“And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea…”
~ Revelation, 13:1
In Poetry Magazine’s May 1914 issue, Ezra Pound unpacks William Butler Yeats’ late-career progression – particularly the Irishman’s shift into what Pound deems a “gaunter” voice – his work “seeking greater harshness of outline.” At the time, Yeats had not yet penned one of his most compelling texts: 1919’s simultaneously reflective and portentous “the Second Coming”. Surely, if he had, Pound would have cited it as evidence of Yeats’ tonal shift, “harsh” delivery, and movement away from what Pound calls “glamorous”, “minor notes” (Pound, 60). “The Second Coming” being located at a potential turning point, or transitional period, or Yeats’ work is particularly interesting, given the poem’s content, themes, and structure.
“The Second Coming” contains an amalgamation of line lengths – as few as 9 syllables, as many as thirteen. Despite this, William Baer argues Yeats’ roughly adheres to the traditional structure of iambic pentameter – a structure that elicits a heartbeat, wavelike rhythm when read (Bear, 50). Yeats’ metrical structure evokes this consistence while simultaneously disrupting it – the heartbeat appears irregular, disjointed, chaotic – a visceral, yet subliminal tactic that produces unease. From the outset, Yeats implies this iambic instability: he opens with “Turning”: a trochee, not an iamb, and one of a few metrical implosions that resurface throughout the text. Isolated, these metrical anomalies are fairly traditional – poets rarely adhere to perfect meter – but when paired with disjointed line lengths, it appears Yeats’ is intentionally disturbing the traditional, comfortable poetic structure. This unstable underpinning is not only of stylistic note, but thematic: “The Second Coming” depicts an impending future that is not only a forgone conclusion (after “twenty centuries of stony sleep”) but bound to repeat evermore. To underscore the ever-presence of this doom, Yeats fastens his verse to this irregular rhythm, embedding seeds of doubt, casting an air of inevitability unto the reader. It should also be noted that “The Second Coming” is written in blank verse, rhyme-less but still metrical – however convoluted the meter might be.
Yeats’ first line cites “the widening gyre”, undoubtedly a nod to his own philosophical and metaphysical theories on gyres and the cyclical nature of individual experience and human history (Yeats, l.1). Within this theory, the narrowest part of one gyre is contained within the widest part of another; a dualistic tension between the two is formed, thus rendering the entire entity is in a constant state of flux. He allegorizes these theories with the epochs of history, implies the tension between chaos and peace. In the world of “The Second Coming”, peace’s “twenty centuries of stony sleep” are up, and the usage of “widening gyre” instigates the instability of both the poem and the realm within it (Yeats l.1). The poem’s regression – “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy descends upon the world” – relates Yeats’ gyre philosophy to social connotations of anarchy, implying both the textual and perhaps the world at large are in states of discord (Yeats, l.3-4). The first line’s “widening gyre”, contextually, can be read as solely in reference to the falcon – a reading buttressed its enjambment. This converse interpretation must be acknowledged, but the resultant meaning remains relatively similar. Disarray is still implicated by both the spiraling falcon, whose trajectory is lost, and the falconer, who calls out to his bird in vain. He loses control of his bird, who, in turn, loses control of his flight – falconry, a sport which holds medieval aristocratic connotations is rendered impotent and powerless, a reflection of the “mere anarchy” that is descending and the fall of social order.
Yeats’ tense throughout “the Second Coming” is also notable. Despite the poems’ omniscient and portentous tone, Yeats avoids employing the future tense – these are not presuppositions, and he is not an oracle. Instead, it reads as testimony; deploying the present tense frames the insurrection, instability, and precariousness as a current, contemporary chaos witnessed by the narrator. His vision of a half-lion, half-man rising from “sands of the desert” is contained in the same tense, implying that its threat is immediate, not forthcoming. This tense is particularly significant in the context of Yeats’ gyre theories, which posit that any one point on one gyro coincides with a point on its obverse spiral. Thus, although “A Second Coming” is located in the present, it is a relative one – a moment caught between trends both forward and backwards, trends that represent both stability and bedlam.
