What About that Rough Beast? "The Second Coming"

The last lines of "Demon and Beast" suggest the move of "The Second Coming." Though death come to him and destruction to his Ascendancy descendants, exultant victory over natural things will be accomplished by living through his art. This reading of "Demon and Beast" informs Yeats's configuration of beast in "The Second Coming," a configuration not evident in an isolated reading of the poem. The demon and beast of "Demon and Beast" necessarily inform the rough beast of "The Second Coming" in view of the poems' proximity to one another and their use of identical words for the beast. I conjecture that the rough beast of "The Second Coming" represents Yeats himself, controlling the demon and beast construct of self by escaping the tyranny of physical existence.

"The Second Coming"

In this first stanza Yeats vacillates through more bird imagery. "Turning and turning in the widening gyre" (1) recalls his earlier statements from "Demon and Beast": describing himself he writes "I had long perned in the gyre" (5), while describing the white gull he writes "gyring down and perning there" (26). All these bird images indicate Yeats's vacillation between the elusive freedom of the escape vision and the encompassing tyranny of soul and body. That "the falcon cannot hear the falconer" (2) suggests some natural order has been upended, destroyed by "mere anarchy" loosed upon the world. Introducing the poem with imagery of vacillation suggests that "The Second Coming" may be another "sweet" vision in which Yeats has escaped the tyranny of intellectual self-construct. The poem's title suggests a visionary quality, inferring St. John's biblical Revelation of the end times and second coming of Christ, particularly referring to the battle of Armageddon in loosing "the blood dimmed tide."

This first stanza presents a world in which all is inverted, in which the natural order gives way to some other organizational system. Master and servant relationships are abolished when the falcon cannot hear the falconer. The "ceremony of innocence is drowned" (6) through its own perverted and deadly baptism. That "the best lack all conviction" (7) refers to Ireland's intellectual skepticism and paralysis. Yeats returns to this theme in "Meditations in Time of Civil War," retreating to his tower and escaping the violent cry of the rabble. On one hand he sees in Ireland soldiers, praiseworthy men of action, writing admiringly in "The Road at My Door" of "An affable Irregular" (1) and "A brown Lieutenant and his men" (6). Yet he also understands the destructive violence and intellectual ignorance inherent in such action, writing in "The Stare's Nest at My Window,"

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned (

By the end of "Meditations in Time of Civil War" Yeats configures the soldiers from "The Road at My Door," previously admirable men, as transformed into intellectually paralyzed, single-mindedly violent drones. He writes of the intellectual nothingness for which they grasp,

The rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage hungry troop
Trooper belabouring trooper, biting at arm or face
Plunges toward nothing, arms and fingers spreading wide
For the embrace of nothing (

Returning to "The Second Coming," Yeats's configuration of the "best" transformed into violent, intellectually paralyzed drones also describes "the worst full of passionate intensity" (8), who share unthinking opinions and act upon anti-intellectual beliefs. He describes himself nearly drawn into this anti-intellectual action, claiming that "I, my wits astray / Because of all that senseless tumult, all but cried / For vengeance on the murderers of Jacques Molay" (14-16) in "I See Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart's Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness."

Undoubtedly Yeats presents this inverted order as the coming apocalypse, when the gyres converge and history passes from one cycle to the next. Situated immediately after "Demon and Beast," the first stanza enacts an escape vision like the previous poem. The "vast image out of Spiritus Mundi" (12) is, in fact, another of Yeats's escape visions, an example of a "sweetness strayed" into the future. Significantly Yeats configures the vision of approaching apocalypse almost positively, using the word "mere" to describe "anarchy." In 'Demon and Beast" he makes the same gesture, describing positively the aging process: "mere growing old." Yeats's fascist ranting from later poems suggests his high level of comfort with ideas like anarchic nihilistic destruction. Using the term "mere anarchy" in which "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold" (3) also suggests the insignificance of anarchic destruction within his escape vision. By escaping his soul and body construction of self he finds the means to escape the physically destructive apocalypse of civil war and disintegration of the natural order. The second stanza of this poem details more specifically his escape vision of the apocalyptic future.

