The Second Coming: A Poem of War, Religion, and Prophecy
The Second Coming is a poem written by William Butler Yeats in 1919. It is one of the most famous poems of the twentieth century, and has been frequently anthologized and analyzed since its publication. The poem describes the chaotic aftermath of World War I, and makes numerous allusions to Christianity and other religious traditions. It also employs prophetic language to foretell a dark future for Europe and America.
2. Allusions to World War I:
The title of the poem, “The Second Coming”, alludes to the return of Christ predicted in the Bible. This is fitting, given that the poem was written in the aftermath of World War I, which was widely seen as a catastrophic event that had upended the world order. The opening lines of the poem describe the chaos that ensued in the wake of the war: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. These lines are often interpreted as an allusion to the collapse of European colonial empires in Africa and Asia during the war.
Christianity is a major theme in The Second Coming. The title itself alludes to Christ’s return, and the poem makes numerous references to Biblical prophecy throughout. For example, in line four, Yeats writes that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”. This could be interpreted as a reference to Christ’s warning that “in the end times, many will fall away from the faith” (Matthew 24:10). In addition, the creature described in lines fifteen and sixteen – “a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi” – bears a striking resemblance to Satan, as described in Revelation 12:3-4.
4. Prophetic Language:
The Second Coming employs prophetic language to foretell a dark future for America and Europe. In line nineteen, Yeats writes that “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”; this could be interpreted as a reference to the loss of innocence that occurred during World War I. In addition, the phrase “the rough beast” in line twenty-one is often seen as an allusion to America, which was seen as a crude and barbaric nation by many Europeans at the time. Finally, in lines twenty-five and twenty-six, Yeats predicts that “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed” and “the worst are full of passionate intensity”, foreshadowing further bloodshed and conflict in Europe and beyond.
5. Dark versus Light Imagery:
The Second Coming makes extensive use of light and dark imagery to contrast good and evil. In line four, Yeats writes that “the darkness drops again but now I know / That twenty centuries of stony sleep / Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle”, suggesting that humanity has been trapped in a cycle of violence and destruction since Christ’s birth. In addition, the creature described in lines fifteen and sixteen is said to be “coming towards Bethlehem”, evoking images of Christ’s birth; however, this creature is anything but holy, as it is said to be covered in filth and resemble Satan more than Jesus Christ (Revelation 12:3-4).
In conclusion, The Second Coming is a complex poem that uses allusions to Christianity and World War I to paint a dark picture of humanity’s future. The poem employs a variety of literary devices, including prophetic language, dark versus light imagery, and Americanization, to convey its message.
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