Analysis of "The Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats

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Analysis Of “The Second Coming” By W.B. Yeats

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W.B. Yeats’ "The Second Coming" is a bold, modernist commentary on a changed society following the end of World War I. Through his use of imagery, as well as harsh wording, Yeats breaks down the social depictions that were once ordinary during the Romantic period in literature. In a complete turnaround from the language and idealized imagery characteristic of Romanticism, Yeats, instead, forces the reader to confront what he sees as the truth of a new modernist world that is far from picturesque.

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In the first two lines of "The Second Coming, " Yeats paints a clear picture of the disorder that appears in his perception of the world. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” The image of this large, powerful bird spinning out of control in mid-air is a powerful one. What's more is that this encouraging, uncontrolled force "cannot hear the falconer," no longer able to be tamed by the very being designed to control it as the separation between it and the falconer grows. Already, Yeats seems to be challenging the way nature is normally depicted in Romantic literature in exchange for a more modernist view that points out disorder and questions a man's relationship to nature and thereby, God instead of admiring it. Yeats' intentional use of diction here is worth noting. Instead of selecting words like "spinning," "spiral," or "lark," he chooses the words "turning," "gyre," and "falconer”. It furthers the setting of the dark mood of the poem. Together, the imagery and diction of the first two lines serve to make the reader uncomfortable and turn the idea of a perfect world upside down.

Historical context is an indication of modernist literature since the authors of this era are often making a social commentary about the day, and “The Second Coming” is no exception to this idea. Written in the aftermath of the carnage that followed World War I, a war that ultimately claimed millions of lives in Europe and dismantled long-standing systems of order amongst several nations, this poem transports the reader through three phases of war: the battle for control, the engagement, and the carnage of war. While in the first two lines, the falconer battles the falcon for control, in lines three and four "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," Yeats is no longer hinting at or foreshadowing what is to come but rather forcing the reader to watch the mayhem unfold. These lines, with their rough and trite meter, are abrupt and unsettling, intensifying feelings of discomfort in the reader as the fight ensues. As the center breaks, the world as Yeats once knew it ceases to exist, propelling him to a reckoning of sorts. This estamination is, in large part, an intended function of modernist literature - a reckoning of truth and an idealized world and the chasm that lies between them, meant to make the reader question the world around them and their place in it.

Modernist writers, like Yeats, seek to tell the bare truth. This is nothing more obvious than in lines five and six; as the imagery becomes more violent, gruesome depictions of the “blood-dimmed tide” speak to the third phase of war, the aftermath where chaos abounds as “innocence is drowned.” Millions lost their lives in World War I, and Yeats even suggests that more war is to come since humankind’s innocence is dead, and the good comes down to the blood-drenched waves of evil. Whether Yeats’ commentary makes the reader uncomfortable is of no consequence but rather the point. Calling attention to the disorder and injustices they identify in the world, modernist writers aim to throw off the reader, perhaps in an effort to move the reader to action- to take up the repairs of order, a new world order, as his condition.

Modernism in literature, characterized by a desire to reveal the world as it is, often tackles subjects considered prohibited in romantic literature. Themes like the massacre of war and death and evil have no real place or context within romantic literature's idealized view of the world. Yeats, by contrast, is a product of the modernist period that seeks to inform the reader's social attention by disturbing once widely-held constructs and pointing out the disorder in his world, having shed the glasses of Romanticism in exchange for the new lens of Modernism, where harsh realities and ideals cannot concur.

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