Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.
Today it's difficult to imagine the shock that the First World War brought. It was completely unlike any earlier conflict. The war was enormous in scale, of course, but - and this was crucial - it was also mechanical. Planes, tanks, and machine guns helped elevate the four-year war to previously unimaginable levels of slaughter.
Yet the men who commanded the vast armies belonged to a previous age and used tactics that might once have been effective but, between 1914 and 1918, ensured that the battlefields became meatgrinders.
William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939) was best known as a poet but he was very active in Irish culture throughout his working life.
His early work was heavily influenced by his abiding love of legends and folk tales. Yeats was an Irish nationalist who supported the demands for independence from Great Britain, it was a dream that he lived to see come true, as Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom in 1922.
Yeats' enormous influence on Irish culture was recognised when he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1923.
People would have greeted the end of the carnage with relief and optimism. But what sort of world had emerged from the horrors of war? Some may have seen an opportunity to build something new.
Yeats takes a bleaker view. Something has been unleashed. He pictures it as a great, fearsome beast. Pitiless and powerful, it moves towards Jerusalem to take up its place as ruler of the world.
The Poem - First Stanza
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer"
A gyre is a spiral or circle. Falcons are often trained to fly in a circle around the falconer as they scan the ground below for their prey. This technique is called "waiting - on" and a falcon will tolerate it as long as it gets a regular supply of fresh meat. A falcon will never really be a pet. Given the subject of Yeats' poem, it's interesting that he should choose a wild animal to illustrate his first point.
Here the falcon has distanced itself from its controller. It is no longer responding to voice commands. There is no longer any control coming from the center of the falcon's world.
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,"
Yeats reinforces his point and extends it beyond the example of the falcon. There are now no effective governing institutions. Perhaps people have lost faith in the government, the church, and customs. In modern usage, "mere" usually means simple and/or unimportant. Here, I think, Yeats is turning to an older meaning of the word - "absolute". He is saying that the world has entered a period of complete anarchy.
"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;"
A tide is an inevitable force. The deadly water is tainted with blood. No one is innocent.
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity."
One of the most quoted lines in modern poetry. People of empathy and goodwill have no idea what to make of this new world but, in stepping back, they have left a gap for those who have vested interests in power.
The Poem - Second Stanza
We don't need to do a line-by-line analysis of the longer second stanza. Refresh your memories by following the link below to read the rest. The first section was descriptive, Yeats tells us what he thinks is happening and the immediate effect that these events are having.
The second stanza tells us what Yeats thinks will happen next and it's not pretty. He borrows the Christian idea of the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, this heralds the birth of Christ's kingdom. For Yeats, it's not Christ that is on the way - it is something unknown, perhaps unknowable, and threatening. This is a beast, but it's not the Lamb of God.
There is, I think, one phrase, in particular, that sums up Yeats' central idea. This is Spiritus Mundi - a Latin phrase meaning "World Spirit". Man's progress over centuries has led to a mechanical war that brought unimaginable death and destruction. This is the new world spirit and its image is the pitiless beast. This is not divine intervention, man has brought this about.
The Full Text
The Second Coming - Turning and turning in the widening gyre