Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free
|
|

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

The Second Coming

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
English Literature

'The Second Coming' (1920) is a poem written by William Butler Yeats that uses Christian imagery, metaphor and allegory to describe the atmosphere of Europe after the first world war. 'The Second Coming' is a famous modernist poem and has been cited in major works such as The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.

An allegory is when a symbolic narrative is created that has a secondary meaning. One of the most famous allegories is 'The Tortoise and the Hare'- a story with a moral imperative secondary to its literal meaning.

The Second Coming at a glance

Publishing
  • The Dial (1920)
  • Michael Robertes and the Dancer (1921)
Written ByWilliam Butler Yeats
Form / StyleTwo stanzas, composed of 8 and 14 lines respectively
MeterA very loose iambic pentameter that is so inconsistent it is closer to free verse
Rhyme SchemeAside from two rhyming couplets at the beginning, no rhyme scheme
Poetic DevicesAllegory, alliteration, allusion, assonance, hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism
Notable ImageryThe falcon in the gyre, the desert sphinx-like creature, the rocking cradle
Key Themes Anarchy, apocalypse, Christianity, prophesy, violence
Meaning While 'The Second Coming' is notoriously hard to pin down, it describes the state of Europe after WWI. The poem emphasizes that humanity itself might be on the brink of an apocalyptic future, circling around conflict and violence.

The Second Coming: analysis

The poem

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 (5)
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. (10)
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, (15)
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, (20)
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

'The Second Coming': context

When William Butler Yeats wrote the poem 'The Second Coming' in 1919, the first world war had just ended. WWI, dubbed 'The War to End All Wars', was the most horrific conflict the world had ever seen on such a global scale and another war was brewing as Yeats wrote the poem. At this same time, Yeats' young wife Georgie Hyde-Lees was pregnant with their daughter and came down with the Spanish Influenza. As a result of this,

The Second Coming, Soldiers in trenches in World War One, StudySmarterSoldiers in trenches, WWI. The setting of William Butler Yeats' 'The Second Coming'. Pixabay.com

the birth was difficult, and Yeats was worried they wouldn't make it. William Butler Yeats' poetry had always been concerned with the grandiose and the Occult, and the poem 'The Second Coming' is no exception.

Yeats and Hyde-Lees often participated in a ritual writing practice called automatic writing, meaning Yeats and Hyde-Lees believed spirits passed over to the human world and used their bodies as conduits for art. Yeats also believed that history moved in 2,000-year cycles. As the Year of Christ was coming to an end at this time, he believed another historic cycle was set to repeat itself, thus leading the creation of 'The Second Coming' in all of its apocalyptic glory.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

The Second Coming: summary

When analyzing poetry, it is good to first have an objective grasp on the events and images that are present within the text.

  • Stanza One: The first stanza of 'The Second Coming' paints a very bleak image. The poem opens with the image of a falcon getting lost in a gyre (or vortex, like a hurricane). For Yeats in 'The Second Coming', the gyre has additional context, representing patterns across years. Yeats indicates in stanza two that the gyre refers to a 2,000-year cycle that had just ended, a new one beginning with WWI. The falcon is lost in the gyre and cannot hear the falconer, representative of humanity's lack of control over the events of WWI. Anarchy is everywhere in this apocalyptic image, and there is a bloody tide sweeping over the earth. All the good people don't have the conviction they need, and the bad people are filled with "passionate intensity" (line 8)
  • Stanza Two: Stanza two begins with the speaker positing that surely the Second Coming (of Christ) must be upon them when, mere seconds after they make their assertion, they are plagued by a vision of a sphinx-like creature in the desert. This beast described clearly unsettles the speaker. The creature is described as, "a shape ... with a blank gaze as pitiless as the sun ... is moving ... while all about it / reel shadows" (lines 14-17). What a disturbing image! Then the speaker's vision of the creature depicts a darkness falling. A cycle of 2,000 years has completed, and humanity has been "vexed to nightmare" by the coming of the new sphinx-like creature. There are many moving parts in the final lines of stanza two:
    • Lines 10-13: The speaker begins to have a vision of dark images as a result of the anarchy revelation-like events of the time. They hardly get out the words "Surely the second coming is at hand" before this vision overtakes them.
    • Lines 13-16: The speaker begins to see the human-like image of the creature moving its thighs and slinking closer to Europe. This image of the creature is pieced together using different descriptions of body parts (lion body, head of a man, blank gaze, moving its thighs)
    • Lines 16-17: There are shadows of desert birds moving all around the creature, indicating that it is not alone in its dark desires for Europe.
    • Lines 17-22: Here we really get the image of the 2,000-year cycle being vexed to nightmare by the coming of the creature. As the creature slouches toward Bethlehem (representing Europe) the poem recalls a rocking cradle (as the one the Christ-child was placed in), representing the beginning of a new 2,000-year cycle with this violent creature coming to devour Europe, as opposed to the peace, love, and forgiveness that the Christ-child brought at the beginning of the last 2,000-year cycle.

