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What Is the Tone of the Poem "Second Coming"?


In poetry, tone is the feeling a writer projects through word choice, imagery and subject. The foreboding tone of Irishman William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming" -- a vision of social upheaval -- can make a reader feel moody and worried. Written in 1919 following World War I and the Russian Revolution, Yeats was especially affected by the 1916 Irish Rising, during which Britain jailed and executed a number of his friends and acquaintances.

Tone Defined

Tone is the outlook that an author wants to convey to readers. To be successful, it must not waver. Instead, word choice and images need to work together steadily to build the desired atmosphere. In "The Second Coming," Yeats begins with the ominous image of a bird of prey, a falcon that can't hear commands as it spins circles high above its master and out of his control in a "widening gyre." Unlike an oceanic whirlpool sucking objects, ships and people into its funnel, Yeats' gyre is dangerous because "things fall apart" when "the centre cannot hold." This leads to anarchy and, by the end of the poem, a "rough beast" awaiting birth.

Yeats' Gyres and History

Although not religious in a conventional sense, Yeats was obsessed with mysticism and the occult. These beliefs included the idea that historical movements are like conical gyres increasing in power and then collapsing when about 2,000 years old. He visualized the overlap of historical eras as opposing, interlocking gyres. Despite its title, "The Second Coming" is not about an end-of-world experience in which true believers rise up to heaven. Instead, it concerns Yeats' perception of Christianity diminishing and a new, unsettling era being born.

Poem's Political Tone

In 1939, shortly before his death, Yeats wrote to a friend that he "foretold" the advent of World War II in "The Second Coming." Over time, some of the poem's phrases have become aphorisms for social disorder. In 1961, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe titled his famous novel about colonization of Africa "Things Fall Apart." The "New York Times," in a 2007 article, noted that politicians have found the poem's tone useful in rhetoric, such as when President George W. Bush gave a speech about Iraq titled "The Center Cannot Hold."

Word Choice in "The Second Coming"

Yeats' language could be deceptively simple, such as when he wrote "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." There is an element of irony in juxtaposing "mere" -- a word that can make light of its subject -- with "anarchy," a source of violence and disorder. Also, "mere" also means a broad lake. Immediately following the line about anarchy, the poem says, "The ceremony of innocence is drowned." The new historical movement isn't simply replacing the old; it is destroying it.

Imagery of Poem

Aside from the circling falcon, another central image that Yeats used to develop tone was the Egyptian sphinx dragging itself across the desert while "indignant desert birds" reel around it until "darkness drops." History is waking up after "twenty centuries of stony sleep" or Yeats' 2,000-year cycle. The poem says that a "rocking cradle" -- the birth of Jesus Christ -- had set the cycle in motion. It asks, "what rough beast . . . slouches towards Bethlehem" to usurp the cradle? Yeats' doom and gloom was intentional. Yeats didn't support the Irish rebellion, but he didn't approve of the subsequent executions. A year prior to writing "The Second Coming," Yeats wrote to a friend saying that he was "despondent about the future."

About the Author

Alicia Rudnicki's Library Mix website blends book buzz for all ages. A gardener, she writes for California's Flowers by the Sea nursery. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from UC Berkeley, a Master of Arts in education from CU Denver, and has taught K-12.

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