William Butler Yeats' Poem "The Second Coming" Analyzed

John L. Waters

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William Butler Yeats' Poem "The Second Coming"


John L. Waters

March 31, 2001

 Copyright 2001 by John L. Waters. All Rights



The Poem by William Butler Yeats:

The Second Coming

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 around 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?


Yeats starts out with the image of a falcon wheeling

about in the sky, far away from the falconer who

released it.  The bird continues to wheel and gyre

further and further away from the falconer.  This

metaphor stands for the young people who have given up

the standards of their parents and grandparents for

the new art, the new literature, the new music, and

the other novelties of Yeats' time.  The poem was

composed in 1920.

There is another interpretation of the falcon-falconer

image, and that is the image of the head or intellect

as the falcon and the rest of the body and the body

sensations and feelings  (heart) as the falconer. 

This idea is reinforced and repeated  later in the

poem when Yeats brings in the image of the Sphinx, 

which is a re-connection of these two components.  In

the image of the Sphinx, the head-intellect is

connected to the body.  That is the Sphinx isn't

broken apart.  The giant sculpture is still intact.

The last two lines of the first stanza are simply a

commentary on the times.  Yeats says "The best lack

all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate

intensity."  This also suggests a dissociation between

the best, which Yeats identifies as head people, the

intellectuals, and the worst, whom Yeats associates

with the mob who are those who react with passionate

intensity not with careful intellectual study and


In the first stanza of the poem Yeats gives us the

first bird metaphor.  In the second part of the poem

Yeats gives us the second bird metaphor in the form of

"indignant desert birds."  These creatures appear to

have been roosting on the Sphinx, but when the massive

beast began to move its "slow thighs" the birds became

agitated and took off.  The poet shows us the image a

little later.  The birds are flying around above the

slowly moving Sphinx.

At the start of the second stanza Yeats calls for a

revelation, saying "Surely a revelation is at hand." 

And Yeats himself becomes the revelator.  Yeats is a

revelator because he gives us a powerful image for The

Second Coming.  This is the image of a "rough beast"

which has the head-intellect of a man and the fierce

emotions and body intelligence of a beast. 

Furthermore, Yeats suggests that the body movement of

the beast, the "slouching" movement is what is moving

the Christ closer and closer to its "Bethlehem" or

birthplace.  Yeats adds the image of the

head-intellect connected to the body-mind of a beast

to the image Isaiah gave as a little child for The

Messiah.  This makes Yeats a modern revelator or


It's significant that Yeats describes the Sphinx as "A

gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," because spiritual

masters are known to gaze blankly as they transmit

"the message" to their disciples.  Yeats equates this

gaze and this transmission with the Sphinx, which he

also uses to denote the Second Coming of Christ.

After Yeats presents this brilliant visionary image,

he says  "The darkness drops again."  His vision ends

and he starts thinking again.  He concludes that

"twenty centuries of stony  sleep Were vexed to

nightmare by a rocking cradle."  This is a puzzling

line, because the rocking cradle suggests the manger

where Jesus was laid.  But a manger doesn't rock

unless some animals are jostling it about in their

movements.  And this again suggests that animal body

movement figures strongly into this idea of Christ

which Yeats presents in this poem.

This poem is a riddle.  Yeats ends by asking a

question.  Throughout the poem there are hints as to

what the answer to the riddle is.  But Yeats doesn't

come right out and give the answer to the riddle.

Yeats uses the image of a cat, ie, the Sphinx in

justaposition  with the two images of birds.  First

Yeats presents the broken  image of the falcon

dissociating from its trainer and master the falconer.

 Then Yeats presents the broken image of many birds

flying around the Sphinx.  But the cat itself is a

single whole image.  Furthermore, the cat eats birds. 

The cat is mightier than the birds.  The idea of being

mighty is amplified by the very size of the Sphinx. 

This suggests the power of the process which

integrates the human intellect with the animal power

of the bodily intelligence of the animal beast. 

However this idea rather conflicts with the

conventional Christian idea that Christ overcomes the

Beast of Revelation.  So Yeats is challenging certain

images in conventional Christianity.

One last comment.  The image of a great cat, the

Sphinx, suggests a great independent spirit and

heretic leader in Egypt who lived at about 1350BC and

was called "the heretic Pharaoh."  This man's name was

Akhnaton.  The image of a cat fits this man because a

cat tends to be very independent minded and determined

once its mind is set.  The suggestion Yeats is making

is that Akhnaton had something important to

contribute, which is heretical.  When we examine

Akhnaton we find that he was a lover of nature, of

animals, and of children.  He also introduced

naturalistic art which is a precursor of Greek

science.  This may be stretching Yeats quite a bit,

but I thought I should throw it in.  In this poem

Yeats himself is presenting certain ideas which are

heretical and might have offended some orthodox


10:27PM Thursday, March 29, 2001

John L. Waters

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