Updated: Jul 15, 2022
M: If only you would stop lying! W (gesture of arms): I have never lied, my father never told a lie, my grandfather never told a lie. M: You are lying now.
So Yeats (“W”), and Maud Gonne (“M”), in a December 8, 1918 public confrontation, at Stephen’s Green “among the nurses and perambulators,” both, so said their auditor, Iseult Gonne, Maud’s daughter, behaving childishly. “…there should be a law,” she had written Ezra Pound a couple weeks earlier, recounting for him the increasing tensions between the two, and the burden of being unavoidably the go-between, “by which after 50, people should be placed under the tutelage of their juniors…” She catalogued the problem as late-onset childishness, which it was, though it was also serious enough to threaten the decades-old relationship between Yeats and his beautiful but intemperate poetic inamorata. Their difficulties resolved in an interim truce when the two, said Iseult to Pound, “pledged never to speak to each other again apart from flat excuses.” It would be two more months before hostilities ceased; a friend said the incentive was Yeats’ threat to rewrite all his earlier love poems to her.
Six months earlier, the English government had rounded up Gonne and seventy-three other Sinn Féin leaders and sent them to Holloway jail after finding evidence of collaboration between the Kaiser’s secret service and the Irish Republicans. Yeats did two things to try to help her: first, he sublet Gonne’s Dublin house, an idea which seemed good for both, relieving her of a financial burden and providing him and his wife George a period of stability after peripatetically living in twenty places in twelve months. And he exerted what pressure he could on officials he knew, including on Edward Shortt, Chief Secretary for Ireland, to accelerate her release and ease the conditions of her prison stay. He had promised to vacate the rental when she was free and could reclaim it. But then Gonne unexpectedly appeared at the door demanding possession—unexpectedly because she was in the country illegally. Showing signs of serious ill health in prison, she had been moved, partly due to Yeats’ urgings about her health, to a nursing home for treatment, and then eluded her watchers to make her way to Dublin.
Yeats recalled his promise to vacate the premises on her demand, but felt he could not honor it now. Things had changed. Worries impinged from all sides. His father was down with the deadly Spanish flu in New York City, and his heavily pregnant wife George had recently collapsed with the same disease. He himself had moved out of the house to make room for the day nurse, the night nurse, and the specialists hired to care for her. There would have been no room for Maud Gonne in the best of circumstances, and now her presence in country illegally brought a real threat of a military raid on the lodgings. The possible negative effect of all this on his wife’s health was more than he was willing to risk.
Also disruptive to his or anyone’s good mental peace was the continued chaos and violence of the world situation: The Russian civil war became the Russian revolution, beginning a fight that would continue to 1922; the Russian royal house was murdered by revolutionaries in July, with various reports about who was murdered and by whom trickling out over several month and years—as late as 1922 the Soviets were still claiming that though the Czar had been killed, his family survived; the Paris Peace Conference opened in France with calls for retribution to avenge the twenty million Allied soldiers and civilians killed and wounded in the late war, as it worked to rearrange the map of Europe and parts of Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands; and at home, Sinn Féin members opened the first meeting of the unicameral parliament of the revolutionary Irish republic (the Dáil Éireann) on the same day as the first deaths in what would become the Irish War of Independence, with two Royal Irish Constabulary members killed and the explosives stolen that they were escorting to Tipperary. England would declare the Dáil illegal by September. There seemed no escape from the mad elision of politics and violence.
And Gonne did not let up in her campaign to reclaim the house (“banging on he door the whole day long,” as Yeats’ sister Lily described it), until finally, in a mid-December decision borne of desperation and exasperation, Yeats moved the whole encampment, wife, health care personnel, belongings, and himself, to another place on Stephen’s Green. It was a bad situation all around, he wrote to Lady Gregory:
I cannot go to the house in Stephen’s green because Madame Gonne has come out of prison with Neurasthenia & her hatred has pitched on me. She writes me the most venemous [sic] letters. It all started with my refusal to let her stay there while George was ill. It has finally taken the form of believing that I have conspired with Shortt [the Chief Secretary for Ireland] to shut her up in an English sanatorium that I might keep possession of her house. It would be much simpler to call it possession by the devil & then one could beleive [sic] that it might be over—after a Mass or two.
When George improved in late December, the couple quickly left Dublin, though the change in geography did little to relieve his problems. By January he was ill with eye trouble and heart and nerve problems, all of which he blamed on worry over the illnesses of his father and his wife, and the fight with Maud Gonne. And money problems now took an additional toll, causing him to pause work on the dream house he’d been constructing at Ballylee.
