William Butler Yeats's "The Second Coming" is a short poem that blisters with apocalyptic ominousness. Its first line, "turning and turning in the widening gyre," locates the whole poem inside an expanding gyre, or spiral, making it clear that something is moving and changing, and the world will never be the same.
The poem's second line zooms from that gigantic, unclear beginning straight into a very specific and symbolic image—the falcon, which has lost touch with its falconer. This line essentially implies that the "falcon," which likely represents humanity, has become detached from its "falconer," some sort of controller or holder that once kept it in order. Now the falcon is roaming free.
Lines three through six describe collapse and turmoil, a dissolution of order and a rising tide of violence and revolution without cause. Innocence and rituals celebrating purity have been destroyed, and a wave of violence is washing over the land, drowning everything in its path. In the seventh and eighth lines, Yeats mourns that the best people have become silent and resigned to their fate, while villains are the ones in power, speaking the loudest and caring the most about their causes.
In the second half of the poem, Yeats looks beyond the present into the future. He has taken stock of all that is going on, and he knows that certainly something large must be happening—all this chaos cannot be accidental; it must be part of an event of apocalyptic proportions. This must be a Second Coming, he thinks—this must be an apocalypse like the one predicted in the Bible's Book of Revelations.
Something about the words "The Second Coming" sends the speaker spiraling into a sort of dream state. He falls out of his physical self and gains contact with the Spiritus Mundi, or the world-soul or collective consciousness, which Yeats believed each person has access to in some part of his mind. This collective consciousness is full of strange, ancient, mythological images, and a few mythological archetypes appear to Yeats in this surreal dream space. He sees a desert in his mind's eye, and observes a lion with a man's head, also known as a sphinx, moving slowly around the desert, while angry, fearful birds flutter around, casting shadows on the sand.
Then Yeats finds himself suddenly back in his own body and mind, out of this surreal, dreamlike scene. But he has seen something he cannot forget: something is happening now, something that will shake the world to its foundation. The world has been sleeping for two thousand years, he thinks, but something is brewing, something terrible, and it is on its way, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
"The Second Coming" is about a rapidly changing world, altered forever by violence and chaos. The poem's first line, which mentions a "widening gyre," refers to Yeats' belief (which he expanded on in a later book called A Vision) that the world was created by a series of interlocking circles, spinning into each other and winding around each other to catalyze existence. The poem's first line implies that something is turning and changing within the universe. This first line serves to create a sense of mystery from the poem's very beginning; it is obscure and complex, ominous withholding of any clues about what might be happening. It also expands the poem's scale, making it clear that the poem is really addressing events on a cosmological scale.
With high stakes and a cosmological scale established in the first line, the poem goes on to deepen this ambiguity in the second line. At first glance, it appears to mourn the fact that the "falcon," or humanity, has been separated from its falconer—from its God or ethics or morals. On the other hand, Yeats expressed his admiration for wild birds in other poems, like "The Wild Swans at Coole," and certainly he himself was uninterested in convention and order, having broken from his Christian upbringing to pursue occult leanings. He was even expelled from the London Theological Society because he refused to follow their rules. Usually, people interpret "The Second Coming" as mourning the loss of order, in which case the falcon's being separated from the falconer would be an example of this collapse. But perhaps, through this line, Yeats is implying that the Second Coming means that the falcon is at last free—and the world has broken from its past traditions of convention and restraint, and it can move into a new era, discovering new freedoms and new possibilities.
In the third line, the phrase "the centre cannot hold" implies that the core or heart of the world is falling apart, so something once seen as fundamental to the world is changing forever. Yeats uses the word "loosed" twice to describe the onset of the violent changes occurring, evoking an uncontrollable burst of fury; something is coming unfurled, unclenched, opening, falling, melting—slouching. A collapse is coming. This could lead to a new coming-together, a new unity; but most likely will lead to uncontrollable, possibly dangerous, possibly liberating changes.
Many Yeats scholars believe that this poem is specifically about the Russian Revolution of 1917, also known as the Bolshevik Revolution, which resulted in a bloody seven-year war that paved the way for the rise of the Communist party in Russia; it also certainly has echoes of World War I, which rocked the world to its core. But perhaps Yeats could see even further. Perhaps he could somehow sense the coming of further wars and violences—World War II, the atomic bomb, technologies that would reshape the world from the ground up. He knew the world would never be the same after the 20th century, and it certainly is not.
Yeats gives a name to this whole series of events, placing them under the umbrella of a "Second Coming." But instead of a second appearance of Christ, this event will be a birth of a creature as significant as Christ, who will completely alter the state of the world just as Christ did—but who will operate in a completely different way than the world has been operating since Christ arrived and civilization began to form.
The second half of the poem finds Yeats delving into mythological imagery through occult methods. Yeats believed that all humans share a common, vast memory, populated by universal archetypes and myths. This collective consciousness or Spiritus Mundi, also described as the Oversoul by Carl Jung, is the source of the bizarre, apocalyptic imagery that leads the poem to its conclusion. The speaker descends into a bizarre vision, observing a sphinx staring cruelly at him in a desert, moving its thighs slowly and almost sexually, perhaps offering him the clues to understanding what is happening around him while also embodying primal, ancient ways of being and creative, fertile energies that represent a potential union and rebirth.
When he reemerges from the vision, the speaker reenters reality, having totally departed from it temporarily. The poem ends where it began: in a haze of ominous foreshadowing, the specter of a looming monster of the future rapidly approaching, the universe spinning and growing into something different than it was. Whether that future is an evil mess of pure chaos, or whether it will offer some sort of freedom and possibility, remains undecided.