Featured Image: WB Yeats, Poetry Foundation from Chicago History Museum

The Second Coming WB Yeats

In Books, The rest, Ireland by tony1 Comment

Featured Image: WB Yeats, Poetry Foundation from Chicago History Museum

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  4 February 2018

The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats — a muse on literature


Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!

Epitaph on Yeats grave, Drumcliff, County Sligo

When I was living in Derry, I stopped at Yeats’ grave a couple of times on my way down the west coast. My memory of it was coloured by the season — terribly cold, grim and isolated.

We passed by in 2014, travelling up the west coast in an unlikely Indian summer. The grave was no longer isolated, nasty strip developments along the highway had almost caught up with it. The site was pleasant, warm and sunny with stunning views of the escarpment.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was born in Ireland and died in France. His remains were exhumed and moved to Ireland in 1948.

Yeats was a sublime poet. WH Auden, himself the most regarded English poet of his generation, assigned Yeats the high praise of having written ‘some of the most beautiful poetry’ of modern times, in a 1948 Kenyon Review essay entitled ‘Yeats as an Example’ (The Poetry Foundation).

Some critics claim that Yeats spanned the transition from the nineteenth century into twentieth-century modernism in poetry much as Pablo Picasso did in painting, while others say he has little in common with the other modernist poets (Wikipedia).

He was a Symbolist poet, using allusive imagery and symbolic structures throughout his career. He chose words and assembled them so that, in addition to a particular meaning, they suggest abstract thoughts that may seem more significant and resonant (Wikipedia).

Yeats led a messy life and held some strange, even outlandish ideas. His almost unrequited love for Maud Gonne, for example, seems rather foolish, though perhaps creatively stimulating. Yeats Irish Nationalism was a product of this love, whereas his natural political inclinations were conservative, sympathetic to the aristocracy, authoritarian and verging in later life on fascism.

He also had a lifelong interest in mysticism, spiritualism and occultism. WH Auden called it the deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India (Wikipedia).

Wikipedia and The Poetry Foundation have quite good long summaries of Yeats life and work (see Further Information).

WB Yeats, Wikimedia

WB Yeats, Wikimedia

Some people confuse an artist’s works with his/her life and actions. It is immaterial whether a person is nice, foolish or deplorable. It is the work that counts. Ideally one should read or view things without knowing anything about the artist, then perhaps, if one finds the work or works engaging, one might want to find more about the person. In the visual arts this is not always possible, as some art requires interpretation in order to appreciate it. But, a knowledge of the artist’s life is secondary and whether he or she is a nasty person is irrelevant as far as appreciating the art is concerned.

Les Murray (born 1938) is a wonderful Australian poet, who has also been involved in cultural controversy. The latter neither demeans nor enhances his poetry.

The Second Coming

During the aftermath of the First World War, Yeats became sceptical about the efficacy of democratic government, and anticipated political reconstruction in Europe through totalitarian rule. His later association with [Ezra] Pound drew him towards Benito Mussolini, for whom he expressed admiration on a number of occasions. He wrote three ‘marching songs’ — never used — for the Irish General Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts (Wikipedia).

Yeats wrote The Second Coming in 1919.

Wikpedia also mentions that the poem was written at the beginning of the Irish War for Independence that followed the Easter Rising, but before the British Government sent the Black and Tans into Ireland. Yeats also used the phrase ‘the second birth’ instead of the second coming in his first drafts.

The poem uses Christian imagery regarding the Apocalypse and Second Coming allegorically to describe the atmosphere of post-war Europe. The poem is considered a major work of Modernist poetry. (Wikipedia).

Wikipedia also says: Modernists read the well-known poem ‘The Second Coming’ as a dirge for the decline of European civilisation, but it also expresses Yeats’s apocalyptic mystical theories, and is shaped by the 1890s.

SparkNotes (a school/college primer) gives a conventional overview of Yeats Poetry and Andrew Spacey in Letterpile (a literary blog) undertakes the difficult task of analysing The Second Coming and does a good job of it. Both are worth reading.