The world, his life, his coming child, Gonne, the pandemic… Nothing, it seemed, was happening as he had wanted or expected it to. Everywhere was the sense of things spinning out of control. He responded as a poet responds, in poetry, starting work that January, 1919, immediately after his exit from Dublin, and writing through several drafts what became one of his most famous poems, “The Second Coming,” twenty-two lines of one hundred and sixty five words that encapsulated the unstable world situation and prophesied worse to come. The poem remains easily the most quoted poem of the 20th century, and the one of Yeats most known by the public. I am fascinated by the shaping, integration, conflict, and selection of event and image that took place as Yeats worked the boundaries between the pressures of the world and his life, and his treatment of images he assumed came from a different place entirely, given by the spiritual Instructors speaking through his wife, trying to understand and explain all this terror and disintegration as he saw and felt it. Yeats imagination was always strongest when he could emblematize the persons, events, and images of its focus as “symbols to fill the imagination of the living,” in Hugh Kenner’s wonderful phrase.
This essay seeks to trace that process, at least insofar as can be known from the sources available. I proceed gingerly, knowing that reading worksheets to discern intent and track development risks seeing both too much and too little of significance in any scratched or blotted hint, and that this kind of speculation and supposition lacks firm critical guiderails. My approach is to lay out the creation mechanics as best I can, letting the reader judge the rightness or wrongness of any claims.
2. Yeats started writing “The Second Coming” on narrow-lined three-hole looseleaf pages, eight being what’s preserved, reading and revising, less trying to control the words and images as he wrote them than to open himself to their flow. In his excitement of creation, two pages are written vertically, and six horizontally, lines are broken off, crossed out, abandoned, and replaced. He made do with whatever size paper was at hand, the majority—six—4.5×7 inches and the last at 6.5×8 inches. One page is ripped in two. We owe their existence to George Yeats, who rescued them and the worksheets of many other poems from the poet’s wastepaper basket.
As the sheets are undated, we do not know how long he worked on the poem, only that the worksheets were written between January 1919 and publication in The Nation and The Dial in November, 1920. Yeats seems to have started the next poem, also a great and complex one that shares some of the same themes, in March or April of 1919, and finished it, “A Prayer for My Daughter,” some time before its publication in Poetry Magazine in November, 1919. It’s certainly possible that he completed “The Second Coming” before starting on the new one, thus in the same month he began it, or a month after. But it seems odd that he waited almost two years to publish what he knew on completion was a major and important poem, one that throughout his life he would refer to as prophetic and significant.
The first three vertical worksheets, and much of the fourth, show him working to develop lines for the first octave of the poem. He begins seeking a way to describe a world out of control, tentatively probing for an emblem among gyre, hawk, falcon, and falconer, though listing them that way makes the process sound more definite than the worksheet shows. Rather, what we see are fragments, tests, scribblings, as he looks for the right sounds, right phrases. What is surprising is how much of the final structure of the poem is already present, though in raw form, on this beginning worksheet:
Ever more wide sweeps the gyre Ever further the flies out ward from the falconer’s hand. scarcely is armed tyranny fallen when When an the mob bred take it place. For this Marie Antoin ette has Most [?brutally] [?died], & no Burke has spoken [?to the] has [?cried] With his voice no pit Arraigns revolution. Surely the second [?birth] comes near intellectual gyre is [?theirs] [?tor] The gyres grow wider and more wide falcon cannot hear The hawk can no more hear the falconer The Germans t
o Russia take their place have The Germans are but [?now / had] to Russia com come Though every day now some innocent has died Recalls the mob fawn The [?common] mob to fawn upon the murderer [?And] [?th]
Gyre, falcon, second birth, falconer—all are already present, though tentatively, amid a great deal of other language and images that will be stripped away as Yeats moves through the worksheets. The “rough beast” that will be so striking in the final version of the poems has not yet made an appearance nor even a shadow of one. Yeats in these 19 lines is also working through contemporary and historic events and people. The Germans, the Russians, Marie Antoinette, Burke, are all here in this first draft, but will soon be purged. It is interesting to see them present at this early stage, reminding us how incomplete and even impressionistic was the range of Yeats’ thought as he began, how open to suggestions and intuitive leaps, in this effort of seeking the meeting-ground between the poem and the world.
Burke’s appearance seems an intrusion in the field of the poem, though we can follow the process by which he was summoned. The effort to describe the chaos of the world as it is brings to mind another historic and possibly parallel change that involved violence and chaos, with the “armed tyranny” and “the mob” of the French Revolution beheading Marie Antoinette during became the Reign of terror. Thoughts of the French Revolution would bring to mind Edmund Burke (1723-1792), one of Yeats heroes. Burke’s 1790 pamphlet, Reflections on the Revolution in France, argued for values and tradition as against the revolution’s abstract principles. These, he argued, though claimed to be rational, ignored the complexities of human nature and society, and so prepared for the inevitable rise of chaos and terror. Yeats was familiar with Burke’s writings, and had read and marked many passages. Burke’s An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) was, according to Mrs. Yeats, his political bible. His appearance in the poem is thus triggered by the draft’s reflection on the French Revolution and the death of royalty, and by his and Yeats’ shared philosophical stance in favor of order and tradition.
