Chaotic Minds, Chaotic Societies: “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats
In 1919, the year “The Second Coming” was written, World War I, one of the deadliest wars in history, had just ended and Ireland was in the throes of a war to fight British control. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants and those of different socioeconomic statuses were threatening to boil over at any moment. Seeing all the violence and conflicts around him, William Butler Yeats, an Irish-born poet, believed that they were omens of more to come. In his poem, Yeats uses dark, chaotic imagery to highlight his apprehension toward society’s bleak future resulting from the breakdown of the binding force of religious values and to show that societal phenomena are mirrors for the state of people’s minds. Through his turbulent, violent descriptions, Yeats creates a vivid image of severe chaos, which is reflective of his view of the general human mindset at that time, and sends a shiver down the reader’s spine.
The poem opens up by conjuring a strong anxiety in the reader with the words “[t]urning and turning”, almost as if the foundations our morals are built on are swirling faster and faster, and illustrating that people’s minds are becoming increasingly dizzy and confused. Yeats condemns that the noble values people are taught “lack all conviction”, while the dark desires of humanity “[a]re full of passionate intensity”. In Irish society, Christianity is a pillar essential to the culture and to the people’s spirituality. When the central precepts of the religion are devalued to mere words and are no longer being followed, it is an obvious sign that something is amiss in people’s minds. Yeats therefore brings attention to the Christian values, such as empathy and compassion, that are disintegrating because they are overpowered by evils, such as selfishness, greed, and violence. It is evident that Yeats believes human nature is akin to selfishness, greed, and violence, and needs to be controlled by strong morals, much like how the “falcon”, a bird of prey, must be restrained by the “falconer”. He intensifies the horrifying turmoil of the human mind’s condition stemming from the death of the values behind the religious “[ceremonies] of innocence”, which have turned into mere formalities. Yeats contrasts the pure water of baptism ceremonies, symbolizing the cleansing of sins, with the villainous water that drowns, symbolizing the domination of evil over good. With his layers of escalating, tumultuous imagery, Yeats conveys his intense fear at the prospect of humanity’s decline from its collapsing moral values, which ultimately serves as a warning of the possibility of future catastrophes.
Yeats’s imagery exhibits meanings that can be interpreted in relation to both the mind and the society as the state of the mind echos into the fabric of society, forcing readers to confront the fact that the present is a harbinger of the future. From World War I to the Irish Civil War, Yeats experienced the circle of society that is like a “widening gyre” falling apart, parallel to the chaos of the mind. There was little order amidst the numerous deaths, manipulative politics, and endless scrambles for more power. While the core values of religion, which is like a government of the mind, have lost their controlling powers, the seeming inability or lack of motivation to stop the tumult puts society in a state of “mere anarchy” as well, which reinforces the “rough beast”—the ghastly side of society that has been unleashed. Yeats laments that in such times of evil, the blood of countless victims of violence have made the oceans’ tides “blood-dimmed”, which has been “loosed” upon the society. Just as Egypt is punished with the bloody, undrinkable, fetid Nile in the Old Testament for refusing to free their Jewish slaves, society is now metaphorically punished with contaminated tides for its state of degradation. The modern bloody tides are even more horrifying, because they are man-made with the blood of the victims of violence, and are uncontrollably flooding society. From complete chaos to massive bloodshed, Yeats uses troubling imagery that can describe both the mind and the society to draw the reader’s attention to the inseparable nature of the two and stirs up a foreboding sense of the possibility of society’s future descent into further darkness. Yeats uses distorted religious imagery to show that social phenomena are simply effects resulting from the state of people’s minds.
Most Christians believe that there will be a Second Coming of Jesus, referenced in Matthew 24 and Revelations of St. John, which will restore peace and compassion to society. Given the chaos prevalent in society at that time, Yeats’s anxiety and trepidation reaches a climax that even something that is supposed to be a beacon of hope like the “Second Coming” is transformed into a dark and terrifying scene. Ironically, the one that appears during the Second Coming is not Jesus, a symbol of the noblest side of man, but an otherworldly being with “[a]. . .lion body and the head of a man”, reflecting the regression of people to an animalistic, beast-like nature. From Yeats’s perspective, although people still look and speak like people, their actions are often no better than wild animals. Ominously, this “rough beast” which “[s]louches toward Bethlehem to be born” with its “slow thighs” has a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”. Chillingly, in a world dominated by this beast, beautiful, holy, or beneficial things can become hideous, corrupt, or harmful—the sacred Bethlehem turns into the birthplace of a destructive beast; the sun, a life-giving star, becomes cruel; the tides metaphorically become thick with blood. With the utter anarchy of the world that intensifies the disastrous and contaminates the respectable, it is no surprise that Yeats sees a “[troubling]” image from the “Spiritus Mundi”–a monster surrounded by “desert birds” hungry for death–in the barren “sands of the desert”, reflecting both the widespread destruction caused by violence and the bare, empty spiritual aspects of the world. The fact that there are no humans in this image shows his profound concern about the animalistic state of society, caused by the lack of integrity in the general mindset.
Now, even though the beast has slept for “twenty centuries”, it has been disturbed by a “rocking cradle”–rocked by the turmoil of both mind and society. The coexistence of Jesus and this monster reflect the two sides of human nature and thus states of society–unfortunately, the degraded human mindset is waking the monster instead of Jesus. Yeats’s grim forecast for the future of society arouses the reader’s most primitive, basic instincts–fear and anxiety, an effective tool to get his warning message across. Yeats describes extreme chaos to show the condition of both mind and society at that time and twists the nature of the Second Coming, a symbol of hope for Christians, into a dreaded evil, demonstrating that the nature of phenomena around us is a reflection and an effect of the mind. The state of the mind and social phenomena are two sides of the same coin. The mind can change the nature of neutral phenomena: a chaotic mental state can make purifying water suffocating and evil, clean ocean tides bloodily contaminated, a peaceful and hopeful Second Coming a dark and foreboding one.
Ultimately, Yeats shows that the status of the mind is at the root of all world phenomena–peaceful or violent, pure or polluted, ordered or chaotic. Yeats further implies that one can observe the social phenomena in the world and easily deduce the mental state of the general public because of the parallelism of the two. The poem provokes readers with a question: after all of these crises, shall we start rocking the cradle of peace or shall we continue rocking the cradle of the beast?
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