The Second Coming by WB Yeats

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; 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity. 


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 

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   

The darkness drops again; but now I know   

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? 

Andrew Spacey’s Overview

A 22 line poem, two stanzas, in free verse, with loose iambic pentameter (mostly five stresses and ten syllables per line but there are variations), The Second Coming is one of the more successful non rhyming poems Yeats wrote.

WB Yeats, by Alice Boughton, 1903, Wikimedia

WB Yeats, by Alice Boughton, 1903, Wikimedia

As you read through, note the change in rhythm and texture as the narrative alters. For the whole of the first stanza and some of the second, the speaker is objectively describing events. It’s as if there’s a running commentary on something profound happening inside the speaker’s mind.

Only at lines 12/13 is the speaker’s mask taken off:

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight:

And again at line 18:

The darkness drops again; but now I know

Only when the vast image is seen (through the mind’s eye?) does the speaker come alive, to put two and two together. The cycles that underpin spiritual existence have come round again: a creature somewhat like a sphinx is on the move, disturbing the desert birds as it slouches towards a symbolic Bethlehem.

The first stanza is full of dramatic verbs: turning, widening, fall apart, loosed, drowned, giving the impression of a system out of control. Note the first word is repeated to accentuate the idea of the falcon’s action as it flies away from the falconer. Later on it will evolve into a very different creature.

 Because of the dire situation established in the first stanza, some kind of fateful release is triggered. The result is the emergence of a sphinx-like figure from the World Soul, the Vital Spirit. It’s on its way to the spiritual headquarters to be born. Just like the Christ child was 2000 years ago.

Specific Lines

Turning and turning in the widening gyre and the reference to the falcon is reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins The Windhover though Yeats is much more economical in his imagery. The dramatic verbs and phrases, the repetition: the action is visual but also metaphysical. Almost every phrase is evocative.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer is an incredibly powerful description of a problem — that control is being lost. Who is the falconer? God, commonsense, leadership, the gyre or the spiritus mundi.

Gyre is a mystical term for Yeats, it means spiral or vortex, a geometrical shape, fundamental to a cyclical view of world history. Spiritus mundi may mean World Spirit or Soul or World Wisdom.

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

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? 

The sphinx/lion slouches on disturbing desert birds. This other most evocative image comes in the last two lines of the poem balancing the first two lines, but there are others almost everywhere, for example, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.

The most quoted lines from The Second Coming

Four lines seem most significant to many people. These seem to evoke a prescience that directly applies to our particular problem and time. I have been guilty of this too because the lines seem most apt to our current situation at the time, but they are not. The problem is that the current situation is in the eye of the beholder and the lines are always pertinent.

These most often quoted lines are:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,


[And] The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

The middle two lines may be included or omitted.

This is the power of Yeats. I was listening to the radio this week, ABC Radio National in Australia, but not paying enough attention to identify the program. The Middle East expert was defining the evolving situation over the past few years: the growing conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam, Syria and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Israel and Donald Trump’s acceptance of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. The expert then quoted these four lines from Yeats. It seemed so apposite. A huge revelation.

The power of poetry

The power and evocativeness of the images constructed by poetry are both a blessing and a curse. WH Auden himself was criticized by George Orwell for the line:

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder (1937)

Auden was writing about the Spanish Civil War that Orwell had fought in and Orwell was unhappy with the two words: necessary murder and took Auden to task over them.

I’ve always been sympathetic to Orwell over this. Who could not be? Orwell honest and courageous is everyman’s conscience. I was even more so, when we undertook the civil war tour in Barcelona at the end of 2016 (a marvelous tour), where Orwell’s actions and absolute integrity in Barcelona were described in detail in locations where they happened.

Auden defended himself to Orwell, which is covered nicely in the blog Welding Vertebrae (a fine university poetry course blog, from Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey). However, Auden did eventually change the line because of Orwell’s criticism, to:

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the fact of murder. (1940)

An improvement in content, but a far weaker line of poetry.


