Are good people still good if they don’t act in the face of chaos? Is there something awe-inspiring about people who do bad things, but who "are full of passionate intensity"? The question of how to tell good and evil apart – and whether they can be separated at all – is essential to the text of "The Second Coming."
Yeats’s generation had just witnessed the worst war in modern history (World War I) – one in which there were no "good guys," because every nation was sending its men to live for months in horrible trenches, often fighting over a few feet of land. The implication throughout the poem is that society has strayed too far from its values to act responsibly. The image at the beginning of the poem depicts a situation in which the falcon, a symbol of nobility and tradition, is "deaf" to the instructions of its master. "Innocence" is described as only a "ceremony," something that is put on for show, but perhaps not truly meant. "The best" people are said to "lack all conviction," which would seem to be a paradox. And the sphinx in the desert seems to embody a force that is neither good nor evil, but simply indifferent. By the end of the poem, the speaker’s question about what kind of "beast" is about to be born is merely the last sign of how far away society is from clear categories of "good" and "evil," compared to those found in the Bible.
The sphinx in the desert is best thought of as an inhuman force of nature. Therefore, it is neither good nor evil. It cares no more about the fates of people than does "the sun" that shines indifferently on everyone.
As a historical figure, Yeats embodies the ambiguities of European society at the time (the early 1900s). He was a radical insofar as he believed that Ireland should be free from the oppression of British rule, and he thought that the Irish were justified in rising up against their rulers. However, he also believed that the social hierarchies found in an aristocratic society were essential to preserving order. "The Second Coming" manifests these tensions. The image of falconing refers to a practice often associated with the noble class in medieval society, whom could afford to hunt with birds of prey. On the other hand, by referring to twenty centuries of history as only a "stony sleep," Yeats demonstrates that the achievements of history are relative, and that the established order can be overthrown at any moment. Without singling out specific people, nations, or classes, Yeats demonstrates that Europe has no one to blame but itself for its problems.
Because Yeats thinks of history as moving in a gyre, the collapse of society can be seen, paradoxically, as an inevitable consequence of "progress."
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.
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.
In the Bible's Book of Revelation, Christ is prophesied to return to the world to engage in a campaign, called the Battle of Armageddon, against the forces of evil. Yeats uses this symbolic battle to make a comparison with the war that had just been fought in Europe (World War I), which had been thought of as the war to end all wars. The first stanza in particular is filled with the imagery of war and violence. However, according to the poem, the Second Coming had not yet occurred, and therefore that World War I was only a prelude the "real" Battle of Armageddon. The poem doesn't actually endorse the full and literal Biblical prophecy. Yeats appropriates the Battle of Armageddon as a metaphor for the end of social stability in the modern age.
It is impossible to tell that this poem was written in the twentieth century: it could have been written after any war.
Yeats was capable of taking the long view of history. He uses the image of the gyre, a coil that continues to expand outward, as a symbol of the fragmentation of society. Also, he conceives of the "twenty centuries" since the birth of Christ as merely one night of "stony sleep." He thought that present events were always deeply rooted in the past, whether people realized it or not. Finally, he believed that great visionaries, like poets, had access to the entire communal memory of the human race through something called Spiritus Mundi, the world of the spirit. The vision that the speaker of the poem has in the second stanza is said to arise from the mystical connection to this collective "storage room," as it were, of eternal symbols.
If the falcon in the poem is a symbol of present-day society, then Yeats thinks Europe can no longer recognize the traditions that formed the "centre" of his own history.