There is another possibility to consider here, assessing Burke’s presence in the poem. It is more specific and seem more definite only because we know how the poem finally develops, to include the “rough beast.” Yeats would have been familiar with the fiery letters that make up Burke’s Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory of France, the great work that followed his Reflections on the Revolution. In paragraph 80 of the fourth letter, Burke delivers an image to describe the new French state, whose appearance that adumbrates that of the “rough beast”:
The great trunk of Bourbon is cut down; the withered branch is worked up into the construction of a French Regicide Republic. Here we have formed a new, unlooked-for, monstrous, heterogeneous alliance,—a double-natured monster, republic above and monarchy below. There is no centaur of fiction, no poetic satyr of the woods, nothing short of the hieroglyphic monsters of Egypt, dog in head and man in body, that can give an idea of it. None of these things can subsist in Nature (so, at least, it is thought); but the moral world admits monsters which the physical rejects.
There is no overt reference to this specific source in the poem, and indeed, only one other reference to Burke in the poem, a continuation of the posture of Burke opposing the chaos of the world—And there is no Burke to cry aloud about the catastrophe described in two lines preceding, as the mob fawns upon the murderer, and the judge nods before his empty dock; and so perhaps seeing this as a possible echo of the beast will seem far-fetched. It may be that this echoing of the image between two great writers only shows that it was long-lived and immediately available to particular modes of catastrophic thought. Or it may be that the writing of Burke’s name on the worksheet took place because this other image was already forming in the poet’s mind, pressing for entrance (it would not appear until worksheet five). In any case, Burke’s specific appearance is a moment’s flash; he does not show again in the final version of the poem. A similar brief entrance is afforded Pitt—William Pitt the Younger, who had like Burke also tried to work a resolution on the Irish question of separatism and nationality—on the third of the six sheets of paper. Burke and Pitt are representative of the world of external events, images of men who tried to control things and nations, social forces through their words and actions. They are not specifically part of the poem, and ultimately could not be part of it as it finally develops its universal and timeless power by excluding all specific reference to events and people.
As the writing on this first worksheet continues, the poet focuses on clarifying the sense of things spinning out of control, and reconciling this effort with the gyre image given him by his Instructors. The gyres grow wider and more wide, he writes, and then strikes out most of the line, replacing it with The intellectual gyre is, followed by an unintelligible word. He is still circling, like the bird in the opening lines, around the image he has not yet finally chosen, whether hawk or falcon, still looking for the right words. He tries again: The hawk can no more hear, he begins, then strikes it, dropping the hawk altogether to replace it with The falcon cannot hear the falconer—the first finished line that will survive as written into the final version, though he will try several variants before finally returning to it on worksheet four.
This gyre image is difficult. He will struggle with the lines about them through two more worksheet drafts. They have to track his sense of society’s and civilization’s loss of control but still be accessible to readers who are not adept in the magical arts or knowledgeable about its ethos and symbols or the images given by the Instructors. Broader & broader is the / Furth / ever more wide, he writes on the second worksheet, then strikes all the lines. He tries again: The gyres sweep wider by year, then substitutes day by day for by year, then Every, striking year and day after that word, then back to The hawk flies from the falconer’s hand in turn struck for The hawk, can no more hear the falconer. It is not until the fourth worksheet page that he writes lines that are recognizable from the final draft of the poem:
Turning & turning in the wide gyre / widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Still trying on his first worksheet to marshal evidence for his argument that things are out of control, he uses more events from the world, in this case the recent war: The germans to Russia take air place, he begins, then strikes the line entire, and replaces it with a new line, The Germans are but [?now / had] to Russia com come. / Though every day now some innocent has died. And then a single word, Recalls and then The [?common] mob to fawn upon the murderer.
The reference is perhaps to the collapse of the Russian front in the recent war, memorialized by Lenin’s 1918 treaty with Germany, surrendering Finland, Estonia, Courtland, Lithuania, and parts of Russian Poland. The references to “innocent” and “murderer” continue the development of an important theme introduced previously with the death or Marie Antoinette, and contain many possible other references as evidence: That is, they may refer to the murder of the Russian royal family, or else to the civilian deaths in the recent world war, or may reflect his knowledge of the casualties of the Spanish flu, which lasted from February 1918 to April 1920, infecting 500 million people–about a third of the world’s population at the time–in four successive waves. The death toll is typically estimated to have been somewhere between 20 million and 50 million. None of these interpretations is secure, though, because the statement lacks other references, though anarchy and murder are cited again on the second sheet.
As he works these lines in the second part of the worksheet, Yeats toys with a rhyme scheme—wide/died, falconer/murder—though this is later dropped in the final version in favor of tightening the internal sound structures of the stanza with random strong and slant rhymes (gyre/falconer/everywhere; hold/world; loosed/innocence) and word repetitions (“Turning and turning;”loosed/ loosed,” “falcon/ falconer/ fall,” a way of giving aural structure to the poem that will be repeated in the opening of the second stanza, “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand. / The Second Coming!”). I discuss the craft involved in these stanzas below.
