How I Read a Poem: The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

So why should you spend any time reading poems? Isn’t the world in a state of crisis so severe that we don’t have time for such frivolousness? Or, shouldn’t I numb my brain with endless streams of Netflix binging? Well, I mean suppose. You don’t have to read poetry. I am sure you could go your whole life and never feel like you missed much by not reading poetry. But that could be said of lots of things like traveling abroad or eating at a fancy restaurant, but those things are nice to do, and they add richness to your life.

Poetry is something that enhances life, it forces you to pause in whatever you are doing, breathe, and think. While poems are short, that doesn’t mean they are quickly consumed. Many poems take longer than novels to really digest and understand. They are an incredible feat of linguistic architecture, like the Seven Wonders of the World. A good poem should leave you asking, “How could the poet do so much with so little?” A poem should make you feel an emotion, like a roiling boiling eruption of feeling as you start to understand, or it triggers a crystal clear image in your mind attached to a crucial memory or some primordial link between us all.

I don’t claim to be a poetry expert by any means. That’s why I called this “How I Read a Poem” because the way I break down and understand may not be the way you want to. However, you come to love a poem and let it sit with you is the method that works. Through sharing my thoughts about a poem, I hope to maybe add some things to your toolbox to enhance your enjoyment. My background comes from being an English major in undergrad and taking a few classes that touched upon poetry. My Senior thesis class was where I really learned how to dig into a poem and understand so much can exist in such a small space. If you have an MFA in Poetry, then this is very likely below your in-depth understanding of the form, but if you are casually interested in poetry, I hope to hook you.


Our first poem is The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats, which I felt was extremely relevant for our present times, though later, we’ll find out it is very much contextualized in Yeats’ experiences. Poems are meant to be read out loud, so make sure you do that. One tip I would give is not to stop at the end of each line but feel out where the sentences end. It will sound more natural that way. You’ll also be rereading this poem many times over to get a better understanding. Without further delay, here is the poem:

The Second Coming| W.B. Yeats

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: 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,
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,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


The first thing I do after reading a poem is to go over my initial feelings. Reading The Second Coming makes me feel anxious, frightened. There’s a sense of portent about it, like a soothsayer spouting a prophecy of doom. It feels religious, the title evoking the Judeo-Christian return of Jesus. But as we go deeper, we see it’s more complicated than that.

Poets are very precise with their words, so when a poet uses an uncommon word, there is explicit reasoning behind it. I like to go through and find 5-7 words that stand out and look up their definitions. Looking over this poem, I pick out “gyre,” “blood-dimmed,” “Spiritus Mundi,” “pitiless,” “indignant,” “vexed,” and “slouches.” The reason I picked these words is a mix between not knowing what they mean, a sense that the poet is using an uncommon definition of a familiar word, or they feel central to understand the key message.

The word “gyre” is defined as a “spiral or a vortex,” so I plug that word back into context and paraphrase the line for myself. A falcon is flying in a spiral. The adjective “widening” means that the flight path’s circumference is getting wider, and we’re told the falcon is so far away he can no longer respond to the calls of his master, the falconer. This evokes a sense of loneliness, being unmoored. Yeats wants us to think about how it feels to have no anchor in life, all the things once-known are now unknown. You cannot be sure of anything.

“Blood-dimmed” is a little easier to decipher. It refers to something being dimmed in that it is difficult to make out, implying the tides of the ocean are so drenched in gore that you can’t really tell what’s water and what is blood. This is feeling apocalyptic, such an event would mean a global catastrophe. I’ll come back to “Spiritus Mundi” a little later, on to the next word.

“Pitiless” is a form of cruelty, not caring about the suffering of others, while “indignant” means “to show annoyance at what is perceived as unfair.” In context, “a gaze blank and pitiless” comes from the creature being described rising up in the desert. The desert birds are indignant toward this thing, but it doesn’t even regard them, I imagine it is looking past them into the direction it’s moving. It doesn’t matter how loud the birds become, they will never get the beast to care about them.

