Yeats’s Views on History as Expressed in 'Gyre' and 'The Second Coming'

Yeats had a particular view about history and civilization. He believed that the process of history was a cyclic one. He compared it to the movement of rapidly rotating gyres or cones. The gyres spin swiftly round a fixed centre. Their circumference widens as they rotate and ultimately disintegration sets in. The disintegration begins at the circumference, and then gradually reaches the centre. Yeats’s this view of history was expressed in ‘’The Second Coming’’ and ‘’The Gyre’’.

The Second Coming expresses Yeats’ philosophy of history. He believed that the present cycle of history began two thousand year ago with the birth of Christ and the revelation. Previous to that there was the Grecio-Roman Civilisation, which in its turn began in 200 B.C. with the mating of god Zeus with Leda. Helen and Glytemestra were born as a result of this union and then followed the various events narrated in the Homeric epics. Hellenic civilisation broke down after a life of two thousand years ago. Christ came and a new civilisation was born out of the ruins  of the earlier one. Similarly, the Christian civilisation has nearly run its course of the two thousand years , and so believes Yeats, a Second coming is at hand. History repeats itself, though always with a difference. The present wheel of history has come full circle, and out of its ruin a new civilisation is taking shape. To us the birth of the new may appear as the doom of the old; its values may appear to us monstrous and terrifying, the very thought may be a nightmare to us but certain it is that a change is in the offing, and it is possible that the future is already being shaped in some remote, far off region.

All this and much more is condensed in this remarkable poem of twenty-five lines, and it is this condensation which makes it prophetic almost apocalyptic in its impact. The poem begins abruptly, as if the poet is seeing a vision and expressing it. As if in a trance, the poet sees a gyre or cone rotating rapidly round a fixed centre. Its circumference gradually widens and ultimately even the centre fails to controlits movements. Disintegration sets in; “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” The falconer has lost control over the falcon which does not hear his call. Falcon symbolises the intellect and falconer the soul or the spiritual and emotional part of man. Intellect-science, technology, rationalism- is too much with us, and it is taking us towards total destruction. As a result, mere anarchy has been let loose upon the world. There is bloodshed and violence every-where. “The blood-dimed tide,” carries  with it a suggestion of blind passion and evokes the image of the Great Biblical flood and the havoc which it caused. Everywhere the traditional and aristocratic way of life, a way which has always fostered purity and innocence, is in danger of extinction. The best, the wisest, the aristocratic have lost all faith and conviction, and the masses are fanatical, irrational and violent.

All this decadence and disorder implies that a new civilisation is about to be born. Just as God incarnated himself in the form of Christ when the Grecio-Roman civilisation broke down two thousands years ago, so also the Second Coming of the God seems to be at hand. A Second incarnation seems to be in the offing. As soon as this thought flashes across the poet’s mind he sees the image of some vast form coming out of Spiritual Mundi, a kind of storehouse of images in Yeats’ philosophy. This huge form has the body of a lion and the head of a man. It is seen coming out of some far desert and moving slowly with a clumsy, awkward movement towards Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, as if it, too would be born there. This figure is so monstrous, so nightmarish, that the birds fly before it in terror. The monster has a pitiless, blank look as if it were the symbol of the inexorable, pitiless violence, and its birth is the death of the present civilisation.

Another poem that  expresses Yeats’ philosophy of history is The Gyres.  The Gyres was published posthumously in the Last Poems and Plays(1936-39). Some of the best of these last poems are written out of his brooding over history and the cotemporary scene. The years from 1936 to 1939 were years of frustration, years of growing realization that another war was in the offing and war hysteria and the fear of air raids kept on mounting. The atmosphere was tense, and the worst was apprehended. In one poem after another, Yeats broods over the impeding crisis, and speaks with detachment and aloofness as if he were a voice outside Time. In the Gyres he foresees the end of civilization, for his philosophy of history as a cyclic process, as a revolution of Gyres, gives him hope and confidence. The Old Rocky Face, a sculptured stonehead, symbolizes the poet’s inner consciousness,’ stillness in the centre of Time’s flux, and the impassive gaze of the poet. The poet stands aloof like the Rocky face, likes up the present with three thousand years of history, and sees physical and moral downfall.

What matter though numb nightmare rides on top
And blood and mire the sensitive body stain

And further,

Conduct and work grow coarse and coarse the soul

But all this does not matter. The poet does not despair: he does not give way to pessimism. Rooted in his philosophy of the cyclic process of history, and revolutions of the ears, the poet is sure that what has been, must be once again, and the old values he loves are sure to revive, for,

The workman, noble and saint, and all things run,
On the unfashionable gyre again.

In his earlier poetry he had escaped from the present into a fairyland; now his philosophy itself becomes a sort of fairyland providing him with an escape from the frustrations of the present.

Thus, these two poems namely The Second Coming and The Gyres express Yeats’ philosophy of history.