The Second Coming - A Commentary on William Butler Yeats

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Commentary on The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

        In his poem originally titled The Second Birth, William Butler Yeats issues a warning to mankind concerning the inevitability that its destructive ways will give rise to a new age of darkness and anarchy. Yeats prophesizes the impending doom of humanity through the arrival of a second holy being, arisen to void the internal fissures which cripple 20th century culture. The poem encapsulates Yeats’ bleak vision of the future through violent imagery, ritualistic language, vivid symbolism, and allusions to fundamental teachings within Christianity.

        The Second Coming refers to the Second Coming of Christ, as predicted in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Bible to take place after Satan’s reign of darkness. At the time of this poem’s writing, World War I had just ended in Europe and many people started taking the idea of a “war to end all wars” more seriously. It became hard to tell good and evil apart, where both the victors and the losers were left to survey the immense loss of human life and transformation of society. In this vacuum where disbelief and a lack of faith began to permeate, Yeats envisioned a sinister twist to the idea of the Second Coming, believing that the end of history might rather be heralded by the coming of an Antichrist instead – a symbol of violence and chaos in the world. 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. This mood of stark anticipation is further empowered by the lack of all color throughout the poem, with words like “blood-dimmed” and “darkness” painting an infinitely hopeless portrait of what is to come.

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The idea of Yeats being a prophet of the coming age is further emphasized through the loose meter and absent rhyming scheme prevalent throughout the poem. It is written in a very rough iambic pentameter, but exceptions are so frequent that it actually seems closer to free verse with frequent heavy stresses. Instead of consistency within structure, many echoes are found in lines such as “Turning and turning…”, or “The falcon… the falconer”, “Surely… is at hand”, “Surely the Second Coming is at hand”, “The Second Coming!”. The effect of all this irregularity in form and emphasis combined with the ...

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