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Symbolism in the Poem "The Second Coming"

William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet, wrote "The Second Coming" in 1919 at the close of World
War I. It's a violent and mesmerizing poem that outlines the end of an era and a coming, great
destruction. Its symbolism largely centres around destruction and rebirth, and most analyses of
the poem stem from these types of symbols.
The Gyre
Yeats opens "The Second Coming" with an image of a falcon escaping the falconer, swinging
outward in a "widening gyre" -- a term Yeats coined to describe a circular path or pattern. As the
falcon flies in great arcs away from the falconer, so the world spins out of control. The "gyre"
was Yeats' symbol of a human epoch of 2,000 years. The poem frames a 2,000-year historical
progression, with the birth of Christ marking the beginning and the war marking the end.
The Tide
The remainder of the first stanza, after the "widening gyre," deals with symbols of destruction
and death. "Things fall apart," says Yeats, and "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." He uses
the symbol of a tide, "blood-dimmed," drowning innocence, that destroys hope and from which
humanity needs salvation.

The Second Coming

Yeats introduces the symbol of the second coming in the second stanza, which is used as an
answer to the first. The destruction of the first stanza must stand for something, and Yeats sees it
as heralding a new epoch, or gyre. Yeats draws on the language of the Book of Revelation to
conjure an image of Christ's return. He further included biblical symbolism when explaining that
for 2,000 years (one gyre), the sleep of the Sphinx was "vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,"
presumably of the Christ-child.
The Sphinx
As soon as Yeats introduces the idea of a Second Coming as salvation, he uses his most powerful
symbol -- the Sphinx -- to offer his prediction of the future of the world and of humanity. As
soon as he alludes to Christ, a "vast image" of a pagan religion appears to wander toward
Bethlehem. The symbol here is of the end of a religion that, for Yeats, embodied hope and
innocence. Its power is gone, and the hour of the "rough beast" -- the Sphinx, an allusion to pre-
Christian religion -- has come around again.
The widening gyre (symbol)
"Gyre" is actually a scientific term used to refer to a vortex located over the air or sea, and it
usually refers to systems of circulating ocean currents. In Yeats's "The Second Coming," "gyre"
is used to represent the swirling, turning landscape of life itself.
Gyres apper in many of Yeats's poems. He uses it to represent the systems that make up life, the
push-pulls between freedom and control that spin together to create existence.
The falcon (symbol)
The falcon, separated from the falconer, is lost: without reason, without ruler, without larger
cause. It is a symbol for a lost humanity, at the mercy of uncontrollable forces. The falcon, in
short, is all of us, wandering around the earth, trying to find meaning.
The falconer (symbol)
The falconer is a symbol that may represent God, or a wider standard of ethics or morality.
The blood-dimmed tide (symbol)
The blood-dimmed tide, loosed upon the world, is a symbol that represents overwhelming
violence and uncontrollable chaos.
The sphinx (symbol)
The sphinx, perhaps, represents the bearer of the riddle-like prophecies that the narrator is trying
to unwind, the creature in between the narrator and the answers he is looking for. He is mystified
by what has been happening around him, but he believes that it is not all accidental, and he is
trying to find clues in the seemingly inexplicable events that have been occurring around him. In
mythology, sphinxes often delivered riddles and would sometimes kill those who could not
answer the riddle. Perhaps this sphinx is asking what the poem is asking—what rough beast is
emerging? What is this nebulous world called the future going to look like?