In a world full of hostility and loss of faith surrounded by war and technological developments, the modernist era of literature developments, the modernists era of literature arose. The sinking of the Titanic symbolized the falling of the Great Britain empire and newly invented standardized time allowed war to become even deadlier than before due to the ability to organize attacks. Due to this new world full of bloodshed and new mechanical inventions, the world was falling further and further away from God. William Butler Yeats expresses his sudden collapse of society in his poem “The Second Coming”, first composed in January of 1919. The hopelessness of mankind is addressed by Keats’ statement that man cannot save us, God cannot save us, and the question: If man and God can’t save us, then what is going to happen to us?
In lines 1-2, Keats discusses a widening gyre, a ring or circle. The widening gyre represents the gyre spinning out of control and this circle growing wider and wider with society in it. O’Brien says, “The ‘widening gyre’ describes not only the circular, ever-widening course of the falcon’s flight. It also refers to an important aspect of Yeats’ theory of history. Influenced by Giambattista Vico and Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophies of eternal recurrence, Yeats sees history as a cycle of declines and regenerations. Each historical era is replaced by its opposite. Gyres describe the interacting and conflicting era.”
With the fall of Britain and their horrible loss of financial superiority, it is obvious any society can fall no matter how strong they are. The relationship of the falconer and the falcon is the relationships of a teacher and student. The falconer sends the falcon out to fly and calls him back when he strays too far. In “The Second Coming”, the falconer is God and the falcon is society. Because of the “turning and turning in the widening gyre”, we can no longer hear God. Society has strayed so far away from God that we cannot be guided back home.
Yeats begins the poem with the first two lines painting an image of society falling apart and breaking down, one that O’Brien refers to as a “cultural breakdown.”He says, “The falcon represents those forces that function productively only when disciplined.” In order to maintain structure and to prevent the gyre from widening further, our society needs discipline, otherwise our structure, our faith, or very nature as human beings deteriorates. At this time in our society, our discipline in our faith is gone. Our discipline in our morals and ethics is gone.
Lines 3-6 illustrate society’s inability to hold together without discipline. Because the falcon can no longer hear the falconer to find its way back home, “things fall apart” – the result of society straying from God. With everything falling apart, the need for someone or something to save society becomes prominent. Since society has strayed away from God, the next solution is man as a savior, but with the new age of war and machinery, mankind has lost their ability to save the world. O’Brien says, “Everything that makes life valuable is being drenched in blood. ‘The ceremony of innocence’ refers no to one particular ceremony but is intended to suggest the grace and order of civilized society. Moreover, there is nobody to fight ‘the blood-dimmed tide.” Soldiers are off a war. Our future generations are off fighting a war and getting killed, how can they save us? Our youthful innocence is gone – they have become wrapped in war, lifestyles of machinery, etc. that tear them away from saving us. Everything that is good and innocent is covered in blood.
Edwards describes Yeats poetic imagery as “melting into prosaic exposition as history.” He says, “The conventional ways in which it may be understood are rendered impotent by the violence wrought by the ‘mere anarchy’ that is unleashed.” Yeats’ imagery of the widening gyre and falcon flying further and further enhances the image of things falling apart. What will exist in a place of structure and discipline is a state of society without government or law. If our hope of our society is only possible through discipline and we are headed to a society of no discipline, we are about to enter a time of total chaos.
Yeats informs his readers in lines 7-8 that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” The good that can save us lack the morals and ethics to save the world and not enough that do exist to beat the bad guys. As far as the worst that are “full of passionate intensity,” there is too many who hold the power. Keats informs us that the worst of society will be the ones to make the change because they are so power hungry and determined.
When it is obvious mankind cannot save them, the next alternative is God. Keats use of the title “Second Coming” allows the audience to presume with all these horrible things going on in the world, surely Jesus is returning to take his followers. However, Keats quickly reminds us God cannot save us in lines 11-13, “The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out/ When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi/ Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand.” O’Brien says the phrase “Spiritus Mundi refers to a belief that individual minds are connected to a collective mind, and that the images that occur in one’s imagination are reflections of that greater consciousness.” Basically, what we’re visioning, what we’re having nightmares about, are going to happen. Keats uses the imagery of a desert sand to press this issue on his audience. The symbolism of the desert represents a future for society with no life and no hope.
In lines 14-17, the terrifying images the Spiritus Mundi come alive and. What was thought to be a dream is suddenly reality. Our Second Coming is no longer a biblical reference referring back to Jesus coming to rescue society, but rather “in the poem, the second coming means being condemned to those dreadful conditions” (O’Brien) that we hoped to only be dreams. Edwards says, “Rhythm and pacing merge to create a breathlessness in the reader that approximates that of one seeking to escape a nightmare only to discover that one is already awake. Carefully chosen verbs such as “drowned,” “vexed,” and “reel” carry the tone of impending doom while pushing the reader forward to the poem’s climax.” Keats’ technique maximalizes on God cannot save us because God is not here. God can no longer help us because we have flown so far away from Him we cannot hear him. We have flown so far away from our religious foundation we don’t even know where to begin to get back to it.
In the third stanza of his poem, Keats says,
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?
Allen interprets, “After twenty centuries of religious equality urged by Christ the Lamb, a cataclysmic and leveling social anarchy is about to be loosed upon the world by Christ the Lion.” Keats uses this closing to remind his audience that our society cannot exist without discipline. After attempts at religious equality, Christ has returned to create violent upheaval. Because Christ is returning in this cataclysmic manner, “Westerners thus await a new incarnation whose interest will not be humankind’s salvation but rather its subjugation.” (Edwards) Society is already becoming enslaved by bloodshed and machinery. Keats recognizes this and warns that eventually we will be enslaved entirely by our worst nightmares. He reminds us that if society cannot find discipline through religion and society when it is about to spin out of control and the good lack the conviction to make it right, only something horribly terrifying can take control.
Yeats ends the poem with a question mark. The question mark emphasized that there are no answers. We do not know what the horrifying beast will be or what type of terror it will inflict on society. Yeats’ poem is a powerful, emotional attempt to strike fear into society and make the question: What is going to happen to us? If the best the ones capable of saving society do not find their conviction, society is damned to the wrath of the beast. Yeats warns that the Second Coming will not be Jesus returning to take his followers home, but rather a beast that will take society into its own hands and inflict pain to all.
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