At the end of the second worksheet, lines begin to cluster around this idea of innocence lost or fouled: The tyrant has the anarch in his pay / And murderer to follow murderer, a general statement, not a specific one, but meant to further the higher rhetorical claim he makes but keeps failing to get right at a level that satisfies him: Things have begun to break &, he starts then writes All things are broken up & fall apart / After they have gone the [?masters]. The tyrant, the anarchist, and the murderer are examples of those who will take power when things fall apart. He is still working with the idea when he turns over worksheet one, and writes
Things fall apart—at every stroke of the clock Of innocence most foully put to death have Old wisdom and young innocence has died The gracious and the innocent have Or while the mobs fawn upon the murderer And the judge nods before the empty dock
Not much of this will survive. Russia and the royals are completely vanished from the poem now, and will not return. In their place Yeats delivers a new piece of evidence of the loss of authority and control, the judge with his empty dock. In the IRA system of justice, Irish courts took over for British ones, leaving the British courts empty. The judge nodding before the empty dock is one who lacks authority because there is no one over whom to exercise it. Justice is mob justice.
On the third page of the worksheets, this theme of innocence lost is continued, in lines written vertically: All things break up—no stroke upon the clock / But ceremonious innocence has died. These lines become, on worksheet four:
Things fall apart—the center cannot hold Wild Mere anarchy is loose through out the world dim tide The blood stained flood is loose & everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned. uncertain The good are wavering & uncertain The best lose lack all conviction while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
The change is significant, as the concrete words for names and situations are dropped—not only Germany, Russia, Burke, and Pitt, but also the mob, murderer, and judge—in favor of the more general and abstract terms, of anarchy, innocence, the good, the worst. As this worksheet concludes, he is closer to the familiar lines of the final poem:
Surely the great falcon must come Surely the hour of the second birth is here We have the desert — surely the spiritus mundi leaps has st shall leap Surely the spiritus mundi leap ‘The second Birth.’ Scarce have those words been spoken
Worksheet five will open with a new line that is an aesthetic pivot in the final version of the poem, Surely some revelation is at hand… and then work through an extended effort to describe the image of the beast that signifies the change in historic phase. As he works he enters a line for place of origin of the beast:
Before the dark was cut as with a knife And a stark vast image out of spiritus mundi Troubles my sight. A waste of sand
The phrase Yeats uses here to introduce the “vast image”—“the dark cut as with a knife”—may be another hint about another possible source of the beast. The line duplicates one from his Autobiography, concerning an interaction with one of the founders and eventually the leader of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Samuel Liddell (or Liddel) MacGregor Mathers. Golden Dawn was one of several magic and occult organizations that Yeats became involved with in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Mathers was expelled from the organization in 1900, and Yeats and Mathers eventually quarreled and became estranged, but in the late 1880’s they were close, and Mathers was the leader when Yeats was initiated into the organization. His studies at Golden Dawn first convinced him of the existence of a great mind, or Anima Mundi. Here is the relevant scene from the Autobiography, when Mathers presses a Tattva mystic symbol onto Yeats’ forehead:
Then another brought a like report, and presently my own turn came. He gave me a cardboard symbol and I closed my eyes. Sight came slowly, there was not that sudden miracle as if the darkness had been cut with a knife, for that miracle is mostly a woman’s privilege, but there rose before me mental images that I could not control: a desert and a black Titan raising himself up by his two hands from the middle of a heap of ancient ruins. Mathers explained that I had seen a being of the order of Salamanders [Note: considered elemental fire spirits, per Parcelsus] because he had shown me their symbol, but it was not necessary even to show the symbol, it would have been sufficient that he imagined it.
It is striking to find this same image of “darkness cut as with a knife” and the vision of an elemental figure in a desert replicating a vision from thirty years before. As with our discussion above about Burke and the image of the “hieroglyphic monsters of Egypt,” it may be that this phrase is another showing of the pressure of the image trying to make its way forward in the writing of this poem. Much of the description of the rough beast follows this line on worksheet five, where it makes its first entrance into the poem.
3. This issue that the remainder of the poem pivots on, of a change in history between an old era and a new one, had been prefigured in the occult studies Yeats pursued for most of his life, and then was verified by the Instructors, transmitting their information and directions through George. That process began a few days after the 25-year old young woman married the 52 year old Yeats on October 20, 1917, Ezra Pound serving as best man. Yeats credited the appearance of these voices, or Instructors, as key in saving a marriage which had seemed to him almost certain to him to fail, or so he said to others not two days after its launch. Whether that was the reason, or the opening to all the other possibilities of a relationship, from that point on Yeats and George found something in each other and in the marriage that lasted to their deaths.
