Yeats' Use of Symbolism in 'Leda and the Swan' and 'the Second Coming'

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  • Topic: Zeus, The Second Coming, Helen
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  • Published : November 23, 2010
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W. B. Yeats, a somewhat eclectic poet, explores, throughout his work, a wide range of themes and ideas. He reflects on his nation’s politics, Irish mysticism, the afterlife, love, and his own past. While each set of his poems share many recurring images, however, it is Yeats’ examination and opinions of the gyres of time and history that crop up in all forms of his poetry. While references to this great spiraling metaphor for the fabric of the universe can be found in some of Yeats’ most famous works, such as ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, ‘Long-legged Fly’ and ‘Easter 1916’, to name just a few, it is an aspect of his poetry which is relevant to almost all of his writing. However, it is in Yeats’ apocalyptic poems, ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘The Second Coming’ that this metaphor for the history of time is most explored. The poems relate the tales of two points in time that Yeats feels to be important turning points in history, epicenters of calamity and destruction, as the stability of civilization in torn apart and humanity enters a new era of was and horror.

The first of the poems, ‘The Second Coming’, was written in 1920 and the very title indicates to the reader something of sinister nature, and links in very much with the final chapter of the Bible, Revelations, which acts as a foresight of judgment day. It is also possible that the tragedies of World War One, which had only ended two years prior to the printing of the poem, also influenced Yeats’ lack of optimism about a long future peace.

From line one, Yeats talks of a “widening gyre”, “turning and turning” as history, past, present, and future, revolves slowly. The great gyres referred to by Yeats are used to represent his view that a single miniscule point in history can spiral outward exponentially to cause great long term catastrophe. Yeats also notions toward his beliefs in the link between mysticism and astrology as the “turning and turning” represents the spinning planets, along with the 23 phases of the moon, each of which, Yeats believed, corresponded to an epoch in time. Another metaphor s then employed as we are told of how “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”. Here, Yeats uses the image of the falconer to represent some kind of order and structure, possible God, or possibly simply the rational part of man. However, the stability which this entity should be commanding , the falcon, is no longer at ne with him. It has spiraled outward again and again to achieve such great hights that that it had in fact lost touch with its master. This catastrophe this build up had lead to is then unleashed as “Things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold”. This collapse then triggers one devastating conclusion: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Yeats uses oxymoronic juxtaposition to startle and almos confuse the reader. By talking of “mere anarchy”, Yeats throws so much that is settled in the readers mind to the wall/ The two words bring with them images of utterly destroyed buildings, cities, live and civilizations as an end comes to humanity. Yeats then talks of a “blood-dimmed tide” also being “loosed”, and this repetition of the word “loosed” establishes a feeling that this havoc is no new creation, but something which had been locked away in the vaults of time and will now once again bring death of the earth. Stanza two begins with proclamations warning of a coming doom:

“Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming!”

This somewhat maddened calling of the apocalypse is haunting to say the least. The repetition of “surely…at hand” brings with it a feeling that Yeats is not just assuming this horrific future is possible, but also that he knows, for sure, that it is on its way. The call is also one of fear in itself. He knows it’s coming, but he cannot accept it. As word of the second coming is utters, Yeats talks of how “Hardly those words are out/When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi/Troubles my sight”....
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