“The only living man whose work has morethan a most temporary interest” Ezra PoundWilliamButler Yeats (1865-1939), probably the greatest English poet of the twentiethcentury whose unusual creative potential was readily apparent as a young man,especially to his Irish contemporaries.He showed a great affinity towards mystical abstraction. His poetry ischaracterized by its intense lyricism, its use of symbolism, its sensuous beauty,precision and realism. Yeats is torn between excitement at the possibility ofrevelation and horror at the destruction and barbarism that accompany it whenhe wrote “The Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan”.
The poems he wrote afterwinning the Nobel Prize in 1923 are from the crushing power of the tower to theeerie mysticism, they stood as a testament to the force and commitment withwhich he devoted himself for transforming his inner-self into poetry.“TheSecond Coming” was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War(1914-1918) and was first published in the American Magazine the Dial in November 1920. Later it wasincluded in the collection entitled MichaelRobartes and the Dancer (1921). It was written at a time when Yeats waspuzzled by violence displayed by events like the Easter Rebellion of 1916, theIrish Civil War that followed it and the European Great World War of 1914 to1918. And in terms, of his philosophy of history a new age in the world’shistory was going to begin. “The Second Coming” written with the Irishtroubles, the Great War and other troubles in mind and displaying hisphilosophy of A Vision which he wasto formulate and organize in 1925. His reputation as a leading cultural figurewas established through this poem.
Thepoem having a pessimistic overtone is a dramatized presentation of Yeats’scyclical theory of the historical process, according to which humancivilization moves forward in antithetical or dialectical epochs, each of approximatelytwo thousand years’ duration. The break-up of Graeco-Roman culture and the‘Babylonian mathematical starlight’ came to an end with the coming up of theChristian civilization which began around 2000 B.C.
Yeats poetically predictedand foretold in a 1936 letter to his friend about the rise of a rough beast ora new messiah that manifested as chaos and raising in the form of Nazism andFascism. This sphinx- like creature typified the characteristics of the futurecivilization.Thegloomy prognostication of the future was provoked by the political anarchy inIreland, the unsettled state of Europe generally and especially the Bolshevikrevolution in Russia.
‘Manuscripts in Mrs. Yeats’s possession show how large apart the world situation of 1918-1919 played in its conception and growth’ (Stallworthy,p.17). The theory of history or each cycle of history is imagined by the poetas a circular or spiral turn or ‘gyre’. The close of one cycle is followed bythe birth of another. A gyre is a combination of line and plane, and as one tendency or theother must always be stronger, the gyre is always expanding or contracting. Thegyre is drawn as a cone which sometimes represents the individual soul and itshistory, or general life. At the end ofeach age, the base of the cone widens.
As it gets wider even the center failsto control its movements which is given in the poem as:Thingsfall apart; the centre cannot holdTheimage of the falcon which is out of the falconer’s control should not belocalized, it can be seen as an image of man loose from Christ. Thecivilization of the poem’s period began with Christ at the point of the cone,and the gyre which then began has almost reached its fullest expansion.(Jeffares)Thefalcon was originally hawk; the hawk is familiar as one of Yeats’s favouriteemblems. The spirit of man has lost contact with tradition, wisdom, control; acivilization is passing and the antithetical age is at hand. (Henn, p.
143)InBetween the Lines, John Stallworthyregards Yeats’s falcon as the pride of the intellect. For at least one momentthe poet planned to introduce the visionary second coming with ‘a gloomy birdof prey’.ChinuaAchebe chose the title for his work from the third line of “The Second Coming”as Things Fall Apart. Achebeopted the title from this poem because of the similarities like the twocultures are in disarray and ready for dramatic change. In fact, Achebe alsoincluded four lines from Yeats’ poem prior to chapter one:Turningand turning in the widening gyreThefalcon cannot hear the falconer;Thingsfall apart; the center cannot hold;Mereanarchy is loosed upon the world.Yeastsemployed many symbols and images to portray the deadening hardships of the erathat eventually leads to the complexity of the poem. ‘Falcon’ is a symbol thatloses hold of Christian doctrine and teaching, bringing to a close to theChristian phase of human history.
‘Theceremony of innocence’ symbolizes order, the innocence of childhood and theinnate purity of the human heart which occurs in A Prayer for My Daughter. The ‘Spiritus Mundi’ also called ‘AnimaMundi’ is the spirit or soul of the universe. Individual souls are connected toit through the ‘Great Memory’, a reservoir of subconscious memories of thehuman race. For Yeats it is the source of symbols. The ‘stony sleep’ is an echoor an unconscious borrowing from Blake’s TheFirst Book of Urizen. The sphinx, in Greek legend, is a monster with awoman’s bust on a lion’s body. It was believed to stray into Thebes, poseriddles to the Thebans and devour them if they failed to resolve them.
In his definitive editions of Yeats’spoems Richard J Finneran quotesYeats’s own notes. The poem consists of twenty-two lines in twoverse paragraphs. The first is of eight lines and the other is of fourteenlines. This renders a rather imbalanced feeling of the poem, giving moreimportance to one than the other. It is relevant to acknowledge that Yeats’spoems follow a definite stanzaic pattern. Yeats introduces more general termsinto this poem such as ‘anarchy’, ‘the ceremony of innocence’, ‘the good’, and‘the worst’.
The poem is written in blank-verse pattern in a very rough iambicpentameter, but the meter is so loose.Thetitle of the poem directly refers to an allusion to the Christian expectationof Christ’s second coming as predicted in the New Testament of the Bible.However, it indirectly hints at the arrival of a rough beast which is thebinary opposite to the Christ. The “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem isthe symbol of this new age. The speaker’s vision of the rising sphinx is Hisvision of the character of the new world. The poem is a magnificent statementabout the contrary forces that work in history and about the conflict betweenthe modern world and the ancient world.
The aesthetic experience of itspassionate language is powerful enough to ensure its value and its importancein Yeats’s work as a whole.