"The Second Coming" is easily one of the most famous and frequently quoted poems in all of Western literature. Several famous prose writers have used lines from W.B. Yeats’s poems as titles to their books, and "The Second Coming" is no exception. For example, Chinua Achebe, an African writer, used part of the third line as the title of his novel, Things Fall Apart, and Woody Allen recently wrote a book called Mere Anarchy.
Yeats’s poem was first published in 1920, a year after the end of World War I, "the Great War," in which millions of European died. While many people at the time just wanted to get on with their lives, Yeats thought that European society had pretty much broken down, and the poem is a terrifying prediction of future violence. Unfortunately, the rise of Hitler and fascism in the 1930s proved him largely correct, and many find the poem disturbingly prophetic in light of the later wars of the twentieth century. However, we shouldn’t somehow think that Yeats was a depressive based on this single work, his bleakest. Many of his other poems engage with more uplifting subjects, like love and Irish folklore. Nor should we think that Yeats was defeatist. After all, he was a very active figure in Irish politics throughout his life, which was in the process of gaining its independence from England. By the time this poem was published, he had already been famous for many years, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.
This is one of a handful of poems written in the 20th century that people from all walks of life – politicians, bankers, and scientists – are not afraid to learn and quote by heart. For one thing, you can’t accuse W.B. Yeats of being elusive or indecisive: a complaint about a lot of modern poetry. This one hits like a ton of bricks. The language is blunt and direct, but the rhythm is complicated and musical. When you repeat lines like, "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed," it’s like an entire period of history has been summed up in only a few words. Indeed, people still quote from Yeats during every war. The recent war in Iraq is no exception: for example, in 2006 a Congressman Jim McDermott gave a speech titled "The Center Cannot Hold."
Another reason the poem has been so popular is that its mysterious symbolism can be interpreted in a meaningful way by anyone, regardless or their social or political views. Some people think that Yeats is trying to steer society back to its traditional values; others say that he thinks only a revolution will lead to a new order. Above all, "The Second Coming" amounts a frightening document of how poets often have a specific perspective – a "vision" of the way things are that most of the rest of us are unable to see.
Here’s the indie songwriter Bright Eyes performing "Four Winds," a song with lyrics inspired by "The Second Coming."
Law & Order
The guy from Law & Order reads "The Second Coming" to Anthony Hopkins. Nice accent, Sam.
There aren’t many recordings of Yeats’s voice out there, but here he is as an old man reading the poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."
An image of interlocking gyres
A photo of the famous sphinx in Egypt
An online virtual exhibition about W.B. Yeats presented by the National Library of Ireland.
Yeats and History
A site that explains more about Yeats’s theory that history moves in gyres.
"The Second Coming" in the 21st Century
This editorial from the New York Times talks about the recent impact of Yeats’s poem.
A biography of Yeats and links to many of his poems
The Book of Revelation
Tons of stuff on the Book of Revelation, including links to the text itself in several translations.