How I Read A Poem: The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats Part 2

Last week, we began a look at The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats by looking at vocabulary choice and a close read of the first stanza. In this second part, we’re going to look at the longer second stanza and get some background on Yeats that I think will help understand the context of the poem. Here’s the full poem for a re-read:

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?


I see three sections in this second stanza which are broken up like this:

Section 1
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:

Section 2
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.

Section 3
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?

Section 1 is a reaction to the first stanza. The speaker is so broken by the chaos all around them that they are seeking some knowledge beyond our material world. Section 2 is the vision seen by the speaker of the beast. Section 3 is a warning of what the speaker believes will happen.

In Section 1, the speaker uses a term familiar to scholars of Christianity or anyone who grew up primarily in a fundamentalist Christian background, The Second Coming. This is the event where Jesus is prophesied to return to Earth to bring an end to all of Creation and reward his faithful with ascendance into Heaven. The speaker believes that this has to come soon based on their upbringing in the faith. But what the speaker sees in section 2 reveals that what is actually happening is not the benevolent Christ they expect.

Section 2 immediately establishes a setting “somewhere in the desert.” In the Judeo-Christian faith, the desert has a lot of significance, it is where Moses’ people wandered for forty years, but it is also where Jesus went to go through an internal transformation by being tempted by Satan. The desert is a place of trials and is challenging to survive in, but ultimately when we emerge, we are better than before.

The physical description of the beast (“a shape with lion body and the head of a man”) invokes the Sphinx, which is found in the desert. The Sphinx is a creature out of the myths of Egypt but transposed into Greek culture as well. The lion is invoked in the New Testament by Mark to describe John the Baptist, whom he says is a voice crying out in the desert like a lion’s roar. Later in the third section, we learn that the beast is not material yet, at it heads “towards Bethlehem to be born,” making it a hybrid of sorts, the voice of John the Baptist announcing the coming of Christ. But something is definitely wrong.

“A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy, loved in the way that Christianity teaches about Jesus. As we talked about last week, this description implies something without care for the pain and suffering happening to others, and it may even inflict some horrors itself without flinching. “Its slow moving thighs,” tell us the beast is no hurry, it’s almost enjoying the state of chaos spoken about in Stanza 1. The vultures protests have no effect on it either, and those desert birds are often associated with the dead, they circle until something dies so they can devour it. The fact that the beast is followed by angry carrion feeders associates it with death and decay.

Section 3 starts with “the darkness drops again” and signals the end of the brief and terrifying vision, followed by that ominous, “but now I know.” In the first stanza, the speaker is unsure, befuddled by the collapse of all that was, but after the vision, it’s now clear where civilization is headed. Here is where we get the lines about all of the centuries since Jesus’s time being null and the imminent birth of something “rough.” That word has multiple meanings that could all be applicable. It can mean “an irregular shape,” which implies the beast born as a human will not resemble us. It can also mean “violent, lacking gentleness,” so we envision a person who is cruel towards the vulnerable.


To understand where this poem came from, you need to know some things about William Butler Yeats. Yeats came of age during a period of modernism, a concept that stretched through all aspects of life from art to politics to architecture to religion and literature. It began with the rapid growth of cities due to industrialization, people leaving small towns to become part of large and often cold urban environments, forced there because the best paying work was in the city. Shortly before Yeats’ birth, his home country of Ireland fought through a devastating famine that forced many Irish to emigrate to the United States. This left Ireland in a weakened position in its relations with England and the rest of Great Britain. Irish nationalism grew in popularity with a divide occurring down religious lines, the Catholics versus the Protestants. Yeats was an Irish nationalist but kept distant from the political core of conflict going on at the time until 1922.

In 1919, Yeats wrote “The Second Coming,” and it was partially informed out of his studies of the occult while in art college in Dublin as well as observations of the Great War and his own homeland strife. Modernism broke down the things people thought they knew to be universal and true. Yeats’ view of Irish nationalism was very traditionalist and agrarian when it came to viewing his country, a focus on a simpler life, not necessarily an easier one. Yeats was raised in a home skeptical of religion, so he migrated towards the esoteric and the mystic while studying. He eventually joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in London, a secret society of magic practitioners including writer Arthur Machen and the infamous Aleister Crowley.

One of the ideas that came out of this time was Yeats’ belief in gyres, a series of interlocking cones that mapped reincarnation and the evolution of the soul. He believed that all of existence was predetermined, following a repetitive path of time. The individual players may change, but the conflicts and big moments were just copies of what had come before. If you think of HBO’s True Detective Season 1 and “time is a flat circle” speech, it breaks this idea down. We aren’t doing anything new, we’re playing parts in a story beyond our making.

Going back to “The Second Coming,” we see that the gyres are widening, which leads me to believe that the period of events is being stretched out, warped, making it harder to follow. The center not holding hints that Yeats’ personal belief may not be able to endure the chaos of what is happening on the planet. World War I was such a monumentally devastating event, the first war of bombs and machines and chemical weapons. The Earth had never seen anything like it, and the religious and spiritual saw it as either the collapse of humanity or the potential rebirth into something new. The rough beast can be seen as something akin to a messianic figure that religions might herald, but Yeats warns that it is not kind or loving, it is going to sear the Earth with its sun-like gaze.

I think “The Second Coming” is one of the great mysterious poems ever written, like a great horror story in poetic form. It’s a piece I can spend a long time reading and re-reading, meditating on and thinking about how it applies not just literally to he material destruction around us but to the inner journey of the self. Below is an excellent reading of the poem I think gets across the emotion of what Yeats intended. If you are interested in media that has the same feeling as this work, I would suggest the films Arrival, Children of Men, Enemy, Good Time, and Blue Ruin. For television, the recent Devs mini-series hits this completely, but I would also say The Sopranos at its best gets across the personal experience of the center collapsing into chaos.

One thought on “How I Read A Poem: The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats Part 2”

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