Yeats evokes the relationship between this poem and St. John's revelation in the first lines of the second stanza: "Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand" (9-10). He enters an escape vision in which apocalyptic future reveals itself. In this vision, made possible by his escape from constructed self, the beast emerges. Because of the beast's proximity to Yeats's evocation of the Second Coming, critics often interpret this beast representing a destructive anti-Christ figure. While the poem's imagery certainly invites religious connotations, Yeats's earlier self-construction as Demon Est Deus Inversus suggests a much closer parallel to Yeats himself. Since demon and beast represent Yeats's intellectual constructed self as soul and body in the previous poem, this awakening beast represents Yeats himself. A clear reference to Shelley's "Ozymandias," this beast emerges in Yeats's escape vision as his surviving self in art. As the ghosts in the portrait gallery and the king's stony visage grant their creators' existence beyond the ravages of time and apocalypse, so Yeats envisions his own survival of apocalypse and destruction in the awakening beast. Even though he envisions Ireland as having collapsed in the apocalyptic changing of the gyres, his Ozymandias-like self remains, soul and body of demon and beast.

The Yeats-beast of this vision, the "image out of Spiritus Mundi," emerges Sphinx-like "in sands of the desert" (13) just as Anthony and his two thousand followers remain "withered to a bag of bones" ("Demon" 49) on the Egyptian desert shore. The beast exhibits god-like power of the sun that had shone upon his laughing freedom and dried the bones of the starved monks. The beast is no longer that which controls Yeats's roused nature. In this escape vision Yeats configures the beast as created and controlled by the vision itself. Transcendental Yeats as pure spirit controls and dictates the slow awakening of Yeats as body and soul in art. The desert birds, which once had jarred his reverie with their physical presence, now reel indignantly as intangible shadows with no effect. The beast "moving its slow thighs" (16) evokes the "chilled blood" of old age from "Demon and Beast" while also inferring steady and sure sexual procreation and foreshadowing the beast's later Bethlehem birth.

When "the darkness drops again" (18) Yeats's escape vision ends and he reencounters tyranny of demon and beast, of physical and intellectual self-construct. But the vision of "The Second Coming" remains with him and reminds him that, come apocalyptic destruction to Ireland or death to his soul and body, he will survive through his art as Ozymandias-like beast. He embraces the confluence of gyres knowing that he will survive in his art. At the end of the twenty centuries, when epochs invert through the converging gyres, it is he, Demon Est Deus Inversus, who will be reborn as god-like beast. The rocking cradle vexing the twenty centuries to nightmare contains his own creative process. Envisioning soul and body born into the next gyre, the destruction of apocalypse leads to rebirth through art, Ozymandias style. The poem ends, not with a question, but with an answer. "What rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" (21-22) The beast is an aging Yeats, slouching with chilled blood and slow thighs toward Bethlehem to be reborn through his art. The second coming is his own, an artistic reincarnation far beyond the physical violence of contemporary Ireland.

This poem extends that "sweetness" which Yeats so desperately desired in "Demon and Beast," for the vision remains through one more poem to reveal the future in which he controls the beast and the demon. My insistence upon reading "The Second Coming" in its context within Michael Robartes and the Dancer extends to the next three poems in the collection. This radical rereading of "The Second Coming" in light of "Demon and Beast" informs canonical "Prayer for My Daughter" and short "A Meditation in Time of War" and "To be carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee." Although I intend no thorough investigation of these poems, I offer these few suggestions for new readings. Realizing that Yeats undercuts his own stances as often as he makes them, I provide only one side of a rereading of these poems and leave open the probability that my suggestions have already been undercut by other critics in the field.


Relating to the Collection as Context
"'A Prayer for my Daughter' presents Yeats's newborn daughter Anne sleeping through a storm 'half-hid / Under this cradle-hood and coverlid.'"