Have you ever noticed how different the first and second stanzas sound? Try reading the poem aloud – you can’t fail to notice it. The first stanza sounds super-confident because of all those declarative statements.
We think there are two ways to read the first stanza. The first is to read it like you would read a grocery list: completely matter-of-fact. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" could sound like, "Three dozen eggs; a quarter-pound of cheddar cheese; Four packages of hickory-smoked bacon." The first stanza is basically a list of everything that has gone wrong with the world, but the sentence clauses are so short that they create a lot of regularly-spaced pauses: hence, the grocery list. This would be an ironic reading.
The second possibility is to read it as if you were one of those end-of-the-world types who stand on street corners shouting about one conspiracy or another and grabbing pedestrians by the collar as if to say, "Don’t you GET IT!" This way of reading would really take advantage of Yeats’s stressed beats: "TURNING and TURNING in the WIDE-ning GYRE."
The second stanza, we think, sounds like a Shakespearean soliloquy. Shakespeare often liked to have his characters project their private doubts and fears in the form of a speech, resulting in a lot of emotional ups and downs. Here, too, the speaker of Yeats’s poem seems to be going through a lot of mood swings. First, he sounds confident with his use of the word "surely," although we’re not so convinced when he uses it again in the next line. Then, he veers off into a suspenseful portrait of the sphinx, which we would read in a low voice, as if you were narrating a weird dream you had.
Finally, we think the last question shouldn’t really be read as a question, but more like another declarative statement. The speaker seems to have figured something out – he’s got his former confidence back. He has come to some definite conclusions regarding this whole world-in-crisis thing, and now, with this summary statement, he’s going to rejoin the rest of the characters in the play (whoever they might be – use your imagination!).
The title refers to the Second Coming of Christ, as predicted in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Bible. This book, also known as the Apocalypse, is one of the strangest, most violent parts of the Bible. It’s also inspired more than a few "end of the world" panic movements throughout history (remember Y2K?). It depicts the return of Christ to conquer Satan and the forces of evil, before presiding over a thousand-year reign of peace on Earth. Yeats loved to use wild symbols in his poems, so it’s no wonder that he was attracted to the Book of Revelation, which is chock full of ‘em.
Just to give a few examples, you’ve got the Four Horsemen, seven Plagues, a doorway to Heaven, and an evil beast called the Whore of Babylon. However, Yeats had other motives for referencing the Book of Revelation. For one thing, when he wrote the poem, World War I had just ended in Europe, and a lot of people were starting to take the idea of a "war to end all wars" more seriously. They were also worried about how to tell good and evil apart. Amid this pessimistic atmosphere, Yeats adds a sinister twist to the idea of the Second Coming in his poem, suggesting that the end of history might not be heralded by the return of Christ at all, but by the coming of the Antichrist – a symbol of violence and chaos in the world.
The first stanza doesn’t seem to have a definite location. It refers to medieval falconing, so we can imagine a guy calling to a bird in some forest or meadow, trying to catch some deer or rabbits to bring back his lord. There’s also a description of violence that is vaguely reminiscent of the Biblical flood. But, from the perspective of the speaker, the setting is post-WWI Europe, circa 1919. He’s taking an overview of the devastation wrecked on the continent.
In the second stanza, the setting abruptly shifts to Spiritus Mundi, as the speaker has a vision of a desert with a sphinx-like creature and some birds. It’s all very cloudy, which makes sense because the speaker is essentially looking into his crystal ball here. In line 18, "the darkness drops again," but we get one more image of the beast "slouching towards Bethlehem." This might be described as a memory, echo, or "after-shock" of the Spiritus Mundi vision. All in all, the poet bounces around in various mental locations without really landing anywhere specific. That’s probably a good thing, because something is seriously out of whack in this "world."
The speaker of this poem is someone capable of seeing things that no one else can see. He is a poet-prophet of sorts. While Europe was setting out to rebuild itself after the Great War had ended, this speaker is saying, "Wait a minute, not so fast. We need to look at what kind of world we’ve left ourselves with, and what it might mean for the future." Obviously, the speaker is deeply pessimistic. He’s also not afraid to use religious imagery, although he puts his own, weird spin on it. He can be thought of as trying to repeat the achievement of the Book of Revelation, which has all kinds of amazing, memorable symbols but is also vague and wild enough that no one could say what exactly it is supposed to mean.
In the first stanza he uses a bunch of metaphors to evaluate the present state of the world, and in the second he has a weird vision, followed by "darkness" and a rhetorical question, which amounts to a prophecy regarding the Second Coming. The first person appears only twice in the poem, but the prophetic voice feels very distinct and personal throughout. Like Yeats in real life, this speaker has an interest in the occult, as we can see from his reference to the Spiritus Mundi. Otherwise, he doesn’t use a lot of fancy language; but phrases like "mere anarchy" and "stony sleep" demonstrate that he doesn’t exactly talk like a regular Joe, either. He presents himself as a moral authority and feels comfortable making general pronouncements about the state of things, such as "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Above all, he wants to be scary, and, boy, does he succeed.
Its plain language, short length, and exciting subject matter make this poem a favorite of people who usually claim not to "get" poetry.
Unexplained symbols! The weirder the better. Falcon, sphinx, "rough beast," and Bethlehem: what’s the connection? You figure it out! Yeats isn’t giving any help. This is a trait that many of Yeats’s most famous works have in common. He likes to take symbols from a variety of sources – the Bible, history, folklore, and his own plays; put them in the blender; and Presto! A Yeats poem.
The Second Coming" is written in blank verse, which means that has a consistent meter but no rhyme scheme. With 22 lines divided into two stanzas, it does not appear to follow a particular formal tradition. However, notice that the second stanza has fourteen lines, making it the same length as a sonnet. At eight lines, the first stanza could be thought of as a fragment of a sonnet that is "interrupted" by the full sonnet of the second stanza. However, these aren’t "true" sonnets in the classic sense because they don’t rhyme.
The meter is roughly iambic pentameter, the most common type in all English-language verse. For example, iambic pentameter was the preferred meter in all of Shakespeare’s plays. It has five two-syllable "iambs" in each line, each of which approximates the rhythm of a heart-beat (ba-dum, ba-dum, etc.). In formal language, this iambic rhythm is described as an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Each line, then, has around ten syllables.
Yeats’s use of this meter is not as regular as Shakespeare’s. We know this right off the bat because the very first syllable has a stress on it: "Turn-ing." Also, some lines have well over ten syllables, such as line thirteen, which has thirteen syllables (and knowing Yeats, we shouldn’t assume this is a coincidence). However, most of the lines in the poem do have around ten syllables. As far as form and meter in Yeats’s other poetry goes, "The Second Coming" is fairly typical, although he was no slouch when it came to throwing down some rhymes.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Unless you think "blood-dimmed" tides and sphinxes are sexy.