The Momentum of Image in Yeats’ “The Second Coming”
(the full text of the poem can be found here, at the end of this post)
We have a tendency to want to categorize things in clear-cut groups; being able to classify something gives us a way of understanding and talking about concepts that may otherwise seem convoluted. Literature is no exception to this rule (literary periods in particular). My reading of Yeats places him as somewhat of an enigma in terms of categories: much of Yeats’ poetry is clearly influenced by the Romantics while at once is reminiscent of Victorian literature. So even though “The Second Coming” was written during the Modern period of British Literature, that doesn’t mean that it does not or cannot share some of the themes that were dominant in preceding periods like Victorian literature, namely spiritual crisis and a sense of uncertainty or doubt about ones place in the world. The open lines “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” precisely expresses a sense of uncertainty, inconstancy, and spiritual crisis, but the image of the “widening gyre” pushes the poem beyond mere uncertainty (1-3).
The gyre image—the first and primary image of the poem—pushes the tone of the poem beyond that of mere uncertainty, and it accomplishes this by illustrating how a sense of understanding or connection with the divine is cyclical in nature. In order for the image to work in this way, however, one must stipulate that the title of the poem, “The Second Coming,” immediately invokes a Christian presence in the text (which is not beyond reason). If the title weren’t enough, the second line supports this as perhaps the “falcon” that “cannot hear the falconer” is a metaphor for the current spiritual crisis of Yeats’ time; the falcon (humankind) cannot hear the falconer (Christ). This sense of disconnection with the divine is certainly an echo from late Victorian sentiments, not unlike Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” but Yeats has history beyond that of the Victorians to which he’s responding: World War I provides Yeats with physical and perhaps moral evidence that there must be some sort of disconnect between humankind and the divine. With images like “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned” it is impossible not to think of trench warfare and hear to “Mars” from The Planets by Gustav Holsts embedded somewhere between these lines (5-6). The second half of the first stanza informs attitudes in the first half of the stanza: the falcon clearly cannot hear the falconer because World War I just happened. This is the part of the gyre that is losing energy, the centre that cannot hold.
In the second stanza, the gyre image illustrates another period where there was perhaps a spiritual shift, but another stipulation is required here. “A shape with lion body and the head of a man” is unescapably a reference to the Sphinx, and given the overall dark tone of the poem, it is most likely that it is the Greek (Chthonic) version of the Sphinx, not the Egyptian (protective) version of the Sphinx to which Yeats refers (14). Granted that stipulation, another reference comes to light—and I may be reaching here—but the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Greek Sphinx is the Sphinx’s defeater: Oedipus Rex. In that narrative, there is a symbolic transition from a world dominated by Chthonic forces like the Sphinx to a world dominated by the Greek pantheon at most, humankind at least. It’s another transition, another gyre that has lost momentum on one front while at the same time gains momentum on another front. The Sphinx’s inanition illustrated by the lines “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs” supports this stipulation as well (15-16). So now, after “twenty centuries of stony sleep,” we’re left to wonder where the momentum of the widening gyre will take us (19). As far as “The Second Coming” is concerned, the future looks even bleaker than Hardy’s where there is at least “some blessed hope” (“The Darkling Thrush” 31). Indeed things fall apart, and it is clear that at least part of Post-World War I Yeats had his doubts about a glorious second coming of Christ. No, it seems like a more Chthonic Anti-Christ is on its way, and—sadly—he turned out to be right. It came in the form of World War II.
The Second Coming by 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: a waste of desert sand;
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
Wind 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 18th line is often printed as the beginning of a 3rd stanza, but The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats edited by Finneran prints lines 9-22 as a single stanza, and given that Finneran is a well respected scholar of Yeats, I trust his delineation.