Misinterpretations |4| The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats

‘The Second Coming’ by WB Yeats is a tricky one. Despite being one of his weirder, more esoteric works, it remains a staple of his celebrated poems. But if you back an English teacher into the corner even they might have trouble telling you exactly what it all means. Even Yeats had a couple of different versions of the text, but the one referred to in this article is here.

The Known Interpretation:

‘The Second Coming’ was written in the aftermath of the unprecedented destruction of World War I. Yeats employs apocalyptic imagery to describe the end of the current cycle of history. This is marked by the second coming, not of Christ, but of something else entirely. The poem describes a world coming apart at the most fundamental levels of society, crying out for the revelation of new age.

The Misinterpretation:

Poetry is often about omission as much as inclusion. As pretentious as it sounds, you’ve gotta look at the notes not being played.  And while ‘The Second Coming’ is already pretty dense, the key to (mis)interpreting this poem is to view it as a rough sketch of something larger.

Namely, a brief treatment for a B-grade horror film.

While Yeats isn’t known as a screenwriter, or an early proponent of the horror genre, ‘The Second Coming’ bears far too many hallmarks of such writing for this interpretation to be ignored.

 the important thing in a film like this is to establish tension from the get-go, not to actually say anything.

Like all good scripts we’re dropped in medias res with immediate action. The first word is a verb, “turning”. In fact it’s so important Yeats repeats it. We kick off straight into movement, suggesting that the film this poem outlines would rip along at a pretty nifty pace.

Opening a film with visual metaphor is also a neat trick. As metaphors go, a falcon getting away from a falconer isn’t all that great, but the important thing in a film like this is to establish tension from the get-go, not to actually say anything.

It’s important to note that there are no significant characters in this poem. The closest we get is a vague reference to the “best lack[ing] all conviction,” and the worst “are full of passionate intensity”. Not only does this tell us that Yeats had a strong understanding of how to heap adversity on his protagonists, it also lets us know that the identities of the protagonists themselves isn’t really that important. Clearly Yeats had in mind one of those bland-faced casts of generically attractive nobodies that it’s hard to care about as they’re killed off one by one. This is one of those films where it scarcely matters who the humans are anyway, because everyone is only here to see the monster.

In this Yeats can actually be seen as a precursor to masters of suspense like Spielberg, as the monster of the movie doesn’t actually appear until the thirteenth line, more than half way through (around the middle of the second act, in screenwriting terms).

Again it’s a little obvious, but the lion body makes it dangerous, while the man’s head makes it sympathetic.

Up until then it’s all moody buildup, with Yeats laying on the pressure good and thick. There’s an abundance of horror language (“blood dimmed”, “innocence is drowned”, “vast image… troubles my sight”) that’d make Lovecraft smile, before Yeats finally unleashes the jump-out shock. As monsters go “a shape with lion body and the head of a man,” with a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” is a pretty good one. Again it’s a little obvious, but the lion body makes it dangerous, while the man’s head makes it sympathetic. Anyway, given the lack of interesting characters mentioned earlier, this is clearly the type of movie where you root for the villain.

After this Yeats lays on some more cliché horror movie language as he builds to the finale. He talks about “dropping darkness”, and echoes his earlier mention of a falcon with the winding shadows of desert birds. Birds are scary by default. But the master stroke is the final line, or more importantly the final punctuation.

The poem ends by asking “what rough beast… Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”. Yeats is clearly aware that the best way to leave an audience quaking in their boots is the open ended “the end?” style ending.

 ‘The Second Coming… Comes Again!’ would have looked great on a poster.

This leaves the lingering threat of a monster still out there to ensure a run of nightmares for weeks to come, as well as setting things up nicely for a sequel. Yeats, unfortunately, never got around to writing said sequel. Which is a pity, because ‘The Second Coming… Comes Again!’ would have looked great on a poster.

Of course the poem is only the outline, not the entire script, so it’s possible that Yeats intended for somebody else to take up where he left off and develop his rough treatment into a full length screenplay. Perhaps it was the technological limitations of early filmmaking held Yeats back. But now, in a world of inexpensive digital technology, surely some budding filmatist could bang together a decent low budget horror flick out of this poem.

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