The Second Coming: themes

When analyzing a poem, try to place some themes within the historical context of when the poem was created. What themes can you point to in 'The Second Coming' that are reminiscent of the atmosphere after WWI?

'The Second Coming' is a notoriously difficult poem to interpret, but there are a few themes that Yeats constantly concerned himself with. Of the many subjects that the poem 'The Second Coming' is concerned with, violence, Christianity, and cyclicality are three of the most notable.

Violence

The theme of violence in 'The Second Coming' is obvious throughout the work. As a result of the context in which the poem was written, this is to be expected. The aftermath of WWI was horrible for the global population, but Yeats took it especially personally as someone who opposed violence to begin with. He predicted that the violence of the war would not end there, and he was right of course, as WWII began 20 years after the poem was written. We can see the theme of violence in the vicious imagery he uses.

The first image of the poem is a falcon being lost from its handler as the gyre (the end of a 2,000-year cycle) and sphinx-like creature (violence of bloodshed across Europe) unleash anarchy across the earth. The loss of the falcon from its handler can represent the loss of humanity's connection with the natural world or the loss of humanity's ability to control the violent progression of the world. Both failures of the species in this example lead to the moral decay depicted in lines 7-8. We then see a bloody tide that sweeps the planet, drowning innocence.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;"

This bloody tide that is loosed upon the world represents the bloodshed of WWI in Europe and the seemingly inescapable moral failing of humankind to prevent this from occurring. The "blood-dimmed" tide drowns the "ceremony of innocence", meaning that the bloody sins of the world are too numerous for humanity to claim its innocence still. The "rough beast" that slinks towards Bethlehem is not Jesus, but the representation of humanity's moral corruptness and violence overtaking a peaceful place such as Bethlehem or, in this case, Europe. This is an indicator of how the speaker feels about human nature. As we see with the falcon, the loss of humanity's control on its connection to nature and the unstoppable force of history repeating itself (the gyre) indicate a need for peace and wisdom that we do not receive, leading the speaker to recite images from Revelations in the Bible (beasts coming to consume the earth, the Second Coming, and the bloody tide itself).

Cyclicality

William Butler Yeats' poetry was firmly interested in the occult. Yeats and his young wife Georgie Hyde-Lees both engaged in spiritual rituals and beliefs that led them to experience what they described as communing with spirits and visions. As a poem, 'The Second Coming' is concerned with the cyclical nature of things, as Yeats believed that history moved in 2,000-year cycles that repeated themselves. 'The Second Coming' states in lines 18-20:

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

This passage is explicitly concerned with the cyclical nature of the world, as it states: the darkness comes, but now I (the speaker) know that 2,000 years of the creature "sleeping" (or being buried) awoke in a nightmare as a result of the ending cycle. In this example, the rocking cradle (a haunting image) is reminiscent of the birth of Christ 2,000 years previous. The creature being woken up represents the ending of the era of Christ and European life as it was known and indicates the dawn of a new era, opening with a violent creature with a more-than-human capacity for aggression.

