at National Library of Ireland
- William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" analyzed
- Yeats's Poetry: The Second Coming at SparkNotes
- "The Second Coming" in the context of A Vision
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