The Ideology in W. B. Yeats's "The Second Coming"
In "The Second Coming", Yeats produces his own ideology about human civilization from the bases of Christianity and paganism. He views human civilization as a recurring system. A civilization will die out after two thousand years of development, and another new civilization will take over. While the old civilization is at its end and the new one is about to come, according to Yeats, the world will be in complete disorder. In other words, a civilization begins and ends as well in chaos, which is portrayed vividly in this poem.
The title of this poem, "The Second Coming" refers to Jesus Christ's Second Coming to the world. Christians believes that Jesus Christ will physically return to the world to be the ruler. However, in this poem, it does not refer to Jesus Christ; instead, Yeats implicates a beast is about to wake and take over the world after its "twenty centuries of stony sleep." Yeats totally reverses a hopeful view of the Second Coming into an intimidating picture of a beast slouching to Bethlehem. He is suggesting the end of the Christian civilization and another one which is presented in the pagan shape, sphinx, is coming.
The poem begins with the losing control of the world: "Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Yeats believes that human civilization functions in the form of a gyre. When one gyre is reaching its loosening end, another gyre is forming at the same time, and it is the situation of this poem.
Also, the "widening gyre" suggests that a centrifugal force; the falconer is losing the power of making the falcon fly back in accordance with his whistle. Here the falcon and the falconer may represent three kinds of relationships, respectively, man-Christ, world-man, and man's soul-man. Human beings are going farther and farther away from Christ. Many things generated by man are against Christian values, for example, wars; and thus, Christ cannot be heard. Besides, the world is out of man' s control and goes inharmoniously. Moreover, man cannot take control of his own soul either. The soul deteriorates in the chaotic world.
Yeats lists out various negative images of the disordered world in the first stanza. The first image is mentioned in the previous paragraph, and the second one indicates the centerlessness of the world: "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." everything falls apart, and the bonds are lost. Even the governments are too powerless to hold the center of the world and guide it back to its usual and normal course. Then, the following image of "the blood-dimmed tide" could be the implication of wars because the dimmed blood suggests people died of wounds. "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed" forms a horrible scene that the world is swept and even covered by blood. The poem is written in 1919, so here this image may be Yeats's view about the First World War, which is a catastrophic experience for all the human beings. The tide of blood even drowns the "ceremony of innocence" which represents baptism. It implies the decline of Christianity and corresponds to the idea that Christ is losing the control of people. Furthermore, it shows that the chance for purification is no longer exists, and man will remain sinful for good. Also, the idea of drowning may refer to the man's collective memory of flood, which represents the end of the world. The final image of the chaos is: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" which shows the rise and fall of the two contrast power. The best becomes weak while the worst becomes overwhelming. The evil is so rampant that people stop believing in good values. Moreover, not only the images in the first stanza present the disarrayed world but also the rhymes show the losing of the control. The rhyme of the first four lines is slant rhyme, and the final four lines doníŽt rhyme at all.
The first stanza presents a chaotic world without hope; however, at the beginning at the second stanza, a slight hope seems to be revealed by the assurance of "the second coming is at hand." Yet, the speaker turns out to be fear of the second coming because of "a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi" which is another Yeats's ideology, meaning the spirit of the earth. What bothers the speaker is "somewhere in sands of the desert / A shape with lion body ad the head of a man" which refers to a sphinx-like beast, implicating the declined civilization in Egypt. Here, Yeats suggests that Christianity is going to be replaced by paganism which offers no comfort for the speaker. Also, the image of the desert that connotes lifelessness and desolation corresponds to the idea of the end of the world filled with bleakness. "A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," shows that the beast is as indifferent and unsympathetic as the desert sun. The beast is "moving its slow thighs," metaphorically saying that it is sexually awakened and is about to take actions and is accompanied by the "indignant desert birds" which eat the dead and are usually associated with death. The appearance of the desert birds shows the apparent possibility of death in the form of "reel shadow," suggesting the overwhelming dark power.
With the coming the sphinx-like beast, the speaker is aware of the beginning of a new civilization. He feels the wonder and ecstatic horror about its coming. "The darkness drops again" here the word, "again," again relates to Yeats's idea of the cycling civilization which begins and ends with disorder. The beast is awakened from the "twenty centuries of stony sleep" which also corresponds to his idea of human civilization of twenty centuries as a cycle. "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" these two lines indicate that the Second Coming does not refer to Jesus Christ who is going to bring order to the world. However, what is going to be born is the opposite of Christ, a beast, and it will bring disorder and destruction to the world. Yeats's use of the holy land of Christianity, Bethlehem, as the birthplace of the beast again reinforces his view of the declining Christian civilization because the holy land is going to take over by a pagan beast.
The poem ends with a question. It possibly shows the speaker's anxiety and uncertainty about the coming new civilization, but, paradoxically, he may also feel excited, anticipating a new order to be established. There is no certain answer to his question. However, it is certain that Yeats expresses his worry about the world after WWI and the turbulent political state in Ireland and in the mean time skillfully conveys his ideology of civilization in the poem.