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The Second Coming 

Despite its misunderstanding, this is Yeat's most quoted poem.  It acquires a 

timely relevance whenever we feel the Dionysian mindset prevails over the Apollonian.  Like Hegel, Yeats believed in the dialectical pendulum swinging back and forth between order and chaos. Yeats uses the models of his gyres or spirals to illustrate his theories.  

Yeats laments for the diminishment of high culture, harboring anxieties around the unwashed taking over the world.  

According to Richard Cooke, in The Monthly,  "Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, “The Second Coming” can only be invoked so frequently if it is misunderstood. It is not a warning about the “danger flags” of fascism at all, but a totalitarian-curious piece of pageantry for fascism, from a self-declared aristocratic fascist. When Orwell was fighting with anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, Yeats was writing marching songs for the other side – he was one of the people Orwell was talking about when he said “I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere”. This symbiosis is now less common, but still one the Apollonians have no real explanation for. Why should we “heed” this warning, if it didn’t even work on its author"?

 I. Subject Matter – Context and Background

Written during the early 1920’s, this poems deals with apocalyptic times, specifically the problems with Irish Black and Tan uprisings, but ultimately with the much broader significance of disintegration, decline and dissolution.   The poem is full of global historical allusions from an Olympian view that portend disaster, yet assures us that life will go on.  References to the Sphinx and Bethlehem straddle both the pagan and Judeo-Christian religions.  Yeats is very much a classicist, conservative and traditionalist and prefers aristocratic order to anarchistic democracy. 

II.Sound Effects

Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro,  Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac,  upbeat,  blue, staccato,  dirge, ode,   Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

The poem begins with an alarmist tone of chaos and loss of control where all our central certainties appear to have been destroyed.  Order has crumbled.  There is a strong mood of foreboding – pessimism - but it is later balanced by a detached though powerful tone of authority, gravitas and optimism; an assurance that all is not lost and that historically we will survive any calamity.

The repetitive alliterative “Surely some revelation”  and “Surely the Second Coming”  denotes a more positive assurance of continuity. 

IlI. Themes, concerns, issues - values

Yeats uses the symbol of Ireland as microcosm of the rest of the world to illustrate his eccentric view of the historical cycles. The cone has reached its utmost expansion and the age is one of political discord.

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 convictions, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

“The blood dimmed tide” likely refers to the slaughter of six million young men during the First World War.

The last two lines best illustrate his opposition to modernity, populism and change.  His was a nostalgia for the ancient Ireland/World that remained aristocratic and authoritarian –an Oligarchy:

We Irish, born into that ancient sect

But thrown upon this filthy modern tide

And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,

Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineaments ...

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939),  The Statues (l. 28-32).

The threat to order came not from Nazism or Communism (he supported fascism and Mussolini) but from Democracy – “the mob” – “this filthy modern tide”  and he also supported eugenics to protect us from “its formless spawning”

While Yeats warns that the world is in the grip of anarchy and rages against fanaticism and hatred, he does not brood over the present. He sees hope for the future:

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

This is not the Second Coming referred to by Christians but likely from the East. Yeats hopes that with the explosion of the cone or gyre of history some supernatural influx will usher in a new antithetical age, classical and aristocratic. Thus there is no need for despair.

Even though men and civilisations perish; life, especially as shown through Art, can conquer time and will survive into the future.

IV. TECHNIQUE

Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climactic.     Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech:  similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

Images:

GyresYeats’ special term for his spirals of history’s cycles. For a full explanation of Yeats’ gyres @ http://www.yeatsvision.com/Geometry.htm

Most people believe in the continuity of history or patterns of similarity, such as George Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the Past are condemned to repeat it to which others have responded: -  History does repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the next time as farce” ( Marx) and “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up”  to  Mark Twain’s sardonic, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme a lot”. 

Falconer - fledgling falcons and other birds of were trained to return to their masters on command by the reward of food.  From medieval times the training of falcons, as part of hunting, enjoyed the reputation of dutiful, loyal and servile birds.

“Blood-dimmed tide” -  War – especially WWI.

“ceremony of innocence”  Yeats loved pomp, pageantry and ceremony.

"Spiritus mundi" (literally "spirit of the world") is a reference to Yeats' belief that each human mind is linked to a single vast intelligence, and that this intelligence causes certain universal symbols to appear in individual minds.  We know that Yeats was anti-science and anti-rationalism, believing that mystical visions and spiritual intuition were often more reliable. 

Shape of Lion body..  a likely reference to the Sphinx in Egypt – an enigmatic pagan spiritual symbol.  The simile, “pitiless as the sun” reveals Yeats’ theory about a vast indifferent universe.

 rough beast’ (another echo of Revelation, see Rev 13), that the beast’s hour has ‘come round at last’,

V. LANGUAGE: 

Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience,   Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative,   emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.   Gender biases.  Register:  formal, stiff, dignified  or Colloquial;  relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly  or Slang;  colourful, intimate,  Rhetorical devices;  Questions,  exclamations,  cumulation,  crescendo,  inversion,  bathos,  repetition,  3 cornered phrases. 

Yeats uses arcane diction – words with specialised meanings – to add weight to his assertions.  The word “gyre” refers to his personal view of the cycles of history.  

Repetition - "turning and turning", "falcon... falconer", "loosed... loosed", "surely... surely", "the Second Coming... The Second Coming!"

“revelation”  There is a biblical resonance to much of the language;  “rocking cradle” , “rough beast” and “Bethlehem”

The verb ‘Slouches’ adds to the sinister aura, with its precise, feline blend of casualness and stalking, but despite the sensuousness of this verb and of the ‘slow thighs’, the beast has not yet been born into the physical world.

The lines: 

The best lack all convictions, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

likely refer to his abhorrence of populism in democracy and he may have read Bertram Russell's quote:  "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of self-doubt."

VI. EVALUATION:

This would have to be Yeats’ most famous poem.  It best illustrates his reaction to modernity and change.  His was a nostalgia for the ancient Ireland/World that remained aristocratic and authoritarian –an Oligarchy:

We Irish, born into that ancient sect

But thrown upon this filthy modern tide

And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,

Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineaments ...  The Statues (l. 28-32).

The threat to order came not from Nazism or Communism (he supported fascism and Mussolini) but from Democracy – “the mob” – “this filthy modern tide”  and he also supported eugenics to protect us from “its formless spawning”

Yeats differs from many of his contemporary writers who appear to succumb to despair believing that the world is on a fatal downward projectory; Yeats is much more sanguine (positive) adopting an optimistic prescient world view that though the west is in decline, the Orient will provide hope for the future.


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