Revised 20 February 2012
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats wrote The Second Coming while Europe and much of the rest of the world was trying to recover from World War I. This was surely an important factor for him in writing the poem. Yeats saw great social troubles all around him, and remarks on a world spinning out of control.
Line 2 hints at technology progressing beyond mankind's ability to control it. The problem was evident to Yeats 80 years ago, and the problem has worsened since then. Yeats shows his concern that technology has advanced to the point where mankind can do a great deal of harm with relative ease. The world had never seen destruction of the likes of World War I, and most people were shocked at the extensive loss of human life during the war.
In the time that Yeats speaks of, the rulers of the world were caught up in imperialism and expanding circles of power to the point where they would do almost anything to accomplish their goals. The ruthless power mongers were outspoken and numerous, and there seemed to be few who dared to speak out against them in the name of peace.
At one point, I had stated here that Spiritus Mundi is a Medieval text for Christians, to inform them what they need to do to die in the grace of God. It is essentially "the art of dying well." At this point, I must offer sincere apologies. I must have been severely confused (and have a memory lapse) when I wrote that, because the text that deals with the art of dying well is in fact "Ars Moriendi". Spiritus Mundi is literally "Spirit of the World." In order to avoid making another stupid mistake, I will refrain from comment on the meaning of Spiritus Mundi for the time-being.
Nevertheless, I believe Spiritus Mundi leads Yeats to propose that perhaps the Second Coming (of Christ) is near at hand: Judgement Day . . . . the end of the world.
Spiritus Mundi brings an image of the sphinx to Yeats' mind. Yeats sees the sphinx rising up to bring forth the end of the world. The sphinx slept in a world of nightmares for 2000 years. The nightmares were caused by the turmoils of the human race (line 20). The indignant desert birds (line 17) (a.k.a. humans who foresee the Second Coming) try to stop the sphinx (the end of the world), but their task is impossible. In the end, Yeats reveals no hope for the continued existence of mankind.
Comments by Shelly Wilkinson:
regarding the interpretation, I think there are more Biblical representations than was brought out by the other comments. 1) Many people thought the second coming of Christ was "surely at hand" after the terrible loss of life and bloodshed after WWI as does Keats as he writes in his poem. This is referred to in the book of Revelations, the last book included in the Bible. 2) Spiritus Mundi "spirit of this world" is commonly referred to as Satan in the Bible, even Jesus own words while alive. 3) he does seem to describe the sphinx and it rised out of a "figuritive" ? desert or maybe he was referring to the literal desert in the mideast where Armageddon (sp?) the final war of wars is to take place, 4) also, explained by Biblical respresentations is the last stanza:
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Keeping in mind the overall message of the poem, the apocalypse, a rocking cradle could refer to the birth of the Anti-Christ (literal and figuratively), and Bethlehem was the birth place of Jesus Christ. The "beast" is slouching toward it's aim (Bethlehem) to wreak havoc (the spirit of this world hates humans) on this earth (even though the ultimate end and greatest bloodshed will be his defeat). Maybe Keats saw that WWI didn't resolve conflict and saw something worse on the horizon (WWII). It would have been heart wrenching to have witnessed such human waste. (all at the hands of human choices but also with the coaxing of spiritus mundi). There is a verse in the Bible that says,"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places"
WEBMASTER'S NOTE: The following is from a second e-mail.
also, a couple things I didn't mention that you may want to look into,
The falcon (or possibly kestrel) was referred to in the Bible also:
Also, the lion as a beast is mentioned in the Bible, Revelations 4 but it is not as an ominous sign. Jesus was also called the lion of the tribe of Judah. However, there are several scriptures that mention the lion's predatory might and, interestingly, lions conceal themselves by day until "The darkness drops again".
Comments by T. Reese Greer:
I was reading your analysis of W.B. Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming" and noted a couple of errors. The first is merely a typo in the body of the poem wherein you entered "Spritus", omitting the first 'I' rather than "Spiritus". The second was a translation error.
"Spiritus Mundi is literally "Spirit of the World.""
In the context of the Yeats piece, 'Spiritus Mundi' is interpreted to mean 'Spirit World' as in spirits, as in ghosts, as it were. Spirits from another time or plain… (The ghosts of Christmas past?)
The only basis I have for the interpretation of Spiritus Mundi is the study of Latin. Of course, the art of translation being what it is, any word or phrase can have a number of meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. And even that can be confusing or misinterpreted based upon the translators personal biases or abilities. So one person may read something to mean one thing whereas another may interpret it to mean something else entirely. And, as you can see with the multiple possibilities for the interpretation of "Spiritus Mundi" the various interpretations can change the meaning of a statement considerably.
