An inherent tension between stability and change is revealed through recurring images in Yeats’ poetry.
To what extent does your interpretation of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ and at least one other poem align with this view?
In your response, make detailed reference to ‘The Second Coming’ and at least ONE other poem set for study.
Note to students:
This question requires you to write about ‘The Second Coming’. Students are reminded that they are required to fully prepare all poems set for study in any elective, as the examiners can be very specific and name one or more poems that must be addressed in the answer.
Yeats had a distinctive world view that is evident in much of his poetry and explored through recurring imagery and motifs, as well as through language and ideas specific to individual poems. His views about civilization and change are expressed in ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘The Second Coming’ which, taken together, explore the beginning and the end of Western history in Yeats’ terms. Both poems look at the supernatural influence on human affairs, at a tipping point between stability and change. They consider human helplessness in the face of blind destiny, but also examine human acquiescence in the march of history. While they share features of language and structure, they also present ideas in ways particular to each poem.
It is historically evident that all civilizations are subject to cycles of growth and decay. Yeats was deeply engaged with how this happens and what are the catalysts that produce chaos from order. As an occultist, he believed that significant historical change was supernaturally driven and that signs were evident at the time of this interference to show the emergence of the new era. The rift between order and chaos, between stability and change, is shown structurally in both poems. In ‘The Second Coming’, the differences are shown within the lines and in the structure of the poem itself. It begins with a description of the fracture – the “falcon cannot hear the falconer” tells us that there is no controlling force, as does the disintegration described in the blunt “things fall apart” and “the centre cannot hold”. The “blood-dimmed tide” overwhelms “the ceremony of innocence” and the best and worst are compared, with neither being able to offer anything of value: those with possible answers “lack all conviction” and the will to do anything, while only those without understanding or answers have the conviction to act, the “passionate intensity”. The opening octet is a generalized picture of entropy. Yeats’ imagery and language are abstract and non-specific, to encompass global chaos as he saw it in 1919, including the aftermaths of World War I and the Russian Revolution, the disintegrating political situation in Ireland and social change throughout the Western world.
In the next fifteen lines of the poem, Yeats presents a specific picture of the supernatural “rough beast” that heralds a new historical age. The language here reinforces the troubled, fractious, conflicted spirit of the world in a time of upheaval. The image that “troubles” him is both human and beyond human, a man/lion combination of the supernatural, wakening after “twenty centuries of stony sleep” imposed on it by the Christian era. The turmoil of the world at large, which has been “vexed to nightmare”, is a sign of the coming age. This new era is neither Western nor Christian: the beast will be born in the Middle East, in Bethlehem, and the Sphinx-like image bears no relation to Christian iconography.
Discussion of ‘Leda and the Swan’ shows how the same ideas and techniques are used
There are many similarities with ‘Leda and the Swan’. Yeats also employs internal contrast in this poem to convey the tension between stability and change: the poem is told from Leda’s perspective, so we understand how she is affected by the immediacy of the rape, and also as a helpless human caught up in much bigger events. Whereas Yeats uses contrasts of chaos and order within lines in ‘The Second Coming’, here he counterpoints Zeus’ actions and Leda’s reactions. She feels the “sudden blow” from his “great wings”, she is “staggering”, “caught” and “mastered”, while he “holds”, “engenders” and has “power”. As if aware of what the rape will signify and the role she will have in history, Leda both resists and consents – she tries to push him away with “terrified vague fingers” from her “loosening thighs”. Throughout the poem, there is tension and interplay between the dominance of his actions and her vulnerable submission, reflecting the single event, as Yeats imagined it, that symbolized the dawn of a new age.
More connections with ‘The Second Coming’ to show consistency of ideas and images and how the poems, taken together, show Yeats’ world view
The animal/human beast in ‘The Second Coming’ is like Zeus’ earthly incarnation as the swan, both god and creature. The supernatural creatures in both poems are blind to human needs and suffering, suggesting Yeats’ view of the relative powerlessness of humanity in the face of an implacable destiny. The beast has “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”. After impregnating Leda, Zeus lets her drop from his “indifferent beak”. The new era of history that is heralded by the conception of Helen is also non-Christian, and the beginning of literate Western civilization. This poem is Yeats’ conjecture about the dawn of Western civilization, while ‘The Second Coming’ is his vision of its ending.
The poems share other aspects of language and content. A sign of instability and change in both is war – the “blood-dimmed tide” in ‘The Second Coming’ and Troy’s “broken wall, ... burning roof and tower” in ‘Leda and the Swan’. In both poems we see a human being trying to read the signs and portents. In ‘The Second Coming’, it is Yeats’ direct view of the world as he saw it in 1919, with its promise, to him, of something that could be better growing out of the existing chaos. In ‘Leda and the Swan’, we see the event from Leda’s perspective and, because she is merely human, not an all-seeing god, it is a vague and limited view. However, as the mother of Helen and thus an integral part of the new era, she receives from Zeus an inkling of what might be to come.
Both poems ask questions about the shape of the future. There is a prophecy in each: the “rough beast ... slouch(ing) towards Bethlehem to be born” and the broached wall and “Agamemnon dead” tell us something about what lies ahead. With historical knowledge, we know about the civilization that developed from the ruins of Troy. However, Yeats can only guess about what might lie ahead at the beginning of the twentieth century. He dismisses the idea of a second coming in the Christian sense – “Hardly are those words out / When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight”. He “know(s) / That twenty centuries of stony sleep” are awakening to a new era, but he can only guess the source and the form that this new era might take on.
Yeats’ idiosyncratic views about historical cycles are revealed in both these poems. He deals in both with causation and the tension between stability and change, presenting his understanding of the signs and portents of the overthrow of one regime and the arrival of the new era. The consistency of his thinking about history and the roles of the human and the supernatural in these cycles is shown through the similarities of ideas and images in these two pieces, which bookend the start and the end, as Yeats saw it, of the Western era.