The cyclical nature of Yeats’ world is underscored through his first stanza’s repetition, from the inaugural “Turning,” through “falcon/falconer,” and “loosed” (Yeats, l.1,2, 4-5). These duplications accentuate his preoccupation with historic recurrence while contributing to the poem’s dream-like, disorienting quality. This surrealism is particularly relevant, as it sets the stage for the opening stanza’s descent into biblical allusion. Yeats vividly evokes the Biblical flood in Genesis via his “blood-dimmed tide…loosed…everywhere,” a tide that drowns the “ceremony of innocence” (Yeats, l.5-6). These images, a grisly elaboration on Yeats’ “mere anarchy”, are the culmination of the chaos represented by his falcon’s gyroscopic meandering. The tide, here, however, appears grimmer than Genesis’; its waters’ waves are imbued with blood. Yeats’ wording serves as solid acknowledgment of his chaotic implementation of standard iambic pentatonic structure – a structure commonly associated with the heartbeat, but also with waves – waves Yeats stains red. If Yeats’s oceanic tides allude to the disturbed sea from which Revelation XIII’s first beast rises (Rev 13:1)—a rise oft-interpreted by theologians as an allegory for “nations in turmoil” (Brighton, 348, 349) or “the agitated state of men and nations” (Smith, 478)—then the “blood-dimmed tide” seems to symbolize twentieth-century Europe’s war-torn and politically turbulent state.
With this Biblical tidal allusion, Yeats’ previous cyclical, repetitive references now assume a different context: one of Christian rebirth, one foreshadowed by the poem’s title. His line 5 usage of “loosed” is re-contextualized here: his “mere anarchy” is ‘reborn’ into Christian connotation, and thus, Yeats’ cyclical history is located within Christian conceptions of rebirth; Christ’s second coming appropriated as evidence for his own gyroscopic theories. Furthermore, “loosed”, and Yeats’ use of it, carries connotations of a living thing in formerly in captivity. While the syntactic structure of the lines suggests “mere anarchy” and the “blood-dimmed tide” are subjects of an action performed upon them, they are, in fact being loosed, rather than escaping or breaking out. This subtle, syntactic differentiation implies an exterior force has unleashed them from their previous states of containment. Following this “loosed” imagery, however, Yeats seems to stray from symbolic paradigms and towards political commentary. This is most observable in lines 7 and 8, wherein the “best” and “worst” of humanity are equated linguistically and conceptually. The two appear within the same line (Yeats, l.7), both emphasizing the deficiencies of the other. This dualism plays into the dialectic Yeats proposes in “A Vision,” a dialectic of gyroscopic trends inextricably tied together.
