To understand the meaning of William Butler Yeats poem “The Second Coming”, you must first understand the difference between Christianity and Paganism. Yeats was raised as a Christian and turned to pagan mysticism later in his life. Therefore, we can find the subject of this poem by tracing his flow of thought through Christianity up to the point when he diverged from it.
Christianity is based around the soul. The soul becomes healthy by its removal from the sin, which it inherits in the world. A healthy or virtuous soul is close to God by contact with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can be considered the spirit of God on earth. Jesus Christ is thought to be the embodiment of the Holy Spirit, therefore the embodiment of virtue.
In contrast, Pagans worship the spirit of earth as a god, believing it to be the ultimate force, which is neither good nor evil. The religion states the more base human tendencies that Christians would call sinful would be glorified as the reflections of nature. These would include pursuits of pleasure, luxury, or sexual gratification. Many modern pagans especially the ones Yeats associated with do not dispute the ideas of Christianity concerning God but they do not worship him. Early leaders of this movement, like Alister Crowley, with whom Yeats was associated with considered themselves Satanists in this right since Christians equate the spirit of the world with the devil. Yeats was certainly a Christian at some point in his life and makes allusions to Christian faith in “The Second Coming”, which would indicate that he lends some credence to it, so we can assume that he took the Satanist point of view.
As the world turned towards paganism so did Yeats. The poem, while on one level is an earnest description of the change that is occurring to mankind, it is also an earnest illustration of his change to paganism.
The opening eight lines illustrate the strife Yeats had seen in his lifetime from a Christian point of view. They describe man as moving away from God in a desperate tone, obviously not written by a pagan. Upon his cries to...
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... Alliteration “surely some”, “stony sleep”. Onomatopoeia is also on display “vexed”, “slouches”. The piece also includes some simile “blank and pitiless as the sun”, and metaphor “stony sleep”.
The tone is set early on in the poem. It opens with a neutral tone; the non-realistic imagery makes the opening disengaged. The impact of the first two lines is not lent by tone, but by their peculiarity and imagery. The sense of devastation that pervades the poem is introduced in the second part, it is explicitly stated that “things fall apart”, and this is further emphasized by the words “anarchy”, “blood-dimmed tide”, “passionate intensity”. However, the poem itself, which is so far dealing in abstractions, lacks this passionate intensity. Its tone could be described as anxious.
In conclusion, “The Second Coming” is about William Butler Yeats belief in Paganism. He vividly describes this religion and compares it to Christianity in his poem. This message although hidden can be uncovered through careful analysis and patient reading. This poem is Yeats way of telling people that the world will start to switch to paganism and as he already did at the time of writing this great piece of work.
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