Christianity

'The Second Coming' contains an abundance of Christian allusions. A few allusions (though not an exhaustive list) to Revelations are indicated below:

  • The Rocking Cradle: As indicated above, the rocking cradle represents the birth of the Christ-child in Bethlehem 2,000 years previous, and creates a distinct juxtaposition between the terrifying desert creature and the violence it brings and the birth of the Prince of Peace (Jesus Christ)
  • The title 'The Second Coming': The title itself is an allusion to the event of the Second Coming of Christ as mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Yeats points out through naming the poem 'The Second Coming' as well as lines 9-12 that the aftermath of WWI was so horrific that another 2,000-year cycle must have begun with the coming of the sphinx creature. This indication that WWI was so awful that the Second Coming must be at hand was likely hyperbole on Yeats' part, as Yeats was heavily invested in mysticism, never outwardly resolving his beliefs towards Christianity in his lifetime. In 'The Second Coming', while humanity is expecting something wonderful as the Second Coming of Christ, at the end of the 2,000-year cycle humanity is greeted by something far more monstrous, with no salvation in sight.
  • The Bloody Tide: Water running red with blood or turning to blood occurs several times within the Bible, as seen in the story of Moses and Revelations. In Revelations, there is a vision that the water will run red with blood at the Second Coming of Christ as humanity descends into Chaos.

Despite Yeats himself renouncing organised religions such as Christianity, his use of Christian imagery meant his audiences in English-speaking Europe would be well aware of the Christian language used.

The Second Coming: symbolism

William Butler Yeats is known for being a powerful symbolist poet. The symbols in 'The Second Coming' are plentiful. Here, we will focus on three: the gyre, the tide, and the creature.

The Gyre

'The Second Coming' opens with the image of a gyre (or vortex). This gyre is representative of a circular pattern or path. In this instance, the gyre is used to indicate the cyclical nature of history and time- events that repeat themselves (see cyclicality, above). The gyre can also represent the loss of control or consistency that the speaker feels as a result of the recent WWI. The gyre is a powerful symbol, because it demonstrates the loss of control the falconer experiences in reference to the falcon. The cyclical vortex sweeps the falcon up and away from its handler, demonstrating the lack of agency the bird or falconer have over the progression of events as they continue. This is indicative of the loss of control that humanity felt as WWI swept across Europe.

The Tide

The tide is another powerful symbol in 'The Second Coming' and is perhaps an allusion to the Biblical Noah's Flood. The tide that is loosed upon the world is "blood-dimmed", and drowns innocence, leaving room for evil to flourish. The tide sweeping over the planet is a powerful force that is inescapable, such as the first world war was inescapable, even for those who opposed it. As there was also strife and oppression throughout Ireland in the 1910s, where Yeats witnessed an abundance of violence and conflict (such as the Easter Rising) that could have contributed to the air of apocalypse, particularly for the people of Ireland, during this time.

As this new 2,000-year cycle begins, the unstoppable evil creates more room for violence and conflict – perhaps referencing Yeats' belief that more war was on the way. Which, of course, was correct.

The Creature

The sphinx is a symbol traditionally used in literature to represent untapped knowledge or mystery. It is also a

humanoid creature, one that contains an otherworldly wisdom, while being able to relate to humanity in an unsettling way. In 'The Second Coming' the sphinx-like creature is a behemoth of a beast, slinking towards Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Christ-child and represents the fact that it is moving to destroy the history and peaceful practices of Christianity by beginning its corruption at the center (Bethlehem). The sphinx is also a pagan image in 'The Second Coming', a vision the speaker has of the end of Christian beliefs. In the poem, Christianity is a symbol of hope and peace, but in 'The Second Coming', the end is nigh, and all the innocent people will be drowned in the "blood-dimmed tide" and this new pagan image of destruction and terror will take their place.

