How does "The Second Coming" reflect the historical context of the time in which it was written?
"The Second Coming" was written just after World War I, and it was also a reaction to the Irish War of Independence and the Bolshevik Revolution. These were ideological conflicts that questioned the very fabric of civilization. The Bolshevik Revolution was a rebellion, led by Lenin, which dismantled the Tsarist autocracy and led to the rise of the Soviet Union. This revolution followed World War I, another conflict that disrupted established national boundaries and international order.
The poem was also written when Ireland was being torn apart by civil war. Yeats wrote passionately and frequently about conflict, especially conflict in Ireland, and was particularly fearful of mob rule, of the sort that elected totalitarian governments in Russia and Italy.
Throughout his career, Yeats continued to write about the rise and fall of civilizations, lamenting both the inconsistency and disorder of the time period in which he lived and also the bitterness and disillusionment that haunted so many people during this time. This war of ideals—jadedness and love, fear and hope—rose out of a tumultuous time in history, and inspired the tension, confusion, and emotional intensity that characterizes "The Second Coming".
How (and why) does "The Second Coming" use mythology and ancient themes to express the onset of modernity?
"The Second Coming" is a poem that operates like a circle, and so in some ways it ends where it began. By using mythological themes like a reference to Latin (with "Spiritus Mundi") and to a sphinx to represent the oncoming future, Yeats is implying that Christianity's reign is ending and so the world is settling back into a primal, pagan state like the one it existed in before the rise of Christianity and modern civilization. Mythology in this poem represents polytheistic religions and an absence of structure and order.
Describe Yeats's "The Second Coming" in relationship to several works it has inspired. Why has "The Second Coming" persisted in the popular imagination?
"The Second Coming" has inspired several works including Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Joan Didion's essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." Achebe's Things Fall Apart describes an apocalyptic, world-changing series of events—but instead of focusing on the West's own internal collapse, like Yeats's original poem, it focuses on the West's encroachment on Africa. In Achembe's novel, the West and colonialism are the "rough beasts" which come in a bloody tide to change the world forever.
Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" is the title of a series of essays describing her experiences in the 1960s, living in San Francisco's Height-Ashbury district during the hippie renaissance, dealing with her own existential concerns. It focuses on the large-scale implications of the counterculture, which questioned predesigned orders and also created chaos, as well as moral questions of modernity and consumerism.
Both of these works riff on Yeats's original dark prophetic vision, bending it to comment on their own times and histories while sharing in its sense of dread and fear.
Yeats's "The Second Coming" has remained so popular because it manages to put into words the existential horror of existing in a world where news reports show headlines describing unspeakable violence every day. It expresses a universal fear of change and disconnection, and it has become more relevant as time has gone on and technology and new forms of violence continue to disrupt old structures of order. It also manages to express the hope and possibility that can be implicit in these new structures and in new frames of mind.
Is the "rough beast" necessarily an evil thing?
The "rough beast" seems to be evil, but a closer read reveals that it could also be a very positive thing as well, leading to creation out of destruction. After all, Yeats never overtly says that the rough beast is a bad thing. He says that what is happening in the world in the present—the tides of violence, the destruction of innocence—are bad things, but they could be indicative of a death that will lead to rebirth. The world could be destroying itself in order to be reborn in Bethlehem, and all of the violence could be a tide that is really like the Biblical flood that destroyed the world (except for Noah and his ark) so it could be recreated and made better.
Yeats's lack of moral judgment in the poem is one of its most profound characteristics. Yeats did not believe that any civilizations were better than others, and in "A Vision," he wrote, "The historian talks of Greece as an advance of Persia, of Rome as something or other in advance of Greece... I upon the other hand, must think all civilizations equal at their best."
After all, the original coming of Christ must have seemed "monstrous and terrifying to those whose superstition it supersedes," wrote the critic Leonard Nathan. Christianity's rise did lead to the demise of ancient traditions and whole civilizations. Perhaps the "rough beast" will ultimately become the revered savior of a new world.
People are naturally resistant to change, but in a world that is a "widening gyre," a moving, cycling organism, change is inevitable.