The System of Chaos in "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats. How is the Breakdown of the World Depicted?

Seminar Paper, 2011

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Francesca Cavaliere (Author)




1 The First stanza - The present state of the world
1.1 Chaos and the laws of physics
1.2 Chaos as a political system
1.3 Chaos and the divine judgement

2. Second Stanza – The prophetic vision

3. Third stanza – a look back into the past


Literary references

Online resources:


The "The Second Coming" was composed by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in 1919, i.e. in the aftermath of the First World War and was first published in November 1920 (Webb, 17; Weeks, 287). The poem's title “The Second Coming” makes reference to the Biblical reappearance of Christ, as prophesied in Matthew 24 and the Book of Revelation of St. John in the New Testament. According to Christian belief, Christ will return to conquer Satan and the forces of evil, before presiding over a thousand-year reign of peace on Earth (Brooker, 245). True to the Biblical pattern, the speaker of the poem envisions the breakdown of the present state of the world and the dawn of a new age. He adds, however, a sinister twist to the idea of the Second Coming, suggesting that the return of Christ might just as well become the arrival of the Antichrist.

It will, hence, be relevant to find out what enables the speaker to envision the Second Coming and how his vision is linked to the Biblical model. How is the breakdown of the world depicted and what are revealed to be its possible causes. I will consequently go on to conclude that the poem presents the world as a perfectly balanced system of two opposing forces or principles such as: centrifugal vs. centripetal force in physics, democracy vs. aristocracy in politics, Christ vs. Antichrist in religion etc.. Whenever this opposition is completely cancelled, chaos will be its consequence. All this is, however not to say that chaos sounds for the final phase of existence. On the contrary, it denotes but a phase of transition, as the world is subject to constant change and history moves in a cyclic pattern. Chaos can hence be described as being part of a greater system.

I will proceed in a more or less chronological order starting with the 1st stanza where the speaker describes the present state of the world. The focus will be put here on the omnipresence of chaos and its relation with the laws of physics, political systems and the divine judgement.

The second main part of the paper will deal with the 2nd stanza which presents the speaker’s future vision of the Second Coming. The detailed description of the “Antichrist” in the poem will be compared to the depiction of Christ in the Bible.

In the last stanza the speaker looks back in history, as if to back up his prophetic vision of the breakdown of the Christian era. Justified by the cyclic pattern of history, more and more similarities are drawn between Christ and the “Antichrist” who at the end of the poem even seem to form a unity.

1 The First stanza - The present state of the world

1.1 Chaos and the laws of physics

The first stanza describes the present state of the world as one of complete confusion and disorder creating a threatening doomsday atmosphere. The chaos is depicted as being omnipresent and general, for the poem refrains from any concrete historical references to then current political conflicts such as the First World War, the Russian Revolution or the War of Independence in Yeat’s own country of Ireland (Holdeman, 64). Moreover, there is no definite location given in the first stanza. On the contrary, the prepositional phrase “in the widening gyre” (1) even suggests that the world has not yet arrived at the height of disaster, but that chaos perpetually continues to spread out.

This idea is partly confirmed by the double repetition of “turning” (1) which underlines the idea of incessant movement and constant relocation. Additionally, the verb “turning” offers a choice between two distinct meanings here. Firstly, it denotes the movement “in a circle around a central point” (OALD, 1397) which anticipates the notion of “centre” (3). This meaning relates to the curved flight-path of the “falcon” (2) soaring in widening circles high over a field around its “falconer” (2), hence delineating a “widening gyre” (1). Secondly, “turning” (1) can also be used here in the sense of “to change direction” (OALD, 1397). This resonates with Yeat’s conception of history as two intersecting cones, or gyres that move in opposite directions. Wheras one gyre widens over a period of two thousand years the other narrows. The process then reverses after another twenty centuries have passed, producing a cyclic pattern throughout time (Brooker, 245; Cullingford, 54).

Both meanings of “turning” are perfectly consonant with Ransom’s interpretation of these lines as “the centripetal force of the world turning to centrifugal” (Ransom, 318). Whereas the former decreases, the later increases. This idea is also revealed in the geometrical figure of “the widening gyre” which implies that the radius of rotation is increasing, hence suggesting that the centrifugal force is dominant over the centripetal force. This also explains why “The Centre cannot hold” (3). Chaos is hence described as governed by the laws of physics. This is to say the chaos is well-ordered and systematic and each process of transformation is set off by a reciprocal increase of reversely directed forces.

Another possible interpretation is that “gyre” is used here in the meaning of “vortex”. This again activates the idea of a circular movement as it is by definition: a “mass of air, water etc. that spins around very fast (OALD, 1449). Contrary to the centrifugal force that drives the rotating objects away from the centre, the vortex, however “pulls things into its centre” (OALD, 1449). This once again picks up the idea of oppositely directed forces, hence anticipating the opposition between Christ and Antichrist.

A similar contrast can be detected in the relationship between the vortex and its centre, i.e. the eye of a storm. Whereas the Vorticist, Ezra Pound considered the vortex the “point of maximum energy” (Orchard, 7), in meteorology its centre is generally known as the location of the storm’s least barometric pressure. “Centre” could hence be synonymous here with a lack of power and control.

Just like, “gyre” the term “centre” is not specified in any way in the poem. In physics, the term “centre” might refer to the central part of an atom, i.e. the nucleus which consists of positively charged protons. The electronic repulsion between them is, however, overcome by the nuclear binding energy which is highly attractive at the distance of typical nucleon separation. It has, however, a limited range as it decays quickly with distance. As a result, only nuclei smaller than a certain size can be completely stable (Loveland). As the world is much bigger than an atom, the idea of its “centre” falling into pieces is hence not too far fetched. Again destruction and chaos are justified as obeying to the laws of physics.

1.2 Chaos as a political system

In political terms, the “centre” could be equated with a central organ of control in a country such as the government. This idea is picked up in the negative sense in the noun ” anarchy” as it negates any kind of political control. Moreover, the term associates a political state of transition more or less comparable to the political situation during wartime. It can also be said to represent a cancellation of opposites as it allows neither for aristocracy nor democracy.

This transition from one political era to another is also indicated by the image of falconry. Despite the tight bond that aligns “falcon” (2) and “falconer”(2) their relationship is normally characterized by interdependence and unilateral control, comparable to the hierarchy between master and servant, or mankind and God. One is, however, quick to note that the hierarchical relationship between “the falcon” and his controlling master the “falconer” is impaired, as the “falcon cannot hear the falconer.” (2). This might serve to express Yeat’s favour for feudal society, suggesting that “social decline begins with the escape of the falcon from his handler’s control.” (Webb, 19). This idea takes on additional force when taking into consideration that falconry dates back to the Middle Ages and was then known as a noble sport, for the keeping of falcons was a rather expensive pleasure (“falconry”).


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The System of Chaos in "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats. How is the Breakdown of the World Depicted?
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik Literatur)
Symbolism and Modernism in British Poetry
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
665 KB
Yeats, second coming, modernism, symbolism
Quote paper
Francesca Cavaliere (Author), 2011, The System of Chaos in "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats. How is the Breakdown of the World Depicted?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The System of Chaos in "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats. How is the Breakdown of the World Depicted?

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free