Yeats’ cyclical worldview is rooted in more than just his gyroscopic philosophies; he was also a practicing mystic. In the second stanza’s opening lines, the narrator’s assertion that “Surely, some revelation is at hand” alludes not only to the aforementioned Christian homage, but also mark the text’s full-on shift into the surreal, the mystic. These lines and their repetition are another peculiar instance of what might be described as rhythmic dissonance within the poem’s meter – a palpitation of the iambic pentameter’s heartbeat. The repetition of “at hand” (Yeats, ll. 9-10), immediately followed by a repetition of “the Second Coming” (Yeats, ll.10-11), provides another disorienting, cyclical moment—and as the stanza continues to progress, the narrative becomes increasingly surreal. Here’s where Yeats’ mysticism is foregrounded. Just as the poem’s narrator utters “The Second Coming,” he’s immediately greeted with a vision – a vision whose immediacy is stressed by lines 11-13’s enjambment, and resultantly rapid reading. In line 12, the narrator refers to the Spiritus Mundi, a term that signifies what the Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry calls Yeats’ “storehouse of archetypal images drawn upon by the poet” (Tuma, 40, footnote 12). As Yeats’ narrative progress, his terminology becomes increasingly surreal. Yeats’ mysticism, his spiritual plane of expression, is encapsulated in these lines—notably, lines 13-14, which provide the reader with the first description of the “rough beast” of the vision (Yeats, l. 21), both contain exactly thirteen syllables. It’s here that he asserts his own cyclical worldview as a God-like complex, intended to supersede traditional Christian readings of time and fate. In these lines, numeric significance is of utmost notoriety: the thirteen syllables in lines 13-14, coupled with Yeats’ invocation of Revelation XIII—a Biblical passage that chronicles the birth of two monstrous figures (the Antichrist and the False Prophet) — move towards a climax of Yeats’ gyroscopic philosophy: what he calls “the thirteenth cone.” In A Vision, Yeats discusses this concept: a thirteenth cone that signifies the “ultimate divine”, a resolution to all contradictions, all his dialectics, via pure antithesis (in name it eclipses the twelve months of the year). In order to unpack what Yeats’ thirteenth cone means in context of “The Second Coming”, it’s useful to first unpack his nod to Revelation.
For this, it’s back to line thirteen: Yeats’ “sands of the desert” conjure up Revelation XIII’s “sands of the sea” (Rev 13.1), and thus might be read as an allusion to XIII’s First Beast – one that emerges from the sea and is commonly recognized by Biblical scholars as the corporeal manifestation of the Antichrist. This reasoning might be countered by pointing towards Yeats’ implication that his “rough beast” is seemingly born from the desert, from “sand” – a birth more aligned with that of Revelation XIII’s Second Beast, commonly read as the False Prophet. I will venture so far as to suggest that Yeats invokes this contradiction between First and Second Beasts intentionally to subtly make manifest his contradictory worldview: a worldview that is only resolved by turning, yet again, to his “thirteenth cone.” This entire vision, it must be recalled, springs from Yeats’ Spritus Mundi, and thus I argue his Beast isn’t the False Prophet, or even the Antichrist itself – instead it is the theoretical Anti-Christ taken to its extreme: pure antithesis. “The Second Coming” sees the emergence of Yeats’ own god figure: the thirteen cone, an equalizing force whose arrival signals the ends of both previous peace, and the poems’ current chaotic state – a complete obverse and antithesis.
Indeed, in his analysis of Yeats’ A Vision, Neil Mann cites “The Second Coming” as being representative of Yeats’ “antithetical religion”; the poem thus tangibly represents one of Yeats’ gyroscopic structures moving into another (Mann, 15). Its structure, too resembles one of his gyres. Yeats opens with a 10-syllable line, expands to thirteen, closes with 10, and the poem ends with the death of the world, but also in the birth of the Beast, and thus, a new epoch. In this sense, we might read “The Second Coming” as the epitome of Yeats’ making manifest his philosophy via his poetry – something he rarely did.
But: back to the Beast. After witnessing the Spiritus Mundi vision, the narrator ruminates upon it – a rumination whose implications are obscured. In addition to its Biblical connotations, the Beast in ‘The Second Coming’ is sphinxlike, evoking the relationship between primitive and intellectual, body and mind. The Beast’s gaze, “blank and pitiless as the sun” expresses a stark, inhuman lack of empathy etched unto its head – a contradiction, given that it is the Beast’s must ‘human’ quality (Yeats, l.15). Its “slow thighs” contribute to its physical, primal presence. Above it, birds circle (“reel”), an image that not only recalls cyclicality once, but twice. First, in the birds very act of reeling; second, through Yeats’ repetitive avian imagery – these birds recall the poems opening falcons, who now circle like carrions in the carnage (Yeats, l.17). Lines 19-22 contain arguably the most ambiguous moments in an already profoundly enigmatic text: the mention of “twenty centuries of stony sleep” (Yeats, l.19) forms a clear reference to the Yeats’ gyres’ 20,000-year cycle, while the sleep’s “stony” quality seems to prove the “rough beast” is indeed an Egyptian Sphinx, symbolizing not only the rise of the Antichrist, but also the re-emergence of ancient empires.
