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"The Second Coming": 8 Thoughts on Yeats' Work

By    |   Tuesday, 28 Oct 2014 08:44 PM

William Butler Yeats was a Nobel Prize-winning poet of the 20th century who wrote about the upheaval of his time. His poem “The Second Coming” has particularly captured the imagination of artists and politicians alike in the nearly 100 years since it was penned. Lines from the violent verse continue to be quoted in and out of context in everything from Batman comics to political speeches on Iraq.

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Here are eight lines of thoughts on the poem with full text below:

1. The poem was written at a time of immense political upheaval, at the end of the first World War, which was at the time simply known as The Great War. Poetry experts Bob Holman and Margery Snyder note —for the Irish poet — that much of the world around him did indeed seem to be coming to an end.

2. The “gyre” is a spiral. This is a nod to Yeats’ interest in mysticism and the occult. In Yeats’ work "A Vision," he outlined the importance of spirals as a part of his view of history that centered on cycles of change.

3. The title “The Second Coming” is a biblical reference to the second coming of Jesus Christ. However, the poem has more of a reference to a frightening beast rather than a savior.

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4. While the poem does not rhyme, it does follow an iambic pentameter.

5. The symbol of the falcon and the falconer points to a loss of control. To understand this, picture an inverse widening cone with the point on the ground. If the falconer is standing at the bottom, and the gyre rises it goes out of reach.

6. Lines from "The Second Coming" have been used in common reference to many modern situations, including most recently a New York Times op-ed on U.S. involvement in Iraq.

7. The poem refers to what Yeats saw as a changing point in time. According to Princeton University graduate instructor Ellie Green, “The gyre grows too wide to be comprehended and confined and there is no sense of where the center is anymore.” In Yeats' time, Europe was seeing a point in history when “the center cannot hold” and political lines were changing rapidly.

8. Spiritus Mundi is Latin name for the spirit of the world.

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: a waste of desert sand;
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
Wind 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?

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William Butler Yeats was a Nobel Prize-winning poet of the 20th century who wrote about the upheaval of his time. His poem "The Second Coming" has particularly captured the imagination of artists and politicians alike in the nearly 100 years since it was penned.
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