William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” soon after the end of World War I, known at the time as “The Great War” (because it was the biggest war yet fought) and “The War to End All Wars” (because it was so horrific that its participants dearly hoped it would be the last war). It was also not long since the Easter Rising in Ireland, a rebellion that was brutally suppressed and the topic of Yeats’ earlier poem “Easter, 1916,” and the Russian Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the long rule of the Czars and was accompanied by its full share of lingering chaos. It’s no wonder the poet’s words convey his sense that the world he knew was coming to an end.
“The Second Coming,” of course, refers to the Christian prophecy in the Bible’s Book of Revelation that Jesus will return to reign over Earth in the end times. But Yeats had his own mystical view of the history and future end of the world, embodied in his image of the “gyres,” cone-shaped spirals that intersect so that each gyre’s narrowest point is contained inside the widest part of the other. The gyres represent different elemental forces in the historical cycles (or different strains in the development of an individual human psyche), each beginning in the purity of a concentrated point and dissipating/degenerating into chaos (or vice versa)—and his poem describes an apocalypse very different from the Christian vision of the end of the world.