Yeats Message of Inescapable Doom

4 12 2008

In case anyone is a literary nut, this is my paper on Yeats for my final paper of Poetry Writing at UA.  I liked it, its a bit dry, and its 6 pages.  If you like this kind of thing, knock yourself out, then comment and critique me. I like it, it helps me think better.

Jacob Summers

EN 366-001


Essay II:

Yeats’ Message of an Inescapable Apocalypse in “The Second Coming”

Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is a warning that the world is approaching a new apocalyptic meltdown – and that there is nothing that can be done about it. Furthermore, he insists that it is both necessary and has happened before with similar intents and similar results. Based on minimal biographical references (in order not to assume meaning not readily discernable in the poem), Yeats may have been predicting World War II, based on the timing of the creation of the poem: immediately after World War I.

First, Yeats is telling us that the world is approaching a new apocalyptic meltdown. This is accomplished in four ways – use of heavy language, use of cryptic language, the direct message that something is coming and the use of disturbing images. In these ways, he builds a three-dimensional picture with the core message that “it’s coming.” The message is an ancient and visceral one built on our own fears and the three-dimensional picture plays off images that we have been fed through ancient stories, poetry, religious contexts and contemporary media. Therefore, using our own conventions and at the same time writing in a matter that puzzles us, Yeats is able to compel us to fear our own apocalyptic doom.

To begin to see this picture, Yeats uses his first dimension of storytelling and poetry writing: heavy-worded language throughout this poem. The presence of heavy language indicates that there is a heavy message which must be told using heavy language, just as a poem about beauty must be told using words that recall beauty. Examples of this heavy language are “Things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold.” These convey heavy messages – messages we cannot easily accept – that destruction is at the heart of most things and therefore inevitable. Furthermore, other phrases like the last two lines of the first stanza indicate even heavier messages – that we are in fact the cause of the inner turmoil and destruction:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

are full of passionate intensity.”

Next, Yeats compounds this dread of self-inflicted destruction by using his second dimension of storytelling and poetry – use of ancient cryptic language tells us that the heavy message is ancient and well understood, but not easily defined. This is consistent with most prophetic religious texts or works of art. The reader has been hit with the message that destruction is inevitable for all things including him. Now he is led to believe he is the reason. Also, instead of offering a solution, some hope or even silence, Yeats has added hidden meanings, cryptic language and obscure religious references to confuse and compound things:

“Surely some revelation is at hand;
surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
when a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi”

For most of the culture in which Yeats grew up, the world revelation was almost certainly a reference to the revelations of the Christian Bible – in which there is an entire book dedicated to and named “Revelations.” The reader would then use this frame of reference with ease and necessity when reading the next line with the phrase “the Second Coming.” After all, few things are referred to as a coming in anything outside of a prophetic or Biblical sense and most of the time, nothing is worthy of the being called a first coming. Surely few things are drastic enough to be followed up with a second coming – in which case something important might be back referenced as a first coming. So naturally, these things are either clearly Biblical (which still makes them highly cryptic, as many great scholars struggle with the ideologies of the Bible), they are of no specific reference and conjured up for the sake of the poem or they are references to some other source material not readily known or understood by most readers. This makes any reading of this intentionally cryptic, which compounded with the fear of inevitable destruction, means the poem is foreboding.

Next, for understanding the final of Yeats’ three dimensional tools in this poem (graphic and violent images), it is important to realize something – the previous tools tell us that the message is “something is coming.” After all, as concluded at the end of the first two tools, the poem is foreboding. Foreboding, simply defined, warns of something yet to occur – either in physical, mental, spiritual or literary form. If we are to keep with the word choice used, it is Biblical in nature. It may not be something actually predicted or revealed in the Bible… but rather something like the prophecies of Revelations. After all, Yeats never directly mentions anything that is strictly Biblical – he has been cryptic and heavy to this point and drawn on the connotations of “revelations” and “the second coming.” However, he has done so without mentioning the name of Christ, God or any key characters or stories of the Bible. In fact, he even wrote “Surely some revelation is at hand,” not “Surely Revelations is at hand.” Neither does he write “were vexed to nightmare by Christ’s cradle,” he writes “were vexed to nightmare by rocking cradle.”

Finally, Yeats’ third three-dimensional tool (use of graphic and violent images) tells us that whatever is coming is going to disturb us and remove us from our sense of order. This is easily found in the first several lines:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
the falcon cannot hear the falconer;
things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;”

Two things are accomplished here: we are told that our sense of order (followers obeying their masters, materials with a natural center and law) will all deteriorate. This is a point established through both the first three dimensional tool (heavy language) and this, the third tool (disturbing images). To drive the point home that whatever is coming will be worthy of the disturbance of our hearts caused by fear – we are given imagery like “the blood-dimmed tide” and “the ceremony of innocence” – images that are violent and imply something intimate and almost sexual (the word innocence in this sense implies a depravation of innocence).

Therefore, when we combine this horror with the message that everything will inevitably destruct as a result of our own apathy and that it is so cryptic and ancient in nature that it cannot be easily understood (and is therefore nearly if not completely unavoidable), we are led to the natural conclusion that this is nothing short of an apocalypse – and a second one at that. The definition of apocalypse does not strictly limit it to complete obliteration of its targets, therefore rendering it a compatible term and allowing it to indicate that however powerful it was the first time – it nearly obliterated us and that a second coming is nothing short of devastating.

Additionally, along with the message that the end is coming and that it is futile to attempt to change this fate, Yeats tells us that the end is, in fact, necessary. He even indicates that it has been used before to enact the same results it seeks to enact now:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst

are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;”

Here, it is as though he seems to wish for revelation: “surely some revelation is at hand to correct such thing as apathy in the best of man” he seems to be shouting. He goes on to cry out for this revelation:

“Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

Finally, he makes a reference to this happening in the past:

“That twenty centuries of stony sleep

were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

and what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

After all, if in fact this rough beast is awaken, then it must have at one point been awake before and fallen to sleep – it is here in the mention of millennia along with the brief hint of “gyre” at the beginning of the poem that indicates that this is, in fact, a cycle.

Of the last points to be made about this poem, I firmly believe that Yeats is trying to tell us of an impending World War. He has just seen the first World War and knows the political tensions of his time. And surely, after the destruction of the first, a second one would destroy even further resources, he might believe (based on his vantage point). If not for the fact that he wrote this between World Wars I and II, then this might be true due to a direct reference in the phrase “Spiritus Mundi” or “world spirit.” This could mean something religious, or it could imply that “world” tensions are so high that further (and possibly final) destruction is inevitable.

The Second Coming is no doubt ancient, cryptic and religious. But the key message that not all readers might believe present is that Yeats is warning of an apocalyptic future brought on by ourselves and which is inescapable. This destruction may in fact even be cyclical and necessary and have happened once (if not several times) already. This is accomplished through very specific word usage and minimal social context, relying on conventionally superstitious and religious images. In this way, Yeats shows his poetic mastery in using our own conscious and subconscious tools to incite an emotional reaction in us that runs deeper than happiness or awe of poetic works.




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