The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats

We have all heard and read more words this week than we want or need. The ones that keep coming back to me were written in 1919, in a poem called “The Second Coming,” a haunting vision written by William Butler Yeats in the wake of the first world war.

W.B. Yeats by John Singer Sargent. Public Domain W.B. Yeats by John Singer Sargent. Public Domain

The Second Coming

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 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 was a member of The Golden Dawn, an early 20th century occult organization centered in Britain that sought to recover lost elements of the western mystery traditions.  Their once-secret teachings are now posted online, where we can see that the group practiced the kind of visualizations that could give rise to spontaneous “images out of Spiritus Mundi,” the World Spirit, one of the Golden Dawn’s concepts.

Elsewhere we can read that the poet worked out his own concept of world cycles or “gyres” as he put it here.  We find theories of world cycles from many cultures in many times.  The Greeks said there once was a Golden Age, but now it is Iron.  We’ve all heard of the Age of Aquarius, though unfortunately astrologers now tell us it won’t begin for a few hundred years.  Eastern cultures envision vast cycles that rise and fall and rise again eternally.

In all of these visions, this is the Iron Age, the Kali Yuga, a time of degeneration, where the ceremony of innocence is drowned.  Different traditions differ on where it goes from here.

In one account, offered by Paramahansa Yogananda, the crucifixion marked the nadir of this particular world age.  Things are getting better; right now we are experiencing inertia, a last gasp of the dark ages.  Even in this hopeful account, nothing is fixed or pre-determined.  It’s up to us.  How we live our lives, what we think, and what we do, matter more than we know.  More than we can imagine.

In truth, we already know this, just as we know that despair is not an option.  It seems to me the only choice we have is to live moment by moment as if we are the people we want to be, living in the world we want to live in.  There may not be anything more important.  Isn’t it true that the sum of our collective thoughts and actions is going to shape our world and the one future generations are going to inherit?

3 thoughts on “The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats

    • I took a great sophomore lit class in college called, “Yeats and Eliot,” which still keeps on giving! One of his lesser known books is called “Mythologies” and represented his travels on foot, to the most remote parts of Ireland, collecting folklore and fairy lore. He found elderly informants who spoke only Gaelic, so got some interesting legends, though he published his transcripts in a more literal, less crafted way than collectors like the Grimms.

      But I digress…


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