The Second Coming

The Second Coming Video

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Watch the illustrated video summary of the poem, The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats.

Video Transcript:

“The Second Coming" is a poem written by William Butler Yeats in 1919, just after World War I. While the poem references the second coming of Jesus depicted in the Bible, it presents a far darker vision of humanity’s path, not towards salvation but towards chaos.

Reflecting his generation’s sense of disillusionment after the war, Yeats’ poem went on to influence several other major literary works, from Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” to Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Yeats’ poem consists of two stanzas and begins with the phrase "Turning and turning in the widening gyre.” Yeats believed that the universe was comprised of interlocking circles, or gyres, which signify chaos building towards an inflection point that will fundamentally change the course of humanity. In other words, towards the second coming.

In this new world order, “the falcon cannot hear the falconer,” and “the centre cannot hold.” With these metaphors, Yeats portrays society as having navigated away from its core tenets. Civilization has shifted off-course, away from order and common good, and towards chaos and alienation.

Part of this alienation is that, as Yeats puts it, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned / the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” Here, Yeats refers to the rise of the political movements and morally bankrupt leaders that led his generation’s disenchantment. This disillusionment would only build with World War II as the public lacked all faith in a unifying moral code.

Yeats’ second stanza concludes that a “revelation is at hand,” or that one era is ending and another one—perhaps an uglier—is beginning. “Hardly are those words out,” Yeats writes, when he receives a vision of the figure that will bring about this new, perverse chapter: a “rough beast” with a “lion body and the head of a man” and a “gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun…slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” This image is Yeats’ figure for the antichrist. In this alternative to the Biblical second coming—Yeats version of the apocalypse—it is not Jesus but his antithesis that comes down to earth.