Table of Contents
2. Background Information on W.B. Yeats and « The Second Coming »
3. « The Second Coming » - Analysis and Interpretation
3.2.1 When Things Fall Apart
3.2.2 When Some Revelation Is At Hand
3.2.3 When A Vast Image Troubles My Sight
As the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar ends on December, 21 in 2012, many people suggest this date marks the end of the world or of human civilization. Regarding this contemporary doomsday theory, it is of a certain interest that already in the early twentieth century William Butler Yeats was concerned with this kind of apocalyptic worldview. However, he not just believed in the apocalypse, he was known for his prophetic insights and imaginative visions of the breakdown of civilization. “The Second Coming” therefore is one of the poems that also represents his understanding of the apocalypse, which is not comparable to those who believe in the prophecy of the Mayan calendar. “For him, the apocalypse is always connected with genuine spiritual revelation [and] with vision,” as it is the literal translation of the Greek word (Howes, Kelly 2006: 52).
With this iconic, prophetic poem, he is not only regarded a public hero but also deviates from established popular beliefs, wherefore he is also named the first iconoclastic Modernist in English writing. The stunning, violent imagery and terrifying ritualistic language makes “The Second Coming” an archetypal poem about the return of history with violence. Likewise, as it was composed in 1919 and published in 1920, it represents Yeats’ immediate reaction to the political instable situation of Ireland, England and Europe after Civil War, Russian Revolution and WWI.
In consequence to that, “The Second Coming” is one the most obscure works of Yeats, hence quite difficult to understand in the first place. For this reason, firstly, this paper concentrates on the historical and political background information, which is fundamental to the poem’s understanding.
Secondly, it is this examination’s method to analyze and interpret the poem’s form, structure and images. At that, not only “The Second Coming” in its structure but also this chapter divides into three parts, from which each displays another phase in the development of the poet’s state of mind. Consequently, each line of “The Second Coming” is examined, both to explain the poet’s development and to prove the central issues of W.B. Yeats’ poem. Eventually, this paper provides a conclusion, wherein its argumentation is summarized. This summary consequently also states the poem’s effect on the reader.
2. Background Information on W.B. Yeats and “The Second Coming”
As already mentioned before, “The Second Coming” is one of the most obscure works of William Butler Yeats. In consequence to that, for the poem’s understanding, the details of its specific time and place, both in historical and personal terms, have to be regarded.
“The Second Coming” was composed in 1919 and first published in 1920 in The Dial. For obvious reasons it encompasses events of the Irish Civil War, the Russian Revolution and the First World War. So, during the early twentieth century, Europe was confronted with the horrors of war. However, especially the Irish civilization could hardly recover from all the overwhelming experiences, as the turmoil in Ireland put on hold during World War I:
For 1919 had brought the end of the First World War and, for the Irish, a time of what seemed deliberate reprisals on England’s part for the nationalistic efforts that had gained strength while English attention was focused on Germany (Unterecker 1973: 182).
In 1921, Ireland signed the Government of Ireland Act, which decided over its separation. Whereas the southern twenty-six counties became the “Irish Free State”, still part of the Commonwealth, the six Ulster counties remained under British dominion. William Butler Yeats himself had a personal interest in the future of Ireland. In concrete, he has always been interested “in the Irish eighteenth century, in authoritarian forms of government, and the violent or degenerative historical changes he contemplated through contemporary events and the historical changes” (Howes, Kelly 2006: 16). He was not only member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which built the armed branch of the Irish Volunteers that were eventually engaged in Civil War, he was also named senator of the Free Irish State in 1922. Although he accepted the partition and encouraged others to do so as well, Yeats was not comfortable with Ireland’s newfound liberation after all:
He was still compelled […] to define this new nation. He now bears the onus of creating a definition independent of rather than in opposition to Britain” (Thaut 2001:16).
His nationalistic idea of an independent Ireland and his resistance to England mirrors in the poem “The Second Coming”. Additionally, like much of his poetry of the early 1920s, it also considers the nature of foundational violence:
While poetically considering violent acts of foundation, and thus mirroring the changes and transformations in the wider political sphere, Yeats was aware of the problems of stagnation when that violent impetus was no longer required (Hand 2001: 201).