The first appearance of the Instructors took place as an intrusion from the other world one afternoon, when George said she felt strongly that something was to be written through her. She began writing words she did not understand, talking all the time so that her thoughts would not affect what she wrote. Yeats understood the words, though, and how they referred to and echoed his own thoughts and recent events in his life, including his marriage proposals first to mother and then daughter Maud and Iseult Gonne just weeks prior to his proposal to George. The voices came as a “miraculous intervention,” as he later described it in a letter to Lady Gregory, his long time friend, writer, co-founder of the Abbey Theater, and owner of Coole Park, and they seemed to assuage all his worries and fears, and even to alleviate his physical distress:
The strange thing was that within half an hour after the writing of this message my rheumatic pains & my neuralgia & my fatigue had gone and I was very happy. From being more miserable than I ever remember being since Maud Gonne’s marriage I became extremely happy. That sense of happiness has lasted ever since.
The sessions became longer and more intense starting on November 5, finally filling more than 50 copy books. They were led by questions from Yeats to the now-named Instructors, speaking though his wife, who gave them names (the first of these was Thomas of Dorlowicz, replaced by Ameritus on November 17, and then others later, some unnamed). Yeats wrote drafts of the Q&A, which were then compiled and catalogued by George. Read today, some of these sessions seem to have involved as much creative work from George as independent discussion from the spirits—the Instructors told Yeats, for example, to ask fewer questions about the Gonne’s, forecast government difficulty if Maud Gonne tried to get back into Ireland, advised against lecturing in France, and instructed him to take regular exercise.
Yeats began to codify the information from these dialogues into his own work, first into Per Amica Silentia Lunae in 1917 and 1918, then later into what would become the extended discussion of his system, A Vision. From these sessions, or at least from what Yeats gleaned from them, emerged the idea of the 2,000 year cycles of history explicated in A Vision. The papers themselves became several thousand pages of symbols and structures and dialogue. Here is a raw sample (from Yeats Vision Papers London 1992 George Mills Harper, ed.):
No I came for something but cant rem a month – wait better leave this for a month — go back to something else
You will be better for leaving it
Yes better not
too much strain on thought
Finish before you leave — dont work any ing London
Yes dont work or read late at night
Yes verse and reading
Yes much better
You should not ask her a mental question you want to ask
She is all right – take her about while you are both in London & get her affairs fixed
[In mirror writing] You need not have any of the old fear about her and need not doubt that you shoal have done otherwise — she will assert herself
All possible identity papers and work & so on
no but dont write
not a snub but I may not answer
Thanks to the sessions, the poet and his adept wife became joined in mystical and sexual union (many of the messages were quite direct about “union” and “contact” and how refusal or denial could affect creativity). In January 2018, the Instructors said that George would bear a child who would reincarnate past ancestors of Yeats and be a spiritual guide to them both. The child would be a significant figure in the forthcoming historical cycle, they said, following those cycles previously inaugurated by a woman and a supernatural being in the form of a bird, shown in the violent interaction of Leda and the Swan, and the non-violent one of the Virgin and the dove. These ideas infused two plays Yeats wrote in 2018 and 2019, The Only Jealousy of Emer and Calvary. The latter carried his ideas of cycles and endings, annunciation of the messiah, and the advent of a new spiritual age. The current year, 1918, Yeats believed, gave every sign of being the end of an historical cycle, with the spiral movement of time opening out to new chaos.
4. Yeats continues in worksheets four and five working on the image that will inaugurate this inversion of the second coming in the poem from Christ to the rough beast. In worksheet four are a false start and canceled lines, Surely the great falcon must come / Surely the hour of the second birth is here, and a reference to the desert, We have the desert, also canceled. The new worksheet five begins, Surely some revelation is at hand, a line which will make it to the final draft, and then more canceled lines: must leap / The cradle at Bethlehem be rock anew, a reference to the phase of history which is ending and beginning. Then comes a new line which after much transformation will survive to the final draft: Scarcely are these words with the completion of the sentence scattered on the page. The line will become Hardly are those words out.
The rest of the worksheet is devoted to the development of the image:
—A waste of desert sand a A shape with a lion’s body & with a woman s And the head of a man breast & head Moves with a slow slouching step And An eye gaze and And eyes blank and pitiless as the sun.
The word “slouching,” so important to the power of the poem’s final line, has begun to find its way into the draft: He writes, Move with a slow slouching step, then cancels it, writes Slouches, and cancels it, writes instead, Moves its slow feet, cancels feet and writes, thighs while over it there. The sheet ends with a phrase that will come into the final draft of the poem, shadows of the indignant desert birds.
