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Themes

Though "The Second Coming" is short, it is packed with symbols and visions that are hard to untangle. In general, the first stanza of the poem is the speaker’s metaphoric statement on the way things are, rather than on the way they will be. Drawing on the image of a falcon that has flown too far and on the notion of a catastrophic flood, the speaker sums up the spirit of his age, which is characterized by "anarchy," violence, and the inversion of values. This is the true "reality" of the situation in Europe around 1919, only expressed through symbols. In the second stanza, the speaker interprets this reality as a deeper "revelation," and a prophecy of things to come. The vision of the sphinx in the desert should be thought of as a mystical vision that comes from Spiritus Mundi, the spirit world of eternal symbols. It is also comparable to a dream, or in this case, a "nightmare." Then the speaker's vision ends, and we are back in the everyday world. In the last three lines, he is left to ponder what the future holds in store. Needless to say, it doesn’t look promising.

Questions About Versions of Reality

  1. How would you describe the difference between the "reality" described in the first and second stanzas of the poem?
  2. Do you think there could be a "spirit world" full of eternal symbols like the one the poem refers to?
  3. If you’ve read a religious prophecy before, how would you describe the difference between that and the prophecy in Yeats’s poem?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Although the poem consists entirely of symbolic language, the first stanza is anchored in the historical present and the second stanza represents a prophecy of the future.

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