Reed Books: “The Second Coming”

Jess Reed, Editor

“The Second Coming”

by W. B. Yeats


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?


I mean, yeesh, right?

The first time I saw this poem was on the wall of my freshman English classroom, written in Sharpie on a laminated sheet, taped to the cinder blocks with Scotch tape. It was surrounded by generally happier quotes, but the first lines – “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” – fascinated me. They still do.

There’s a reason this is Yeats’s most famous poem, and his most referenced one. Humanity’s fascination with death and destruction certainly earns him some points, but the most interesting part of the poem, in my opinion, is the reference to Spiritus Mundi.

Spiritus Mundi is a Latin saying that means “world spirit”; Yeats saw it as a “collective unconscious”, a sort of zone through which all of humankind draws inspiration. His wife, Georgiana Hyde-Lees, would often claim to write using the Spiritus Mundi, automatically transposing higher thoughts into words. Yeats would use her writings as inspiration for his poems, and they both believed they had been given gifts from a higher power.

Maybe they were right. Maybe Yeats just looked around at the atrocities of World War I and wrote about the evident apocalypse. 

Even though “The Second Coming” is so influenced by its time period, the poem is referenced over and over in pop culture, especially the phrase “Slouches towards Bethlehem”. Here, Yeats is describing a monster sent from Hell that is coming to Earth to deliver the end of the world; the literal antichrist. But Yeats was not the first man to think the world was ending, and he won’t be the last. Every few years when some disaster takes place, everyone expects the world to end. Whether through climate change, or nuclear war, or natural causes, or religion, people are great at coming up with reasons for the apocalypse. One of these days, we’ll be right, but until then, Yeats’s apocalyptic-centric poetry will continue to fascinate.