Comments by Michael Bowen:
What Yeats was seeing was what we are living right now.
I won't take you thru all the obvious. The sand, Bethlehem. Helter SKELTER, all falling apart the center isn't holding now. Unipolar versus multipolar. Etc. whatever thing it is will be born because Israel is the cradle that has awakened the sleeping disunified Muslims who conquered almost everything until they just lay back and grooved themselves to sleep. The beats knew the way out of the coming mess, tried to pass it to the hippies but who would believe THEM. So.
Its [expletive deleted by webmaster]
Follow up from Michael Bowen:
HI IT IS FINE TO PUBLISH MY OPINION. HOWEVER I HOPE THERE IS NO CONFUSION. THIS IS CERTAINLY NOT ANTI ISRAEL OR ANTI JEWISH. JUST THE FACT THAT ISRAEL BROUGHT EUROPEANS TO WHAT MUSLIMS CONSIDERED THEIR LANDS. THIS LARGE IMMIGRATION WOKE UP THE MUSLIMS. THEY BECAME AFRAID AND HAVE REACTED. THAT IS WHAT I MEAN BY WAKING UP. THE MUSLIMS DID CONQUER A GREAT DEAL OF EUROPE, ALL THE MEDITERRANEAN LANDS OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE AND PRIMARILY WENT EAST TO INDIA AND THE OTHER NOW MUSLIM TERRITORIES. WHAT I MEANT BY, THEY SHOULD HAVE LISTENED TO THE HIPPIES AND THE BEATS IS SIMPLE. LOVE EACH OTHER DO NOT HURT EACH OTHER. IF THIS GETS ACROSS, THEN SURE, PUBLISH
LOVE TO ALL
Comments by Martin Cothran:
I had an angle on this that occurred to me when re-reading it recently. Notice how Yeats begins the poem in the present time, 2,000 years after the birth of Christ. Yet in the second stanza, he shifts to the past, and talks about the beast having slept for 2,000 years, and all of a sudden the present is 2,000 years ago at the birth of Christ. Yeats seems to conflate the two mirroring 2,000 year periods into one time. He seems to be using a literal image of the beast, awakening after a 2,000 year slumber at the first coming of Christ, as some sort of metaphorical picture what is happening at His second coming, with the 2,000 years of slumber referring simultaneously to both 2,000 year periods--but one literally, and the other figuratively. I haven't thought this all the way through, but it is a haunting apocalyptic vision, to say the least.
Comments are by R.P. Greenish:
I very much enjoyed reading your comments on 'The Second Coming' by W. B. Yeats, but, although very much valid, I think that your views fail to explore the deeper meanings of the poem. Having read Yeats' 'A Vision', a book written by him about his views on the world and how time progresses, I am very much familiar with his ideas and beliefs. This poem is obviously written with these ideas in mind:
The falcon in the second line, turning and turning in the widening gyre, represents the 'gyres' or cones that Yeats refers to in his book. These govern the progression of time and the human race, and can be represented by the 28 phases of the moon. 2000 years ago was the beginning of a new cycle, Christ was born at exactly the right time to have a perfect soul, and now we reach the end of the cycle, nearing the end of the 28th phase, about to start again. Yeats inagines the rebirth of Christ as the start of the new cycle, and the revolution at hand in the rebirth of the human race. Your analysis of the poem fits in with the end of the cycle when the gyres dictate that we will behave as we do and cause what is happening in the world, i.e. - wars and destruction, and ultimately our end.
I would advise that you read this book if you are interested in Yeats, and also some of his other poetry - 'The gyres', 'Sailing to Byzantium', 'Death', 'He thinks of his past greatness when a part of the constellations of heaven'. All these poems are strongly related to the views that he describes in his book.
Comments by Ana Horvat, LLM:
I'd like to share with you one of my own insights into the "Second Coming" poem, which I stumbled across only after I read Chinua Achebe's "Things fall apart". I believe the concept of "Spiritus Mundi", or as you translated it "the Spirit of the World", is nothing else but today's concept of collective unconscious, given to us by the work of the great Freud's disciple, Jung. I do not know if you're familiar with his idea of collective unconscious, it has much in common with the theory of linguistic structuralism of Chomsky and Levi-Strauss, but it would fit very nicely to interpret the "Spiritus Mundi" syntagm as part of this idea (as something as an archetype idea, as is also the falcon in the beginning of the poem).
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