Yeats here is building the terror attributes of the image, created not as a man or an animal, but as a “shape,” a thing which is neither in any specific sense. To this end, he drops “feet” in favor of “thighs,” a substitution which perforce changes the image from the falcon it had started out as to something more terrible because so undefined, with only general outlines and gestures stated, and the rest left to the imagination. Worksheet six will continue his effort to get the final line right: He writes, It slouches towards Bethlehem to be born, then cancels it, replacing it with, It has set out for Bethlehem to be born, then repeats the line:
It has set out for Bethlehem to be born wild thing—its hour come round at last it is come round And what at last — knowing its [?time ? turn] rough beast Is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born
Watching that development, from the canceled line to the final, I assume that what stopped him from settling on it in its first appearance was the verb “Is,” which weakens the line. Not until he put the stronger verb in its initial place could his ear allow the line its closing position in the poem. At this point, the poem is basically finished, except for punctuation, which, as Yeats explained, he did not understand: “I do not understand stops,” he wrote Robert Bridges in 1915. “I write my work so completely for the ear the I feel helpless when I have to measure pauses by stops and commas.” Here is the final poem:
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?
5. Literary detectives have traced echoes and images in the poem from other poets and artists and sources. The affinities in Burke and the poet’s experience at the Golden Dawn society were mentioned earlier, but others have been discerned in Shelley, Wordsworth, Blake, Flaubert, Gustave Moreau, Yeats’ studies in Egyptology, and the New Testament.
These are, I think, interesting as contributions to the mental environment of the poem; but we should emphasize that they are not the poem. Yeats was a full-time committed artist and poet; he carried with him in his mental library the books that impressed him or that seemed useful to him. And his was an individualistic world, not a world shared even by of other poets of his time—one has only to look at the eccentric selections that make up The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935 that he edited, and its introduction, to see the aesthetic differences between Yeats and his time, this before even considering how different the magical and pagan elements that informed much of his vision made him. So these echoes are perhaps showings, as at a light flash, of the furniture in the room of Yeats’ mind, adumbrations of the images and sentiments finally chosen by the great craftsman and visionary. Here are some that have been cited:
From Wordsworth, lines in The Excursion, IV which are echoed in The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity:
For by superior energies; more strict Affiance in each other; faith more firm In their unhallowed principles; the bad Have fairly earned a victory o’er the weak, The vacillating, inconsistent good.
From Blake, in the First Book of Urizen, Chapter 3 – 140, and in Chapter IV, one 165, Yeats phrase stony sleep:
But Urizen, laid in a stony sleep, ** Ages on ages roll’d over him; In stony sleep ages roll’d over him,
From The New Testament, the Book of Revelation in the Bible, Chapter 13 – verses 1, 2, the image of the shape with lion body and the head of a man:
1 And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. 2 And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.
From Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine, the manticore as the image of Yeats’ beast. The manticore is one of the beasts that assails the saint in the desert. There is a “rain of drops of blood” that precedes the appearance of the Manticore, which some see as a source for Yeats’ blood-dimmed tide.
From Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, which young Yeats had called one of his “sacred books,” a general statement of the gloom of the first stanza of the poem:
In each human heart terror survives The ruin it has gorged: the loftiest fear All that they would disdain to think were true. Hypocrisy and custom make their minds The fanes of many a worship, now outworn. They dare not devise good for man’s estate, And yet they know not that they do not dare. The good want power, but to weep barren tears. The powerful goodness want; worse need for them. The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom; And all best things are thus confused to ill. Many are strong and rich, and would be just, But live among their suffering fellow-men As if none felt; they know not what they do.
Knowing about these instances and images may bring a sense of the relation of this poem to the rest of the poetic cannon with its great store of imagery and thought; but these are tidbits and echoes, and not explanations of the poem or of the selection process used by the poet to create this powerful statement of a time out of joint. At best, for a careful or knowledgeable reader, they extend the power and magic of the poem, by giving us glimpses of the mutterings of some of its ancestors.
6. In this section I want to look more closely at the finished poem created from these drafts. Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” as a poet responding to the personal and public crises of his time, as he experienced them in late 1918 and January of the following year. He began writing from the sense he had of the general loss of control in society, naming events to give weight and substance to his statements and images, but then changed the references from the specific to the general, from incident to emblem, particular time to all or any time, increasing the power of the poem in doing so, and increasing for others in other times its general and terrifying relevance. The images and machinery of his system are integral to the structure and force of the poem, and are fully integrated into the dream-logic that fuels the poem and drives it inexorably forward; but the integration is so completely realized that the magical machinery remains accessible to common language and common thought. Expertness in the system is not a requisite to feel the power of he poem.
Yeats opens the poem with an image that personifies the moment of historic change as dictated by his system. It was an image he worked hard to get right, to show the movement of the gyres, of course, but to show it in the easily apprehended image of a falcon circling higher and higher and, against training and instinct, moving away from the control of the falconer at the bottom of the gyre.
Understanding that there is a falcon and a falconer in this situation does not require knowledge of his system, though it may reward it. That’s because the description of this breaking away, and the circling form of it, is presented as fact, as something seen and reported, and not as an argument or assertion; the falcon acts this way for reasons not disclosed in the poem. At the level of its argument, the poem does not make clear whether the falcon has agency enough to do this breaking away of its own volition, though the implication of the rest of the stanza, naming uncontrolled forces, suggests that it has no such independent ability, that it is acting this way because it is an emblem of its time and of this determined cycle of history.
