A Literary Analysis of W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” In Light of A Vision’s Cyclical System of History
Karl Luft paper submitted April 2013
Introduction “The Second Coming” was composed by William Butler Yeats in 1919, the year after the end of World War I. Although it has been an important historical contribution to Modernist poetry, there is significant disagreement regarding the poem’s actual meaning and intent. This is primarily because much of the poem’s imagery is founded in a complex historical system that Yeats constructed in his book A Vision, which is itself complicated and esoteric in the extreme. This system deserves significant attention in any attempted analysis of “The Second Coming”, but it would be a mistake to ignore the poet’s surrounding cultural atmosphere. Some give a great deal of attention to this atmosphere, citing the parallels between the first stanza’s chaotic language and the social disruption of war, as seen in the Irish rebellion, the French, German, and Russian revolutions, and World War I. The combination of these considerations properly realizes the poem’s and the author’s dual historical and literary contexts, and recognizes that the Yeats’s cyclical system goes hand-in-hand with his entire view of the world.
“The Second Coming” has a scattered rhythmic meter at best, and its rhyme scheme is almost non-existent. Nevertheless, Yeats’s words have such intensity that they have the capacity to produce powerful, dark images of societal antithesis in our minds. This linguistic forcefulness combines with Yeats’s complex imagery to create a poem that is both eerily prophetic of the subsequent World conflicts, and also an intriguing insight into the poet’s systematic view of history, society, ideology, and dominance. The Second Coming Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;