The Second Coming: meaning

While 'The Second Coming' has many meanings and interpretations, the most obvious and prevalent is that the speaker of the poem believes more violence is on the way as a result of the ending of a 2,000-year historical cycle. The poem contains tones of dread, violence, fear, and prophecy as it predicts the end of mundane life as was known in the early 20th century.

William Butler Yeats wrote the poem in the aftermath of WWI, but it paints a picture of a futuristic apocalyptic world in which all hope and innocence are wiped away and evil and violence flourish under the hand of a pagan idol. 'The Second Coming' is, at its heart, a vision of a world where the mass fear and death of WWI continues into the future, made more unsettling by the events that took place in WWII, two decades later.

The Second Coming - Key takeaways

  • William Butler Yeats wrote 'The Second Coming' (1920) in the aftermath of WWI, and it imagines a world in which the violence and fear of Europe immediately after WWI continues into perpetuity.
  • 'The Second Coming' alludes to Christian imagery to indicate the horror of the speaker at the events of WWI, referencing the Second Coming of Christ as the ending of a 2,000-year cycle, a new cycle beginning with the war.
  • There are several key themes in 'The Second Coming' including violence, cyclicality, and Christianity
  • 'The Second Coming' uses several symbols to indicate the end of the known world, including the gyre, the tide, and the creature.
  • 'The Second Coming' is on of William Butler Yeats' most famous poems.

The Second Coming

The phrase 'The Second Coming' is an allusion to the Second Coming of Christ as mentioned in the Christian Bible. 

William Butler Yeats alludes to a lot of mythologies and belief structures in 'The Second Coming', some of which include: Greek mythology (the sphinx), WWI, and Christianity.  

'The Second Coming' is about an apocalyptic world in Europe post World War One. The speaker of 'The Second Coming' believes that a 2,000-year cycle of peaceful rule has ended, and a future of violence is at hand. 

Yeats wrote 'The Second Coming' in the aftermath of WWI and it was published in 1920. 

Yeats wrote 'The Second Coming' as he was grappling with a post-war Europe. He believed that the violence seen in WWI would continue, and, ultimately, was correct, as WWII began not even two decades later. 

Final The Second Coming Quiz

Question

What is 'The Second Coming' about?

Show answer

Answer

'The Second Coming' is about an apocalyptic world in Europe post World War One. The speaker of 'The Second Coming' believes that a 2,000-year cycle of peaceful rule has ended, and a future of violence is at hand.  

Show question

Question

When did Yeats write 'The Second Coming'? 

Show answer

Answer

Yeats wrote 'The Second Coming' in the aftermath of WWI and it was published in 1920.  

Show question

Question

Why did Yeats write 'The Second Coming'? 


Show answer

Answer

Yeats wrote 'The Second Coming' as he was grappling with a post-war Europe. He believed that the violence seen in WWI would continue, and, ultimately, was correct, as WWII began not even two decades later. 

Show question

Question

What are some key themes in 'The Second Coming'? 

Show answer

Answer

A few key themes in 'The Second Coming' include: Anarchy, apocalypse, Christianity, prophesy, violence

Show question

Question

What are some key symbols in 'The Second Coming'? 

Show answer

Answer

Some key symbols in 'The Second Coming' include the gyre, the tide, and the sphinx. 

Show question

Question

What does the gyre represent in 'The Second Coming'? 

Show answer

Answer

The gyre represents the cyclical nature of things in 'The Second Coming', namely the end of a 2,000-year cycle, the next beginning with WWI. 

Show question

Question

What are some poetic devices used in 'The Second Coming'? 

Show answer

Answer

Allegory, alliteration, allusion, assonance, hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism

Show question

Question

Who wrote 'The Second Coming'?

Show answer

Answer

William Butler Yeats

Show question

Question

What are some biblical allusions made in 'The Second Coming'?

Show answer

Answer

Noah's flood, the Second Coming of Christ, Christ's birthplace (Bethlehem) and birth story (being born in a cradle) 

Show question

Question

What meter is 'The Second Coming' written in?

Show answer

Answer

An iambic pentameter that is so loose, it is closer to free verse.

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the The Second Coming quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.