Critical Appreciation of THE SECOND COMING by William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

         William Butler Yeats is a prominent figure in English literature and certainly in the context of Irish literature as well where he sort of revered as a God you'll find his statue in a couple of different places in Ireland and his gravesite as a popular place for tourists, He's very much associated with the Irish uprising and revolution which led to the creation of the autonomous state of Ireland in the early 20th century. So he plays a larger role in their culture before they switched over to the euro. His face did adorn one of their pound marks so they hold their literary figures and high esteem and Yates's is probably at the top alongside James Joyce and he's also a very strange writer as well a very spiritual and mystical writer very unconventionally speaking and the poem I'd like to focus in on here is called The Second Coming and I think it's hard to avoid this one the more that you study literature because so many of the lines have appeared in other prominent places just to give you a couple of examples. Here the third the beginning of the third line Things Fall Apart is the title of a novel you might be familiar with by Chinua Achebe. Also the final line slouches towards Bethlehem is the title of a collection of essays by Joan Didion, who is a very well-known non-fiction writer. Here in America still life today her book “The Year of Magical Thinking” won some awards here a couple years ago and in general this whole metaphor of the Falcon and the falconer and this line the center cannot hold are used repeatedly in journalism anytime a major world event happens. It seems there are any number of journalists who are using these lines and quoting these lines to talk about how the world is coming apart or falling apart at the seams and so this poem gets maybe because it appears on a lot of in thighs also because it seems to be a favorite poem of a lot of writers. It gets a lot of mileage you see it around a lot and certainly the title is a concept that you're probably all familiar with the second coming and so I thought we would take a closer look at this poem, because in for many reasons it's more complex than it seems on the surface even though it does present itself as a rather complex problem being about the apocalypse and all but that's just where the confusion comes in, because if we operate under the assumption here that this is a title about say the second coming of Jesus we'll have entirely missed the point of the poem.
           This is a kind of apocalyptic poem of Yates's own conceiving, it is largely based on a series of visions that he had which he later wrote about in his book of vision and it establishes a kind of cosmology and an explanation of history and the cycles of history so that word at the end of the first line Geyer is very important for understanding the rest of the poem, so I thought I would talk just a little bit about what that means a Geyer in Yeats his conception is something like a spiral but not like a spiral that moves toward a smaller point like in a snail shell but more like a spiral that starts down and continues to go up until it gets bigger and bigger and bigger so I guess we could say shaped more like a tornado right so the tornado sort of facing us more or less starts at a very tight spiral and moves to a big open one right so again this fits perfectly the opening image so a falconer is somebody who I don't know if you've ever seen that skit on Saturday Night Live and this has actually been a couple years ago. I'm not sure if they do this anymore but I think it's called the falconer I'm going to use to have Will Ferrell and then I think somebody else took that over but it's sort of this crazy bearded falconer and he has his Falcon who's supposed to go off and do things for him, but it generally ends up believing him that's all I remember of it. But the concept is the same so I'm the falconer has the Falcon trained and the Falcon can go fly places I don't know if he's supposed to be hunting or delivering messages. I couldn't really tell you but anytime you've seen a sort of bird of prey like that you know they fly generally in circles. They're scanning the land using their incredible eyesight looking for mice or rabbits or whatever to hunt and the image here is that the Falcon the Falcons arcs or circles are getting so wide and so far away from the falconer that communication is lost that things are falling apart because the relationship that we have come to expect as solid between the falconer and the falconer. Falcon and the falconer is breaking down right so this of course again comes right back to his theory of gyres and he believed that history moved in these kind of spirals and that certain transition points existed where the spirals got to be so wide that is in a sense things were no longer holding together things are not making sense chaos was ensuing systems were falling apart governments were collapsing. Natural disasters things of that sort that basically oh we would be in a waiting period where once the spiral got so wide and things started falling so much apart that a new one would have to begin and would begin very small so in a sense a new eye of the tornado would start in the middle of the largest spiral I know this all sounds pretty far-out but this is how he imagined history operating and so these points of transition were both positive and negative.
          They were negative in the sense because you know certainly things are falling apart, communication is lost between the old ways but this presents a new opportunity, an opportunity for a new spiral to start for the world to begin over with a new system, a new order, so the apocalypse that he's talking about is not the end of the world it's sort of the beginning of a new one and you could make the case that generally any time the world where it apocalypse is being used that that's what's being referred to the book of Revelation for example that word revelation means apocalypse and essentially in the original Greek and those words are both meant to be the end of something at the beginning often that word apocalypse is said to represent the top of a box or present or something being opened and the idea being opening for it for a new way and certainly in any number of context in the sort of discussion of the Christian apocalypse we have the idea of a New Jerusalem being established a new world order so Yeats is really picking up on that concept but he's developed his own version of it and as we see here, what is coming is not a kind of mythological or any actual depiction of Jesus in a Christian context Yates was not a Christian. He I guess the best way we could describe him in today's context would be a sort of New Age thinker that doesn't really apply then but he had a very spiritual worldview rooted in mythology oftentimes in Celtic animism and Celtic mythology and certainly was a proponent of some things like automatic writing and so on but as you can see here just at the moment we're an on line 10 and right above that line 9 the word revelation is used surely some revelation is at hand surely the Second Coming is at hand and then line 11 the second coming hardly are those words out when a vast image out of spiritus mundi and this is more of an abstract notion of a spiritual presence or a power we could liken it to the Holy Spirit in a sense although that's not what he's talking about some kind of power and he sees it as being sort of both creative and destructive there's a violence to it certainly it's has a lion body but it has the head of a man and in a sense here the nightmare is invoked and it's described as a rough beast and we can see here that some bad things are going to happen before the good ones but again going back to his concepts of the guy or here we know that it's not going to be the end of the world that a new thing will be born but he did believe that you know at this moment where the spiral is at its widest that the beginning of the new world of a new order or the new sort of organization of history's movements could not begin until some bad things happened hence on the anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide and everything but I did you know want to point out because this poem is so famous that it does you know very notably from sort of standard notions.
          If there is a standard notion of a Christian apocalypse and sometimes because Yeats is an Irish writer the assumption is here is that you know he is a Catholic or Christian and that he's writing about Jesus but he's not at all he has his sort of own version of the apocalypse or his own version of how history operates and he's created a poem that describes that on so I think we can generally read this poem in two parts the first half waiting up to about nine or ten is a description of the world of the centers not holding Anarchy as the brink of occurring innocence is drowning all these bad things and so this is the moment where we're expecting the Second Coming to begin here and we're not greeted by the second coming of Jesus were greeted here by a kind of vaguely animalistic beast here that's bringing the onset of change this spiritual power interesting how you know many versions of these kinds of apocalyptic events are very similar here. Yates is not creating a distinctively Christian version but there are many elements that are similar.

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