This is the first of the terrible premises of the poem: that if the image of our cycle, the image of what changes for us, has no agency, then by extension, neither do we. That lack of agency expressed in these two lines, tightened by the image and slant rhyme (gyre/falconer), is why the next several lines containing seven audacious prose statements seem to follow in a sort of damning dream-logic consequence:
Things fall apart
The centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
Everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction,
The worst are full of passionate intensity.
These are not arguments, as that term is usually understood, proceeding by evidence and logic; rather they are assertions, and near-hysterical ones at that. That the reader accepts them as they come is a triumph of the poem’s art. The poem creates this ground for acceptance in several ways: first, and obviously, by the rapid flow of these assertions, piling on one another so quickly that assent to the first leaves little time to doubt the next, and so on. Next is their felt or intuitive logic, the way each seems to proceed from the one just before it and to modify the one just after; the sequence is felt to be true, irrespective of whether it rationally or logically is. Accepting the description of the falcon image in the first couplet makes the second assertion, “The center cannot hold,” seem so obviously logical a description that the sense of it buttresses the first statement that it is partnered with, “Things fall apart,” ameliorating the shock of what would otherwise seem intrusive and making it part of the flow.
The rest of the stanza flows from here with a force that feels inevitable, with the underlying image that of a dam bursting or a container failing, losing something that is first identified as anarchy and then as a liquid, as “blood-dimmed tide” that drone the ceremony of innocence. This all occurs even as we note the transition from the animal world (falcon), an image now dropped until it transitions to the rough beast of the second part of the poem.
These statements are all presented as things that happen without cause, or without a humanly identifiable cause. Who loosed the anarchy, or the blood-dimmed tide? Who drowned the ceremony of innocence? No one is identified, because no one can be identified; the lines describe the forces set loose upon the world as the cycle changes. At the end of the stanza we are in a fully human world, of the best and the worst men; but even here we are only given attributes, not purposes: who or what are the worst passionate about? What convictions do the best lack? I suggest that the lack of specificity makes them that much more powerful, extending their applicability to any situation, until they become almost omnicompetent statements about the new makeup of humanity. It is one of the reasons that these two concluding lines of the stanza are quoted so often.
An important element in making this sequence of statements seem logical is the craft employed in shaping language, using rhymes, slant- and off- and other, repetition of key words, and consonance and assonance in the echoing of the vowels and consonants. Consider how the ear hears the combinations of hold/world, loosed/loosed, apart/anarchy, and the flow of o-sounds, and “d” and “t” sounds that travel through the stanza. Also notice how Yeats chains the vision to absolute language, with the words “everywhere” and “all,” and his invocation of types rather than individuals, with “the best” and “the worst.”
The movement is cinematic, from the individual figures of the falcon and falconer in the opening lines to a view of the broad vista of the world at the end. Nothing is specific, everything is generalized—yet the language acquires tremendous force as it proceeds, as the language of prophecy and anger and justice, language of the horrified witness’s accusation without object. The world-disintegration is described as caused by the release of impersonal forces, not by individuals or groups. Men, in this stanza, have no agency—they don’t loose the anarchy, rather it is loosed; they don’t drown the ceremony of innocence, but it is drowned. There is nothing anyone can do about it. Even those we would turn to for help are either to weak to aid, or so untrustworthy that it would be best not to ask.
The result is this created, crafted utterance with what presents as logical certainty, taking place within a single sentence, 54 words that encompass the widening of the gyre as the falcon flies higher, and the disintegration, anarchy, loosing of the blood-dimmed tide as a plague or scourge, the drowning of the ceremony of innocence, and the forms of weakness and passion among men.
The second stanza has been described by such critics as Helen Vendler as using a sonnet form of fourteen lines to give a diabolic inversion of the Christian birth narrative of Jesus. This is the demonic version of his second coming (“second birth” in the worksheet pages, changed in the final version of the poem). The language moves from the generalized speech and prophecy of the first section to the vision of an individual person. The speaker tells of a “vast image” from Spiritus Mundi troubling his sight. It is left unstated precisely what this thing is: that is, it is a shape with a lion body and the head of a man, but importantly, it is not named as a sphinx, or as anything else. It is not detailed. We are told only that its gaze is pitiless, inhuman, that it disturbs the desert birds as it moves, and that it does not yet exist in this world except as a shape of thought or vision. It is in pre-birth, heading toward an incarnation that has not yet taken place.
As with the first stanza, this one is put together with stunning craft. The first two lines form a couplet, in this case with the repeated word, “hand,” a word that then rhymes later in the stanza with “sand” and “man.” The repetition in lines two and three of the phrase “the Second Coming” forcefully cement the lines to each other. And the various forms of rhyme and sound throughout the stanza link the lines tightly to each other: as for example, the way “my” (“my sight”) links with thigh; Mundi with sun; and then the d and s sounds that resound throughout the stanza, different in tone from the o sounds in the first stanza, but effective. This stanza is not set forth as a logical progression; it is rather a description with a source and an identified speaker.
