The Second Coming
“Whenever a catastrophe strikes, it’s incredibly common to see an outburst of apocalyptic mania. One of the most enduring and popular artifacts of such an outburst is “The Second Coming”, a poem written in the early 20’s by Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The inspiring catastrophe in question was, of course, World War I, which had recently ended; but Yeats was also influenced by the failed Easter Rising of 1916, when Irish Nationalists tried to obtain independence from Great Britain. In fact, Yeats wrote a poem, “Easter, 1916”, commemorating the fallen heroes, many of them personal friends, just a few months afterwards. But “The Second Coming” elevates Yeats’ sense of disillusion into a cosmic existentialism foretelling the very end of the world.
The poem is divided into three sections, although many publications divide it into two stanzas. In the first section, Yeats describes the intellectual and cultural atmosphere in Europe after the War, with a ‘falcon’, symbolizing mankind’s animalistic aggression, escaping from the control of its ‘Falconer’, the social codes of civilisation that had recently been blown apart. Without these codes, ‘things fall apart’, causing ‘mere anarchy’ and ‘the blood-dimmed tide’ to become ‘loosed’ upon the world (in this context, ‘mere’ means ‘total’). That these disasters are ‘loosed’ implies that they were always somewhere within us, but had previously been held in check. ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’- disillusioned by catastrophe, idealists completely give up, leaving a vacuum for more aggressive and violent people to take over. In less than fifteen years after the poem was published, the Nazi party would take over Germany.”