Yeats The Second Coming is an incredibly powerful poem but is it relevant to the current day, or our situation, or the future? It is worth thinking about. Is it helpful outside the context of poetry?

WB Yeats 1923, Wikimedia

WB Yeats 1923, Wikimedia

I don’t know, but I think not.

The poem reminds me in this sense of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 1962. Kuhn set up an elegant theory of ‘normal science’ being replaced by a paradigm shift, when anomalies build up sufficiently to cause a revolution. But, like The Second Coming extrapolating Kuhn’s excellent ideas on the revolution in theoretical physics in one period, doesn’t really extend to a broader understanding of science in others.

Wikipedia perhaps provides the most definitive evidence to my contention, with a comment in the section on the influence the The Second Coming has had.

Wikipedia says: A 2016 analysis by Factiva (an Internet aggregation, research service) showed that lines from the poem were quoted more often in the first seven months of 2016 than in any of the preceding 30 years. The quotes were in the context of political turmoil after the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election, with commentators repeatedly invoking its lines: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

Although The Second Coming is a marvellous piece of poetry, its use to define the chaos of the world in contexts other than 1919 in Ireland has little meaning.

Having said this, its use is a fine marketing tool and may tend to imbue more meaning in whatever cause or analysis you are pushing. Its use can appear make the argument more compelling, cogent or impressive. I’ll probably be unable to resist the temptation myself, sometime in future.

George Orwell was certainly conscious that poetry matters. Hence, his dismay at WH Auden’s use of necessary murders. My advice on using The Second Coming to market ideas is also pertinent, but don’t delude yourself too. Remember, that you are faking it, for the greater good, of course!

Key Words: The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats, WH Auden, necessary murders, George Orwell, Maud Gonne, Les Murray, Symbolist poetThe Poetry Foundation, Andrew Spacey, Letterpile, Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Factiva

Further Information

In praise of randomness

I heard another ABC Radio National this week, a summer repeat on Big Ideas first-aired on 7 March 2017: a talk by Economist Tim Harford at the RSA on creativity and randomness.

Tim Harford showed that creativity can come better from mess (untidyness), painful difficulty and distraction. Tim says that randomness and distraction can be a good thing, not multi-tasking (which means doing everything badly) but being engaged in multiple projects and moving from one to another, or being easily distracted rather than focussed. He has written a book on the subject Messy: How to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world 2016.

I took encouragement from this for my paper-strewn desk, but I also decided to be more random in my blogging research from now on.

Mess makes you more creative and resilient

The power of disorder to transform our lives

Writing about The Second Coming arose from a random listening to the radio and only catching half of it. I’d already used The Second Coming spuriously, I now know, quite a few years back, concentrating on those four lines and ignoring the rest of the poem.

Some random research on the Internet uncovered four interesting blogs: The Poetry Foundation, Letterpile a fine literary blog (and Andrew Spacey), Welding Vertebrae an interesting English poetry course blog from Bilkent University in Turkey and even SparkNotes for instant course-note material.

I also managed to make huge associative leaps from The Second Coming to the Auden, Orwell contretemps over necessary murders and to Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (both of which I was aware of but had never linked to Yeats).


The Poetry Foundation

The Poetry Foundation

Andrew Spacey in Owlcation via Letterpile (a literary blog)

Andrew Spacey on The Second Coming



Welding Vertebrae Blog

Auden and Orwell and the ‘necessary murder’ question

About these Blogs

The Poetry Foundation

The Poetry Foundation About


Letterpile Blog

About us

Welcome to LetterPile.com! We are a site created by wordsmiths, bibliophiles, and writers—sharing our unique expertise and knowledge about the wonderful world of words. We offer articles ranging from a comparative analysis of Edgar Allan Poe to how the Peanuts comic strip got its first black character. If you’re looking for information that is writing or literature related, we are here for you!