The image that comes now into the poem is flatly asserted to be from Spiritus Mundi, the belief by Yeats and others that individual minds are connected to a collective mind, and that images that come to the individual mind are part of this greater consciousness. The image is of a monster, or the shape of one, a spirit form about to burst into our world and already taking on enough concrete form to make the “indignant desert birds” reel about it. The title of the poem and the Christian references invoke the Christian symbology of Christ’s coming to transform and forgive this world. Yeats inversion of this invokes a beast, which in Christian symbology would be the beast of The Book of Revelation, where it is understood and described as having seven heads and ten horns, and about which the Angel says to John that
The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is.
The beast as invoked in the poem has only a moment in the vision of the speaker, where we see it as being similarly here and not here, and then “the darkness drops again.” That the vision granted is partial suggests a limitation in the Spiritus Mundi, that perhaps it can show but not know, that it can grant images, or portions of them, but not the knowledge of their meaning and being; that understanding must come from the receiver of the vision, else it is lost.
By definition this thing, whatever it is, is a being beyond descriptive categories of good and evil, a being whose presence overwhelms and even obviates the categories. It is not yet born, though it is approaching the place where it will be born in a diabolic inversion of the birth of the Christ, who launched the last phase of history with its “twenty centuries of stony sleep.” Like the beast, this Christ figure is described but not named, and the stony sleep was conferred by his “rocking cradle,” a slightly odd reference as the cradle is not the usual Christian association with Jesus, only the manger in which he was laid. The cradle may be best read as an effort to relate the treatment of the baby Christ to the turning of the gyres.
That the worksheets prepared the way for this tour de force is easy to grant, as we have seen. The lines are worked up and through; but the knowledge that creates this poem, that makes the selection of images and lines, was the result of Yeats experiences in life and deep dedication to his craft. I have written in other places of the descent by poets into the darkness to capture something precious and bring it back, and of the cost of that effort. This poem literally enacts that process, of Yeats envisioning something in the light for an instant before the darkness drops and leaves him with a shattering knowledge.
7. Sometime during the writing of this poem, some of the issues that had troubled Yeats began to stabilize: His father and George recovered from their illnesses, his quarrel with Gonne was patched up. And George gave birth to a healthy girl at month’s end, though this last, lovely event as it was, was also something of an initial shock, as the Instructors had promised a boy, an Avatar who would be a leader in the coming spiritual period that would last a thousand years. The Instructors recovered from this apparent mis-annunciation quickly, however, promising that the new daughter fitted into a foretold daemonic design that is “actually a form of Avatar” (though in a passive form, of course, being female).
Yeats wrote another great poem right after this, “A Prayer for My Daughter,” which also became part of his 1921 book, Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The book contained a number of intense political poems, including such famous ones as “Easter, 1916,” “On a Political Prisoner,” “A Meditation in Time of War.” These were different than the poems which had preceded them, the poems that most of the poetry public at the time knew of Yeats. To them, he was the poet of the Celtic Twilight, the writer of such weary psalms to life-escapes as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Even the Nobel Prize, awarded to him in 1923, was for that older work; the award cited “his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” But with this book, and the one following, The Tower (1928), Yeats work had moved on, and he became recognizably the poet as we know him today. This new poetry entered the pantheon decade of Anni Mirabiles, the 1920’s, in which was produced Ulysses, The Waste Land, The Magic Mountain, The Counterfeiters, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly and the first series of Cantos, Harmonium—works which became a foundation for a new kind of literature in the Twentieth Century, a literature which sought to provide forms to control the anarchy of human behavior and violence in response to the war which had ended just before the decade began. “The Second Coming” is the first of these great works to take up the new challenge for literature. It is also, of them all, the most widely quoted.
I have been able to use some terrific books in preparing this essay. The two most significant were Michael Robartes and the Dancer Manuscript Materials, ed. Thomas Parkinson (Cornell University Press, 1994), and Between The Lines Yeats’s Poetry in the Making, by John Stallworthy (Oxford at the Clarendon press, 1963). These two provided copies of the worksheet drafts of the poem and a literate discussion of them. Also significant was the magisterial W.B. Yeats A Life II. The Arch-Poet, by R.F. Foster (Oxford University Press, 2003). The two volumes in this series follow Yeats almost day by day and thought by thought. It is inconceivable that any other biography will ever be as complete or as useful. Richard Ellman’s The Identity of Yeats (Oxford University press 1964) is a classic study of Yeats poetry, symbolism, and vision. Letters to W.B.Yeats and Ezra Pound from Iseult Gonne: A Girl That Knew All Dante Once, A. Jeffares, ed.,(Palgrave Macmillan; 2003 edition), is a collection of terrific and witty letters from the daughter of Maud Gonne. It is from these that I drew the story of the Yeats-Gonne imbroglio over the Dublin house.