"The Second Coming" is a poem by William Butler Yeats first printed in The Dial (November 1920) and afterwards included in his 1921 verse collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The poem uses religious symbolism to illustrate Yeats' anguish over the apparent decline of Europe's ruling class, and his occult belief that Western civilization (if not the whole world) was nearing the terminal point of a 2000-year historical cycle.
The poem was written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War. However, the various manuscript revisions of the poem refer to the French and Irish Revolutions as well those of Germany and Russia; as a result, it is unlikely that the poem was solely inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, which some claim Yeats viewed as a threat to the aristocratic class he favored.
The sphinx or sphinx-like beast described in the poem had long captivated Yeats' imagination. He wrote the Introduction to his play The Resurrection, "I began to imagine [around 1904], as always at my left side just out of the range of sight, a brazen winged beast which I associated with laughing, ecstatic destruction", noting that the beast was "Afterwards described in my poem 'The Second Coming'". However, there are some differences between the two characters, mainly that the figure in the poem has no wings.
Critic Yvor Winters has observed, "…we must face the fact that Yeats' attitude toward the beast is different from ours: we may find the beast terrifying, but Yeats finds him satisfying – he is Yeats' judgment upon all that we regard as civilized. Yeats approves of this kind of brutality." Manuscript variations can be found in Yeats, William Butler. Michael Robartes and the Dancer Manuscript Materials. Thomas Parkinson and Anne Brannen, eds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.
The lines "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity" are a paraphrase of one of the most famous passages from Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, a book which Yeats, by his own admission, regarded from his childhood with religious awe:
The phrase "stony sleep" is drawn from The Book of Urizen by William Blake (one of the poets Yeats studied most intensely). In Blake's poem, Urizen falls, unable to bear the battle in heaven he has provoked. To ward off the fiery wrath of his vengeful brother Eternals, he frames a rocky womb for himself: "But Urizen laid in a stony sleep / Unorganiz'd, rent from Eternity." During this stony sleep, Urizen goes through seven ages of creation-birth as fallen man, until he emerges. This is the man who becomes the Sphinx of Egypt.
In the early drafts of the poem, Yeats used the phrase "the Second Birth", but substituted the phrase "Second Coming" while revising. His intent in doing so is not clear. The Second Coming described in the Biblical Book of Revelation is here anticipated as gathering dark forces that would fill the population's need for meaning with a ghastly and dangerous sense of purpose. Though Yeats's description has nothing in common with the typically envisioned Christian concept of the Second Coming of Christ, as his description of the figure in the poem is nothing at all like the image of Christ, it fits with his view that something strange and heretofore unthinkable would come to succeed Christianity, just as Christ transformed the world upon his appearance.
The "spiritus mundi" (literally "spirit of the world") is a reference to Yeats' belief that each human mind is linked to a single vast intelligence, and that this intelligence causes certain universal symbols to appear in individual minds. Carl Jung's book The Psychology of the Unconscious, published in 1912, could have had an influence, with its idea of the collective unconscious.
Joni Mitchell set this poem to lyrics in her song "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" originally on her Night Ride Home CD.
All but a few lines of the poem have been lines of dialogue on the television show The Sopranos, including one episode in which Dr. Melfi tells Tony "The center cannot hold. The falcon cannot hear the falconer".
The phrase "the center cannot hold" is used on the last page of Storm Front, the first book of The Dresden Files.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. used "The Second Coming" as the epigraph to his book The Vital Center. More than a half-century later, he explained that the poem had been "less of a cliché in 1948" than it had become currently. In 1986 Schlesinger, in The Cycles of American History, again referenced this poem with prophetic paraphrase: "Still, let us not be complacent. Should private interest fail today and public purpose thereafter, what rough beast, its hour come round at last, may be slouching toward Washington to be born?"
Joan Didion's 1968 collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, references the poem, as does Nina Coltart's 1993 book "Slouching Toward Bethlehem... and Further Psychoanalytic Explorations", as well as numerous popular songs, movies and novels. Conservative judge Robert H. Bork used the poem as an inspiration for the title of his 1996 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. In response, syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage chose Skipping Towards Gomorrah as the title for his 2003 book (ISBN 0-45-228416-3).
The line "the center cannot hold" is used by Quark in the Deep Space Nine episode "The Begotten".
Adam Cohen, of the New York Times on 12 February 2007 commented how the poem has been used more and more as a metaphor for the war in Iraq.
In the series Angel, there was an episode entitled "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" which involved a foretelling of the end times by the character Lorne who states, "Do the words Slouching towards Bethlehem ring a bell? Or how about despair, torment, terror?".
In the sci-fi television series Andromeda, three episodes are titled "The Widening Gyre", "Pitiless as the Sun" and "Its hour come round at last"
San Francisco Bay-area pop group The Loud Family, led by Scott Miller, titled a 1993 EP Slouching Towards Liverpool, employing a reference to the poem to also allude to the hometown of the group's forebears The Beatles.
Author Nick Bantock makes reference to lines from "The Second Coming" at the beginning and end in each book of the Griffin and Sabine series. This is remarked upon in his biographical book, The Artful Dodger.
In "A Peanut Christmas", a collection of Peanuts Christmas comics, the poem is referenced at the bottom of page 108. Peppermint Patty dresses as a sheep for the Christmas pageant and trips on a curb. Marcie turns to her and says," Slouching toward Bethlehem, huh sir."
In the September 20th, 2008 edition of The Economist, the lead article, entitled "What next?", alludes to the poem. The article is about the financial crisis and seems to use the poem as a theme. The second line begins with the phrase "In the widening gyre." The two section headings in the body of the article are also taken from the poem. One is "The blood-dimmed tide." The other is "The centre cannot hold." Also, the cover depicts a whirlpool pulling down the corporate logos of Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Washington Mutual, HBOS, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Northern Rock, Indymac, as well as the Lehman Brothers building and the Charging Bull sculpture.
In the comedy Back To School, Rodney Dangerfield's character recites the poem, and in his analysis of it, concludes that the rough beast refers to his ex-wife.
In the series 4 episode of the BBC radio comedy Old Harry's Game 'Poets Corner' the professer states that this one of his favourite poems.
The poem is referenced in the Pilot episode of the Sci-Fi series millennium.