“Vexed” has a few different meanings, but I think the one that works here is the archaic definition of “cause distress to.” What’s being vexed in the poem are “twenty centuries of stony sleep.” Doing some quick math reveals that it would be 2,000 years another allusion to the arrival and subsequent crucifixion of Christ. The poem is saying that period is now distressed; I take that a little further and go back to that widening gyre. For 2,000 years, we thought we understood things, and now everything is confusing and disorienting.

“Slouches” is one of the most misunderstood words in the poem based on we commonly use the word in our vernacular. We often see this in media when an authority figure tells a young person to “stop slouching!” meaning they are stationary and leaning against a wall or doorframe. But “slouches” here is an action being taken by this beast, so it is moving. To slouch means to sit, stand, or move lazily. So the monster is not sitting in the desert; it is slowly progressing, taking its time. The poem tells us he’s slouching towards Bethlehem, a place that most people well-versed in Western civilization understand as critical. More Christ imagery.

Does this “shape with a lion body and the head of a man” sound benevolent in the way the Bible depicts Christ? I don’t get that sense. I go back to its “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” Comparing its staring to the sun sounds as if you’ll burst into flames if you make eye contact, the power of its look searing through you. And it won’t care if it destroys you, it just keeps plodding towards Bethlehem to “be born.” Christ was born there, but I get the sense this entity’s birth will not be marked by celebration.

Let’s tackle that last phrase I skipped over, “Spiritus Mundi.” This is a Latin term that means “world spirit,” and it is significantly vital to Yeats. We’ll delve more into his background in the second part, but what you need to know now is that Yeats believed, as did many other artists and philosophers of his age, was that the imagination and creativity sprung from the collective consciousness. When you look across cultures that have no evidence of coming in contact with each other during their development, you find common themes and iconography.

The story of Noah’s Ark in Hebrew mythology is reflected in a host of “great flood” stories from around the world. In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus’ defiance of Zeus leads to humanity being punished with a devastating flood. The Ojibwe in North America tell of The Great Serpent and the Flood; the Chinese have a myth of The Great Flood of Gun-Yu, which lasted two generations, and so on. People like Yeats would attribute this to “Spiritus Mundi,” a shared well of images and primal concepts. So in the poem, he says this vision of the beast in the desert rises up out of “Spiritus Mundi.” This is a type of prophecy, a warning of things to come.


The structure of poems is just as vital as the words in them. Why does a poet choose to end a stanza and start another? Why is one stanza so short in this poem and the much longer? Let’s look closely at that first stanza and make sure we understand what Yeats is doing here:

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.

The picture in my mind after reading this is of a bird of prey circling over a blood-red ocean. He’s high up there with no land in sight, he’s flown too far, his circle is too broad. Those next two lines carry so much inside them:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

Wow, doesn’t that make me think about the foreboding ill overpowering our world at the moment? I think of a wheel where the axis is removed, and everything crashes. Imagine the world as a vast machine made of gears and sprockets. Someone removes a core piece, and everything comes crashing down. Things get worse with the next couplet:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The ocean is full of blood, and it drowns “the ceremony of innocence.” I immediately wonder what that means and decide to look it up. It actually has a connection to the lines later in the poem, referring to “ten centuries of stony sleep.” This ceremony is the gyre, the cycles we go through day after day, year after year. We could afford to be naive for so long because the world was stable, it made sense, we could remain innocent to the horrible things buried deep in the desert. But right now, everything has collapsed, and the certainty we could once rely on is drowned, it’s dead. And then we close the stanza with lines that echo so true a century later:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I look around and feel like I’ve seen that my whole life. The people we should want to slink away into the night have ahold of the megaphones and are barking madness, fomenting chaos towards destructive ends. People clamor to toil in service of billionaires without thinking about what they are saying or doing. The people we need to speak out seem aimless. They are all that falcon, circling, and moving further and further away from that used to believe was true. The centre indeed won’t be able to hold.

We’re going to stop there for today. Next week, we’ll crack into that second stanza and examine it’s two distinct parts as well as get a little background on Yeats to help us understand where all of this came from.

2 thoughts on “How I Read a Poem: The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats”

  1. Pingback: April 2020 Digest

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