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Literature / The Second Coming

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"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' most famous poem. Using imagery of the Apocalypse and the second coming of Christ, and drawing on Revelation, The Second Coming is best understood in the context of Yeats's own cosmology and worldview. Yeats believed in an eternal cycle of recurrence, in which a system (such as a human life or an empire), once it has reached the apex of its existence, must wind back down to nothing. He liked to explain this with a diagram or image he called "the gyre".note  The gyre is best imagined as a cone. A person's life (or the life of an empire) is a point tracing out a spiral path on the surface of the cone, from the point to the rim. Once it reaches the widest point, it reverses course and begins spiraling back down to nothing, making smaller and smaller circles as it approaches the tip of the cone. Once it has spiraled down to nothing, it either just ends (in the case of a person dying) or it begins the cycle again (i.e., a new empire or a new culture replaces the old one.)

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Confusing, yes, but such is history, with or without a layer of mysticism, such as Yeats adds.

Yeats thought of history as being in flux between opposites, which he diagrammed as two overlapping gyres (pointing in opposite directions) representing opposite concepts, so that when one concept is increasing (towards the widest part of the cone) the other concept is dwindling down to nothing. When one concept reaches the tip of its cone, the other is reaching the base, and they each reverse course and the cycle begins again, with the one that was increasing now dwindling, and vice versa.

Yeats would be familiar with examples like the successor states of Rome: as the Byzantine (or "Eastern Roman") Empire became decadent and lost political power, the Germanic state that became the Holy Roman Empire was gaining power and territory to the west. It's not a sudden transition, it's a gradual exchange of positions, like the width of the spirals on the double gyre diagram.

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Broadly speaking, Yeats believed that the Christian era had just given way to its opposite, an era of chaos— that is to say, the relative social and cultural order of the Christian era had reached the edge of the cone and begun to dwindle, and chaos, violence and revolution begun to grow. (Historically speaking, there are many who agree with him.)

The poem was written just after World War I, the failed Irish Rising (in which Yeats lost several close friends), and the Russian Revolution, which probably explains Yeat's increasingly dismal worldview at this time. In the poem, Yeats is describing the catastrophes and wars that must ensue when the cycle begins to repeat, as he believed it just had, using imagery from Revelation.

Incidentally, it's considered one of Yeats' best works and is referenced endlessly in all forms of pop culture.

Widely considered one of the most definitive examples of Modernist poetry.

To some extent the singular popularity of this poem is a case Germans Love David Hasselhoff; in Ireland itself it is not generally considered more notable than any of Yeats' other poems. Tellingly, the centerpiece of the National Library of Ireland W.B. Yeats exhibit goes with the locally better known 'Lake Isle of Inishfree' instead.

Not to be confused with The Second Coming.


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