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William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium”

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    Comparing and Contrasting William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium”

                Two of the finest of all William Butler Yeats’s poems, are his “The Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium”. This discusses the similarities and differences between these two poems. It can be said that, while they differ in terms of tone, mood, meters, and rhymes, these two impressive poems are similar in terms of the simplicity of structure and the immediate conviction of pertinent emotion. In addition, they are different in that, while history and anthropology predominate over supernaturalism in “Sailing to Byzantium”, it is the opposite in “The Second Coming”. Finally, this essay argues that the two poems are similar as regards the use of the metaphor of a “gyre”.

                Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in a very coarse iambic pentameter. However, the meter in the poem is so loose, and the exceptions so common, that apparently the poem is closer to free verse with recurrent heavy stresses. Likewise, the rhymes are random; aside from the two opening couplets, there are only unintentional rhymes in the poem like “man” and “sun”. On the other hand, the four eight-line stanzas of “Sailing to Byzantium” have the form of a very old verse. Metered in iambic pentameter, each stanza has two trios of alternating rhyme followed by a couplet; in short, the poem is rhymed ABABABCC.

                The mood and the tone in the “The Second Coming” are obviously different to that of “Sailing to Byzantine”. In the former, the narrator is describing a nightmarish and violent scene:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre

    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity.

                On the other hand, the narrator in the other poem evokes agony and sadness. Referring to the country that the narrator has left, he says that this country is not for “for old men” like him:

    THAT is no country for old men. The young

    In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

    – Those dying generations – at their song,

    The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

    Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

    Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

    Caught in that sensual music all neglect

    Monuments of unageing intellect.

                If one is to isolate a major interest in Yeats’s poetry, one might better emphasize how much more the great poems derive from history and anthropology. In understandable concern with the supernatural, a great deal of the criticism has ignored how much more Yeats belongs to the great anthropological and historical interests of our time than to any magical specific. In “Sailing to Byzantium”, history and anthropology predominate clearly over supernaturalism: they provide both the symbolic framework and the bulk of the detail by which the overriding myth is established.

    O sages standing in God’s holy fire…

    Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre…

                Here, “perne in a gyre” is too explicit to survive in force after its novelty has been absorbed. “God’s holy fire” does add a level of meaning, but its very isolation indicates how overwhelmingly the poem is expressed in historical anthropological terms. On the other hand, it can be said that, in “The Second Coming”, supernaturalism predominates over history and anthropology. This is evidenced by Yeats’s use of Spiritus Mundi in the poem, which literally means “Spirit of the World.” It is believed that it might have led Yeats to propose that the Judgment Day or the end of the world is approaching.

                In terms of structure, “The Second Coming” is quite simple. In the first stanza, the narrator describes the conditions present in the world. In the second stanza, the narrator surmises from those conditions that a horrible Second Coming is to happen soon. This second coming is not of the Jesus people first knew, rather, it is of a “rough beast”. While interestingly blasphemous, this brief exposition is not awfully complicated. Similarly, the structure of “Sailing to Byzantine” is also quite simple. The first stanza describes how the narrator sees his own country. In the second stanza, he states that, because his former country is not for old men, he says that he has “sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.”. In the third stanza, the narrator describes Byzantium as a place where sages could become the “singing-masters” of his soul. In the last stanza, the narrator declares that once he dies, he will become a golden bird, singing of the past, the present, and the future.

                There is about these two poems, to any slowed reading, the immediate conviction of pertinent emotion; the lines are stirring, separately and in their smaller groups, and there is a sensible life in them that makes them seem to combine in the form of an emotion. We may say at once then, for what it is worth, that in writing his poem Yeats was able to choose words which to an appreciable extent were the right ones to reveal or represent the emotion which was its purpose. The words deliver the meaning which was put into them by the craft with which they were arranged, and that meaning is their own, not to be segregated or given another arrangement without diminution.

                Like all his cycles, once his mythology is kept in mind, Yeats’s structural antinomies can be thought of as symbols of an exploding and contracting gyre. one shall have to imagine, as an illustration, that the skeletal outlines of a poem move about a great spiral, returning to a position where they were initially, but always one rung higher. They return with a variation, like universal history as it mounts a symbolic winding staircase.

                For example, in the opening lines of “Sailing to Byzantium”, the narrator describes the natural life, which he rejects: “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies”. In the final stanza, having in his dreams escaped out of nature, he sings fondly “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” On the other hand, the gyre referred to in the first line of “The Second Coming” is the actual gyre-like movement of a bird in flight: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer…” It is also Yeats’ symbolic interpenetrating cones of history; but one does not have to know this last meaning of “the widening gyre” before “The Second Coming” can be either understood or enjoyed.

                Overall, the structural antinomies, cycles, and gyres in the two poems are indistinguishable from each other. Likewise, they are also indistinguishable from their resolution, the harmony towards which both humanity and art aspire. Not only do the antinomies symbolize one another, as they must, but the structural gyres and opposites of “the Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium” are in patterns which suggest both perfection and the metaphysical Absolute. Although they are about life, these poems transcend it. And the integration of their infinite parts is so fixed, so complete, and so harmonious that they completely resolve their own fragmentary nature.

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    William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium”. (2016, Sep 09). Retrieved from

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