WilliamButler Yeats (1865-1939), probably the greatest English poet of the twentiethcentury whose unusual creative potential was readily apparent as a young man,especially to his Irish contemporaries.He showed a great affinity towards mystical abstraction. His poetry ischaracterized by its intense lyricism, its use of symbolism, its sensuousbeauty, precision and realism. Yeats is torn between excitement at thepossibility of revelation and horror at the destruction and barbarism thataccompany it when he wrote “The Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan”. The poemshe wrote after winning the Nobel Prize in 1923 are from the crushing power ofthe tower to the eerie mysticism, they stood as a testament to the force andcommitment with which he devoted himself for transforming his inner-self intopoetry.
“TheSecond Coming” was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War(1914-1918) and was first published in the American magazine The Dial in November 1920. Later on itwas included in the volume entitled MichaelRobartes and the Dancer in the year 1921. It was written at a time whenYeats was puzzled by violence displayed by events like the Easter Rebellion of1916, the Irish Civil War that followed it and the European great World War of1914 to 1918. And in terms, of his philosophy of history a new age in theworld’s history was going to begin. “The Second Coming” written with the Irishtroubles, the Great War and other troubles in mind and displaying hisphilosophy of A Vision which he wasto formulate and organize in 1925. This visionary poem enhanced his reputationas a leading cultural figure of his time.Thepoem is a dramatized presentation of Yeats’s cyclical theory of the historicalprocess, according to which human civilization moves forward in antithetical ordialectial epochs, each of approximately two thousand years’ duration.
TheChristian civilization marked the termination of the ‘Babylonian mathematicalstarlight’ which began around 2000B.C. In a 1936 letter to a friend, Yeats saidthat the poem was ‘written some 16 or 17 years ago and foretold what ishappening’, that is, Yeats poetically predicted the rise of a rough beast or anew messiah that manifested as chaos and upheaval in the form of Nazism andFascism, bringing Europe to its knees. This sphinx- like creature typified thecharacteristics of the future civilization.
Thegloomy prognostication of the future was provoked by the political anarchy inIreland, the unsettled state of Europe generally and especially the Bolshevikrevolution in Russia. ‘Manuscripts in Mrs. Yeats’s possession show how large apart the world situation of 1918-1919 played in its conception and growth’ (Stallworthy,p.17).
The theory of history or each cycle of history is imagined by the poetas a circular or spiral turn or ‘gyre’. A gyre is a combination of line and plane, and as one tendency or theother must always be stronger, the gyre is always expanding or contracting. Thegyre is drawn as a cone which sometimes represents an individual soul and itshistory, or general life. At the end ofeach age, the base of the cone widens.