Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Second Coming

"The Second Coming" is a poem by William Butler Yeats first printed in The Dial (November 1920) and afterwards included in his 1921 verse collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The poem uses Christian imagery regarding the Apocalypse and second coming as allegory to describe the atmosphere in post-war Europe. The poem is considered a major work of Modernist poetry.

The poem was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War. While the various manuscript revisions of the poem refer to the French Revolutions, the Irish rebellion, and those of Germany and of Russia, Richard Ellman and Harold Bloom suggest the text refers to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Bloom argues that Yeats takes the side of the counter-revolutionaries and the poem suggests that reaction to the revolution would come too late.

In the early drafts of the poem, Yeats used the phrase "the Second Birth", but substituted the phrase "Second Coming" while revising. The Second Coming of Christ referred to in the Biblical Book of Revelation is here described as an approaching dark force with a ghastly and dangerous purpose. Though Yeats's description has nothing in common with the typically envisioned Christian concept of the Second Coming of Christ, as his description of the figure in the poem is nothing at all like the image of Christ, it fits with his view that something strange and heretofore unthinkable would come to succeed Christianity, just as Christ transformed the world upon his appearance.

The sphinx or sphinx-like beast described in the poem had long captivated Yeats' imagination. He wrote the Introduction to his play The Resurrection, "I began to imagine [around 1904], as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast which I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction", noting that the beast was "Afterwards described in my poem 'The Second Coming". However, there are some differences between the two characters, mainly that the figure in the poem has no wings.

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