Welding Vertebrae

Welding Vertebrae Blog


This blog accompanies the fourth-year English Language and Literature course on Twentieth-Century Poetry (ELIT 474). Both the course and the blog are run by Patrick Hart. Students on the course will contribute to the blog throughout the semester, and contributions will be assessed. Grades for contributions will constitute 30% of students’ final grades for the course. (Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey)

Overview of WB Yeats and Quotations


Wikipedia and The Poetry Foundation (above) have quite good long summaries of Yeats life and work.

The Poetry Foundation on Yeats

Wikipedia has a long and comprehensive article on Yeats’ Life with a short comment on style:


The quotations in the second section on WB Yeats come from the Poetry Foundation and the article on Yeats in Wikipedia

The Second Coming

The quotations referring to the poem including the introductory quotation to the section ‘The Second Coming’, the one on the ‘Blueshirts’ and, on Factiva’s analysis, all come from Wikipedia’s short article on the poem.

The section on Influence as well as relating the Factiva story, also says:

Phrases and lines from the poem are used in many works. Several novels, songs, TV episodes, and albums draw their title from “The Second Coming” (e.g. Chinua Achebe’s 1958 novel Things Fall ApartElyn Saks’s 2007 autobiography The Center Cannot HoldJoan Didion’s 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Robert B. Parker’s 1983 Novel The Widening Gyre).

Wikipedia on The Second Coming

Other Quotations

Auden’s high praise of Yeats, cited by in The Poetry Foundation and quoted in the section about WB Yeats, comes from WH Auden in the 1948 Kenyon Review essay entitled Yeats as an Example.

The entire essay can be found at the Kenyon Review site.


The Civil War Walking Tour in Barcelona

Nick Loyd’s captivating walking history lessons about the civil war and George Orwell in Barcelona are worth taking if you are ever in that city.

Summary review by Food Barcelona

Food Barcelona

Nick Lloyd’s Site

Spanish Civil War tours in Barcelona

Thomas Kuhn

Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions 1962

Wikipedia on Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions 1962

Kuhn based his theory on the transition caused by Einstein, Bohr and other theoretical physicists in the first third of the twentieth century.

Kuhn’s analysis is weak when one looks carefully at the early history of science or the development of science in other areas than physics. The development of experimental physics and the equipment necessary to validate the theoreticians doesn’t fit the pattern either. Kuhn does demolish, at least to my mind, the idea of falsifiability proposed by Karl Popper in the 1930s, which bedevils discussion of scientific method to this day.

Wikipedia on the Factiva analysis

A 2016 analysis by Factiva showed that lines from the poem were quoted more often in the first seven months of 2016 than in any of the preceding 30 years in the context of political turmoil after the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election with commentators repeatedly invoking its lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

There is a logic problem here in that Trump was not elected by July 2016. However, I suspect that had the Factiva analysis been extended beyond July the Wikipedia contention would hold true.

Wikipedia on The Second Coming

Wikipedia on Falsifiability

Popper’s ideas on falsifiability bedevilled discussion on the philosophy of science for years. These ideas have perhaps now been rejected finally but Kuhn at least popularised the rejection of Popper’s concept of falsifiability, which seems reasonable initially but becomes absurd once one examines it in detail.

Wikipedia on Falsifiability

Kuhn’s ideas surprisingly have had more influence on sociology, political science and macro-economics than on science, mainly in terms of justifying the methodological approach of those disciplines.

Recent developments, attacks on the credibility of science, casting doubt on science or making science supposedly debateable (e.g. by proponents of creationism and those casting doubt on tobacco’s harm, Star Wars, acid rain, the ozone hole, climate change etc.) have made scientists scramble to peer review as the defining characteristic of science. However, the idea peer review is not well-understood by the general public; as the philosophy of science and theories on the scientific method, are not well-understood by most scientists.


Readings of The Second Coming on YouTube (not brilliant)






  1. Fascinating post. Thanks. Relieved to know that mess and disorder are good for me! Sorry we missed the Civil War tour in Barcelona.

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