The Second Coming: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza I

      The falcon (our civilization) is no longer in a position to listen to intellect i.e., the falconer and its controlling forces and the soul, as it goes on turning and turning in an ever widening whirl, the center is unable to hold its own. As a result, things are falling apart i.e., disintegrating, and what results from the disintegration is a kind of complete anarchy bringing along with it a lot of bloodshed. The ‘ceremony of innocence’ (which Yeats valued so much) is the main victim of all this anarchy. The situation is worsened by the fact that the best people are not sure of themselves and their convictions whereas the worst people being very confident are full of ‘passionate intensity.’

Stanza II

      All these points to the possibility that some revelation i.e” a Second Coming which in its significance is equal to the first coming of Christ, is about to come. Hardly has the poet uttered the words the Second Coming than he sees a vision of a vast image emerging out of the racial unconsciousness (Spiritus Mundi) of mankind. This vision is by no means pleasant as it troubles the sight of the poet. The vision, the poet sees is that of a shape with a lion body and the head of a man. This shape has a gaze which is as blank and pitiless as the gaze of the sun. Somewhere in the sands of the desert that figure is moving its slow thighs. As it does so, desert birds feel disturbed by the emergence of this unfamiliar figure and the poet in his vision sees their (the desert birds) shadows reeling around this shape. And then suddenly the darkness comes over again i.e., the vision is over. The vision is over but so long as it has lasted it has been able to give the poet the knowledge that when twenty centuries of stony sleep (before the birth of Christ) were disturbed by the rocking cradle of Christ (at Christ’s birth) the situation must have been similar to the situation now. The only difference is that in that case, it was Christ who was born in Bethlehem and in this case it is a rough beast which is moving slowly in a slouching style, towards Bethlehem. Its hour has also come round at last i.e., the time for it is to herald another era of twenty centuries has come. The big difference of this time is that whereas Christ’s influence was all welcome, this is a rough beast and its appearance is more terrifying than welcome. In other words, civilization is for sterner times, at the hands of the new authority which is likely to take over in the wake of this Second Coming.

Explanation: L. 3-8

      The center cannot hold....full of passionate intensity. The Second Coming is among Yeats’s best known as most powerful poems. These lines occur in this poem. He begins the poem by telling us that our civilization has lost all controlling authority, Yeats tells us that things are disintegrating. From there he goes on to sum up the results of this disintegration as he sees them. After pointing to the disintegration of things (things fall apart) Yeats, in these lines, elaborates on this statement. He says: “The center (of things as well as of authority) is unable to hold itself together. As a result complete anarchy is let loose upon the world and this anarchy is bringing with it a lot of bloodshed. In this tide of bloodshed whose color has become dimmed due to excess of blood the first thing which drowns (i.e., the first casualty of all this) is ‘the ceremony of innocence’ (i.e., the grace which goes with innocence). The worst part of the whole situation that the best people are not sure of themselves (lack all conviction) whereas the worst people are too sure of themselves and their intensity has an added passion about it.”

Critical Comments

      Written in vigorous, terse and haunting verses of exceptional power, these lines very effectively sum up the situation during the war years. At the same time they are the best poetic comment from Yeats’s own civilization’s loss of a sense of direction and its loss of values.

Critical Analysis


      Written in 1921, The Second Coming is among the best known and the most significant poems of Yeats as also among the poems most appropriate to the present age. It is superbly controlled by powerful poetic comment not only on the First World War and the decline of traditional standards but also on the 20th-century man and the new invention of horror.

      At the same time The Second Coming is an illustration of Yeats’s philosophy of history. Yeats had come to believe that civilization and barbarism occurred in alternating phases, each of which started in small beginning and gradually spiraled outwards (gyre) in wider and wider extremes, until it suddenly collapsed, and gave way to a new and opposed phase. In this way twenty centuries of Christianity have seemed only to lead up to a hideous Second Coming, something that follows naturally from the first coming (the birth of Christ)—a sphinx-like monster of cruelty and ugliness.

Development of Thought

      The first eight lines of the poem neatly and effectively sum up the situation of the world after the First World War as it is seen by Yeats. The falconer has lost control i.e., the world itself is out of joint. The center cannot hold and absolute anarchy has been loosed upon the world. Traditional and aristocratic values of life have been damaged beyond repair. The best people do not know what is good for them, the worst people are full of passion and intensity. In other words, an atmosphere of fanaticism and violence has overtaken everything.

      The remaining fourteen lines of the poem see all these signs as indication that a Second Coming is round the comer. This gives Yeats a vision of the Second Coming. In this vision a vast shape with the head of a man and the body of a lion is seen emerging out of Spiritus Mundi i.e., a collection of images which recur endlessly in myths and legends. This Sphinx-like figure has a pitiless gaze and the whole effect is terrifying. The impression gathered from the whole spectacle is that twenty centuries of Christianity are about to give way to an antithetical civilization in which the controlling authority may be cruel and more terrifying.


      The poem is one of the greatest examples in English poetry of how poetry can be packed with power. The Second Coming represents a triumph of technical skill, each word and line contributing to the final effect. The points which are made in the poem are driven home with great authority and power. Each word is carefully chosen. The manipulation of vowel and consonant sounds are also perfect. The poem is strikingly single minded and visionary and achieves its best effect by cultivating a tone which is most at home in extremes of pitch. Such style admits no obstacles and the dominant gesture towards experience is imperious or dismissive and exploits both the gestures brilliantly. To sum up, it is a style of triumph.

      The lines are stirring separately as well as in their smaller groups, and something makes them seem to combine in the form of an emotion. The words chosen are, to a great extent, the right ones to reveal or represent the emotion which was their purpose. The words deliver the meaning which was put into them by the craft with which they were arranged, and that meaning is their own, not to be segregated or given another arrangement without diminution.

Critical Opinion

      In his book Yeats, Dennis Donoghue, the famous critic says about The Second Coming: “In The Second Coming the note we hear includes awe as well as dread. In a technical sense, this is Yeats’s a most sublime poem...The image of the rough beast is the image which, as Yeats says ‘troubles my sight’ and the human burden of the poem is sustained by such terms and their corresponding rhythms. The poem enacts one of the perennial forms of trouble, and this is its value.”

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