In the absence of a thorough examination of the impact on "The Second Coming" of Yeats's historical thought, it is arguable that the meaning the poet intended has not only been consistently overlooked, but that in general the poem has been taken to mean the opposite of what he intended. This essay offers a reassessment of the thought and imagery, of the response Yeats wished to evoke, and of the antithetical rhetoric of his dialectical view of history.
The text provides a striking example of the synthetic technique which produced some of Yeats's finest poems, one which condenses into imagery as much of the poet's thought as is possible but which also creates interpretative problems of which he was fully aware and which he attributed to the compressed, logical rigor of the ideas: "It is hard for a writer, who has spent much labor upon his style, to remember that thought, which seems to him natural and logical like that style, may be unintelligible to others" (Variorum 853). However,Yeats did not believe his philosophy to be either obscure or idiosyncratic; in fact he found confirmation of it in the work of Boehme, Heraclitus, Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Vico and in Neoplatonism and the Upanishads. More surprisingly, he considered the intellectual equivalent of his own imaginative richness of suggestion to be the "packed logic," the "difficult scornful lucidity," of Alfred North Whitehead, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and subsequently of Philosophy at Harvard, and Bertrand Russell's collaborator on the Principia Mathematica (Letters 714). Russell's "plebeian loquacity" infuriated Yeats who admired "something aristocratic" in Whitehead's mind, a combination of terse clarity and suggestive complexity in thought and expression which he labored assiduously to attain, nowhere more so than in this poem.
Yeats wrote "The Second Coming" at the time he was collecting, from his wife's automatic writing, the material from which he created the philosophical system later set out in A Vision, the "very profound, very exciting mystical philosophy" which was to change radically the nature of his verse, and make him feel that for the first time he understood human life: "I live with a strange sense of revelation.... You will be astonished at the change in my work, at its intricate passion" (Letters 643-44). In reality this philosophy was neither completely new nor entirely mystical in origin, but rather a crystallization of what Yeats had read, thought, experienced and written over many years, the result of the process whereby he had "pieced [his] thoughts into philosophy" ("Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen," Variorum 429). Despite Yeats's own conviction that this had produced a striking change in his writing, many critics have demurred. There has often been a reluctance to take Yeats's thinking seriously and, partly as a consequence of this, a refusal to accept that he successfully expressed his beliefs in his poetry, especially a skepticism regarding what Graham Martin has called his "cryptic symbolism" (230). In fact the symbolism in "The Second Coming" is anything but cryptic, except in the limited sense that it embodies some of the most profound elements of his philosophy in a concentrated and complex form which he recognized might prove not immediately intelligible to the reader, but which is entirely logical and consistent. Moreover, it mines a deep and rich vein--literary, philosophical, historical, political and mythical--which has little, if anything, to do with the occult.
The most fundamental question which has to be addressed in any interpretation of the poem concerns the response Yeats invites to the sphinx symbol, which is awesome, frightening, at last seemingly repulsive, yet which I shall contend paradoxically embodies much to which he was intellectually and emotionally committed. Critical opinion has predominantly interpreted the rough beast as a comfortless vision of horror, symbolizing the birth of a "violent, bestial anti-civilization" (Unterecker 165), while often suggesting that the poem as a whole consists of generalizations which do not require, or would not benefit from, detailed analysis. …