Magazine: Explicator, Summer, 1992


Edward Proffitt's very original thesis, that the rough beast mentioned in the penultimate line of Yeats's "The Second Coming" is the offspring of the sphinx-like creature of lines 13-17, which was propounded in his note on the poem (Explicator 49.3, spring 1991), definitely makes sense but does not seem to be as wholly satisfying as he claims it to be.

If one accepts the postulate of Geza Roheim, cited by Proffitt, that "The Sphinx ... is the father and mother in one person,"[1] one has necessarily to reject Proffitt's thesis, as it is only the mother who can carry her child in her womb. The "sexual hint in the ominous description of the beast `moving his [sic] slow thighs,'"[2] which is seen by A. M. Gibbs and by Proffitt, does not appear to be sufficient to impart the female sex to it. On the other hand, if at all the creature has a sex, it seems to be male: Yeats says that it possesses the head of a man and the body of a Eon, not a lioness. Besides, to ascribe the female sex to it, or even to add a female element to its sex, would dilute the terrifying nature of the creature. To see the rough beast slouching in utero in the fetal position, as Proffitt suggests, imposes a rather heavy strain on the reader's imagination.

The twelfth line of the poem makes it explicit that the sphinx-like creature is little more than "a vast image," a mighty mental picture seen by the speaker. This mental picture emanates from Spiritus Mundi, the Yeatsian counterpart of the Jungian collective unconscious, the general storehouse of images common to the race. It is therefore only natural that the speaker cannot specify the exact location of the creature; all that he can say is that he sees it moving "somewhere in sands of the desert." It is not quite accurate to say, as Proffitt does, that we are given a glimpse of the creature. It is the speaker who has a glimpse of the creature, and we are only told about it. The speaker states that the creature "Troubles my sight," making it clear that the vision, notwithstanding its roots in racial memory, is a personal one, something that he shares with no one else.

As the vision comes to an end and "The darkness drops again," the speaker realizes that he has had a preview of things to come. He now knows that the "stony sleep" of each civilization, normally lasting two thousand years, is "vexed to nightmare," that the security offered by every civilization contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and that the specific nemesis of the civilization to which he belongs is the sphinx-like creature seen in his vision, which he now alludes to as a rough beast."

The two concluding lines of the poem do not form a statement but constitute a question, as is unambiguously indicated by the punctuation mark that brings the poem to its close. The physical identity of the creature is beyond doubt, as the speaker has already seen it in his vision, but he is not certain of its place of birth. Bethlehem, because of its association with Christ, whose second coming is prophesied in the Bible (Matt. 24.3-44, Mark 13.3-37, Luke 21.7-36, and Revelation 6.12-17), appears to be an ironically appropriate birthplace for the beast. Pointing out that a civilization lasts two thousand years from nadir to nadir and that Christ came at the Greco-Roman meridian, Yeats wrote in his diary, "Our civilisation which began in A.D. 1000 approaches the meridian and once there must see [sic] the counter-birth."[3]

The closure of the poem need not be given too literal a reading. Keenly aware of the physical appearance of the beast, the speaker feels that slouching is the movement most natural to it, and he wonders whether it is now on its way to the town of Bethlehem in order to make its appearance.


1. Geza Roheim, The Riddle of the Sphinx (London: Hogarth, 1934) 22; qtd. in Edward Proffitt, "Yeats's `The Second Coming,'" Explicator 49.3 (1991): 165.

2. A. M. Gibbs, "The `Rough Beasts' of Yeats and Shakespeare," Notes and Queries 17 (1970): 4849; qtd. in Proffitt 165.

3. W. B. Yeats, "Pages from a Diary in 1930," Explorations, selected by Mrs. W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1962) 311.


By A. RAGHU, Thangal Kunju Musaliar College of Arts and Science, Quilon, India

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Source: Explicator, Summer92, Vol. 50 Issue 4, p224, 2p.