Although Yeats both feared and desired apocalyptic destruction, “The Second Coming” expresses his fear about a world apparently descending into chaos and also meditates on historical, political and personal transitions (Cf. Howes, Kelly 2006: 12). It focuses on the increasingly turbulent events in Ireland in the context of historical cycles, but also reaches over to resonate with personal concerns.
In consequence to that, during this period in which Ireland - and actually the whole world - underwent such profound changes, Yeats also experienced profound changes in his own life. In 1917, he married Georgie Hyde-Less, even if he was fatally attracted to Maude Gonne since many years - something that basically never changed. With her ability of automatic writing his wife however “breathed new life into Yeats’ old mysticism” (Thaut 2001: 16). Yeatsian works of this period give evidence of his converging interest in literature, nationalism and philosophy and his return to myth, whereby he was not any longer focused on Celtic mysticism but on the myths of Christianity and pagan Egypt.
Seeing the world through an “occult lense” again, his political worldview became strongly tied to his knowledge in occult lore. He believed politics and religion to be part of the same enterprise, and inevitably foresaw crucial shifts in cultural and class politics as well as in the relationship of Ireland to England to Europe. Tumbled with the experiences of the violence of war, he developed his own ideas for the contemporary world political situation, and also had his own mystical view of the history and the future end of the world. Consequently, William Butler Yeats began to create the philosophy of gyres, which became prevalent images in his poetry. This philosophy of gyres is not of any lasting importance, except for the impact it had on his poetry, because it reappears in A Vision, “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium”. Additionally, it is extremely complicated, wherefore Yeats outlined his theory in a note on “The Second Coming”: […] the end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of the greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction (Finneran 2002: 503).
With those intersecting cone-shaped spirals Yeats’ understanding of the apocalypse and his belief in the reversal of eras is expressed. He “manages to hint the end of all while explicitly the reversal of the world’s gyre, the birth of a new, violent, bestial anti-civilization in the destruction of the two-thousand-year Christian cycle” (Unterecker 1973: 165). This comprehension of history is rooted in the history of the Greco-Roman Empire. After enjoying a life span of 2000 years, the Greco-Roman civilization collapsed until Christ came and a new civilization was born out of the ashes of the earlier civilization. As the present cycle of history began two thousand years ago with the birth of Christ, likewise, the Christian civilization has nearly run its course of two thousand years. Hence, in Yeats’ belief system, history repeats itself with differences (Cf. Mann 2012: 15). Therefore, he believes a “second coming” to be imminent, which means in Christian tradition the return of Christ, or respectively the birth of Antichrist: the ‘second coming’, a phrase violently wretched from its usual meaning of Christ’s return to establish a heaven on earth, and made, rather, to describe the onset of a civilization or ‘anti- civilization’ founded on terrifying violence (O’Neill 2004: 135).
Thereby the importance of a poem like “The Second Coming” is its presentation of the “difficult correlation between Christ and modern times on the one hand, on the other, between Christ and the historical cycle that his coming invalidated” (Unterecker 1973: 185). Further, it is with his iconic, prophetic, even apocalyptic imagery and thinking the most vivid record of such prophetic insights William Butler Yeats is known for.
3. “The Second Coming” - Analysis and Interpretation
The poem “The Second Coming” consists of two stanzas, with eight verses in the first stanza, and 14 verses in the second one.
Its rhyme scheme is blank verse. O’Neill explains that this jagged blank verse is central to the poem’s effectiveness, as it “moves from analysis in the first verse-paragraph to imaging in the second” (2004: 135).
Moreover, the poem lives on a rough, loose and irregular iambic pentameter. Consequently, most lines rhyme only coincidentally, such as “man” and “sun” (l. 14/15).
As mentioned already in the Introduction, with regard to its content the poem “The Second Coming” divides into three parts, although it consists of two stanzas with regard to its form. Consequently, each part of the poem describes another spiritual state of the poet. So, whereas at the beginning of the poem, the poet is in control over his state of mind, he is no longer calm, eventually. As the following chapter explains, the poet appears stirred and haunted with his visions, which become more and more frighteningly and even violently.
For this reason, this chapter has been divided into exposition, rhetoric transition, and interpretation of the exposition. Thereby, each of these subchapters firstly concentrates on its particular spiritual state of the poet, and secondly, on its different images, which are analyzed and interpreted in detail.
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