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.
Questions About Society and Class
How effective does the poem suggest that social hierarchies are at preserving order?
If Yeats belonged to present-day society, do you think he would be a revolutionary or a conservative?
Does the poet imply that society would be better off if it returned to feudal social structures, as in medieval times?
Chew on This
Because Yeats thinks of history as moving in a gyre, the collapse of society can be seen, paradoxically, as an inevitable consequence of "progress."