W B Yeats

          “The only living man whose work has more
than a most temporary interest”

                                                                                                    
              Ezra Pound

William
Butler Yeats (1865-1939), probably the greatest English poet of the twentieth
century whose unusual creative potential was readily apparent as a young man,
especially to his   Irish contemporaries.
He showed a great affinity towards mystical abstraction. His poetry is
characterized by its intense lyricism, its use of symbolism, its sensuous beauty,
precision and realism. Yeats is torn between excitement at the possibility of
revelation and horror at the destruction and barbarism that accompany it when
he wrote “The Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan”. The poems he wrote after
winning the Nobel Prize in 1923 are from the crushing power of the tower to the
eerie mysticism, they stood as a testament to the force and commitment with
which he devoted himself for transforming his inner-self into poetry.

“The
Second Coming” was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War
(1914-1918) and was first published in the American Magazine the Dial in November 1920. Later it was
included in the collection entitled Michael
Robartes and the Dancer (1921). It was written at a time when Yeats was
puzzled by violence displayed by events like the Easter Rebellion of 1916, the
Irish Civil War that followed it and the European Great World War of 1914 to
1918. And in terms, of his philosophy of history a new age in the world’s
history was going to begin. “The Second Coming” written with the Irish
troubles, the Great War and other troubles in mind and displaying his
philosophy of A Vision which he was
to formulate and organize in 1925. His reputation as a leading cultural figure
was established through this poem.

The
poem having a pessimistic overtone is a dramatized presentation of Yeats’s
cyclical theory of the historical process, according to which human
civilization moves forward in antithetical or dialectical epochs, each of approximately
two thousand years’ duration. The break-up of Graeco-Roman culture and the
‘Babylonian mathematical starlight’ came to an end with the coming up of the
Christian civilization which began around 2000 B.C. Yeats poetically predicted
and foretold in a 1936 letter to his friend about the rise of a rough beast or
a new messiah that manifested as chaos and raising in the form of Nazism and
Fascism. This sphinx- like creature typified the characteristics of the future
civilization.

The
gloomy prognostication of the future was provoked by the political anarchy in
Ireland, the unsettled state of Europe generally and especially the Bolshevik
revolution in Russia. ‘Manuscripts in Mrs. Yeats’s possession show how large a
part the world situation of 1918-1919 played in its conception and growth’ (Stallworthy,
p.17). The theory of history or each cycle of history is imagined by the poet
as a circular or spiral turn or ‘gyre’. The close of one cycle is followed by
the birth of another. A gyre is a combination of   line and plane, and as one tendency or the
other must always be stronger, the gyre is always expanding or contracting. The
gyre is drawn as a cone which sometimes represents the individual soul and its
history, or general life.  At the end of
each age, the base of the cone widens. As it gets wider even the center fails
to control its movements which is given in the poem as:

Things
fall apart; the centre cannot hold

The
image of the falcon which is out of the falconer’s control should not be
localized, it can be seen as an image of man loose from Christ. The
civilization of the poem’s period began with Christ at the point of the cone,
and the gyre which then began has almost reached its fullest expansion.
(Jeffares)

The
falcon was originally hawk; the hawk is familiar as one of Yeats’s favourite
emblems. The spirit of man has lost contact with tradition, wisdom, control; a
civilization is passing and the antithetical age is at hand. (Henn, p. 143)

In
Between the Lines, John Stallworthy
regards Yeats’s falcon as the pride of the intellect. For at least one moment
the poet planned to introduce the visionary second coming with ‘a gloomy bird
of prey’.

Chinua
Achebe chose the title for his work from the third line of “The Second Coming”
as Things Fall Apart. Achebe
opted the title from this poem because of the similarities like the two
cultures are in disarray and ready for dramatic change. In fact, Achebe also
included four lines from Yeats’ poem prior to chapter one:

Turning
and turning in the widening gyre

The
falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things
fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere
anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Yeasts
employed many symbols and images to portray the deadening hardships of the era
that eventually leads to the complexity of the poem. ‘Falcon’ is a symbol that
loses hold of Christian doctrine and teaching, bringing to a close to the
Christian phase of human history.  ‘The
ceremony of innocence’ symbolizes order, the innocence of childhood and the
innate purity of the human heart which occurs in A Prayer for My Daughter. The ‘Spiritus Mundi’ also called ‘Anima
Mundi’ is the spirit or soul of the universe. Individual souls are connected to
it through the ‘Great Memory’, a reservoir of subconscious memories of the
human race. For Yeats it is the source of symbols. The ‘stony sleep’ is an echo
or an unconscious borrowing from Blake’s The
First Book of Urizen. The sphinx, in Greek legend, is a monster with a
woman’s bust on a lion’s body. It was believed to stray into Thebes, pose
riddles to the Thebans and devour them if they failed to resolve them. In his definitive editions of Yeats’s
poems Richard J Finneran quotes
Yeats’s own notes.

 The poem consists of twenty-two lines in two
verse paragraphs. The first is of eight lines and the other is of fourteen
lines. This renders a rather imbalanced feeling of the poem, giving more
importance to one than the other. It is relevant to acknowledge that Yeats’s
poems follow a definite stanzaic pattern. Yeats introduces more general terms
into this poem such as ‘anarchy’, ‘the ceremony of innocence’, ‘the good’, and
‘the worst’. The poem is written in blank-verse pattern in a very rough iambic
pentameter, but the meter is so loose.

The
title of the poem directly refers to an allusion to the Christian expectation
of Christ’s second coming as predicted in the New Testament of the Bible.
However, it indirectly hints at the arrival of a rough beast which is the
binary opposite to the Christ. The “rough beast” slouching towards Bethlehem is
the symbol of this new age. The speaker’s vision of the rising sphinx is His
vision of the character of the new world. The poem is a magnificent statement
about the contrary forces that work in history and about the conflict between
the modern world and the ancient world. The aesthetic experience of its
passionate language is powerful enough to ensure its value and its importance
in Yeats’s work as a whole.