Yeats’ cyclical conception of history is again buttressed by a seemingly Biblical allusion, though this one is more convoluted than his references to Revelation. The Beast, in the poem’s closing lines, is “vexed to a nightmare by a rocking cradle,” a possible nod to Christ’s birth, and the Beast’s prolonged slumber as a result of it (Yeats, l.20). Yet, an alternative reading might be necessary given that Christ was, technically, born in a manger (Luke 2:7). The cradle, out of the Biblical context thus this reads as either the Beast’s own, metaphorical birthplace, or, more likely, the cradle of humanity itself. This reading proposes another proponent of Yeats’ cyclical conceptions: time is at once eternal as it is immediate – the Beast’s 20,000-year slumber is equated to a single night of an infant’s sleep, and the “rocking” becomes a reference to social and political instability. In conclusion, however, one detail is discernable – the Beast’s moment has finally arrived, and it now slouches slowly, but constantly towards Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, to fulfill its own genesis (Yeats, l. 21-22).
Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is among the most cited, referenced, and even misappropriated poems in his oeuvre. Joan Didion and Chinua famously – and aptly – evoked and toyed with “The Second Coming” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Things Fall Apart, respectively. But the most common reference point seems to be the misusage of Yeats’ “Slouching” as a term that implies a slow, trudge-like movement towards something – a misrepresentation employed in a range of works: CD-ROM video games, heavy-metal albums, and even pornography (Tabor).
One of the most notable among contemporary “The Second Coming” homages is Joni Mitchell’s melodic musing on Yeats’ work: her musical cover, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” on the album Night Ride Home.
Mitchell’s rendition contemporizes Yeats – locating “The Second Coming” and its present-tense ruminations, like the entirety of Mitchell’s album Hejira, in an automobile, on a night drive home. Her interpretation takes particular steps to melodize Yeats – adding lines or stressing syllables to evoke some semblance of rhyme scheme – yet, the poem’s aforementioned irregular heartbeat is maintained, despite Mitchell’s metrical modifications. Instead of evoking instability through meter or via line lengths (more difficult to discern in works heard, not read), Mitchell uses her percussion section and sound effects to unnerve. From the song’s outset, snares and maracas keep a pulse-like beat, but a percussive, ominous bass drum punctuates the track and unnerves the listener. Yet, soon the bass drum starts to meld with the other percussion instruments, contributing to the metrical pulse beneath the lyrics. It’s here, however, that Mitchell introduces subtle police sirens – another subliminal, yet contemporary, source of unease that parallels Yeats’ original metrical instability. These sirens embody the idea of attempted order in the face of chaos that Yeats’ original text invokes.
Mitchell, interestingly, would cover the song again, with slight variations that actually buttress the readings of it musically reflecting Yeats’ text. The bass drum of her first cover and its sporadic nature is stressed even more in this version: the first percussive whack comes as Mitchell croons “Things fall apart,” and this chaotic drumming answers the tranquil, swirling strings that begin the track (these strings are perhaps Mitchell’s manifestation of the widening gyre or the falcon’s swirling trajectory). Later in the track, she underscores Yeats’ chaotic vision via free-jazz piano riffs over a constant rhythm – seemingly a nod to the dually free verse and metrical composition of the original text. Thus, we have, through Mitchell’s reading of “The Second Coming” and its musical accentuation of particular motifs, another interpretation of the disruptive metrical underpinnings deployed by Yeats. Mitchell’s contemporary retellings of Yeats’ classic work epitomize the poem’s seemingly universal significance, despite its specificity. A timeless poem, truly, but also one against time, out of it.
“The Second Coming” ~ 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-dimed 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 sigh: 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 about 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?
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