The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats:

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.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

What does the phrase "The ceremony of innocence" mean here? From a quick look online, one interpretation I found is that the ceremony of innocence refers to christian baptism, but that doesn't sound quite right to me (how do you drown an actual ceremony?).

One idea I had is that maybe "ceremony of innocence" refers to people pretending to be innocent, so the lines "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;" mean that humanities evil deeds (the blood-dimmed tide) are so numerous that there is no point for anyone to pretend to be innocent.

Can anyone suggest other interpretations?


6 Answers 6


His usage of similar imagery in A Prayer for My Daughter shows some of his thinking on connections between ceremony and innocence.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

The ceremonious order of a good home is the source of innocence.


I put "Yeats ceremony of innocence" on Google and saw lots of speculation/interpretation just in the first page of results.

Yeats uses the term "ceremony of innocence" to harken back to the ordered, structured, ceremonial world of pre-war Europe. Yeats mourns what he sees as the loss of an aristocratic order. Instead of order, the world is now awash in bloody chaos or anarchy.
D. Reynolds in What drowns the "ceremony of innocence" in "The Second Coming"?, eNotes.com.

Of course, it's poetry, so any interpretation that makes the poem more robust for you (hooking your emotional response to your understanding of his argument) is the goal.


Biography may matter here:

Yeats had been physically & spiritually initiated into the (gnostic) mystery schools extending from the Egyptians (and before), through the Greeks, to the Rosacrucians and Freemasons (in his times),

The initiation (beginning, origination, going into, entering upon) is effectively the END of innocence (the state of freedom from guilt or wrong; lacking guile or artifice) - by definition. At each challenge/stage/death in the journey, the initiate intones "I am the Gnostic, I am the one who knows."

Overlay that note over "ceremony of innocence" and all the comments/images above are actually applicable and meaningful, but none (including this one) are fully encompassing or fully correct.

Such is the wonder of poetry by genius.

But wow, when you realize that he was suggesting, in 1919, that this end of innocence was happening on a global and totalitarian (Spiritus Mundi) scale ... and that a neo-sphinx-like consciousness was s/lumbering toward being born again.

Their real secret was that, in the end (death), there are no lasting secrets. "Surely some revelation is at hand ..."

The hidden and "secret society" aim Yeats had been initiated into is "to rule ... not only over the more important of the populace, but over the best men of all races, nations and religions, to rule without external force ... the final aim ... nothing less than to win power and riches ... and to obtain mastery of the world." (1785, Adam Weishaupt, founder of the "Illuminati")

A rough beast, indeed.

  • Do you have references for your claims, e.g. that the "secret society" was the Illuminati?
    – bobble
    Sep 12, 2023 at 2:44

The 'ceremony of innocence' is baptism, the ceremony that takes place at the baptismal font, a time of rejoicing. At this baptism, however, it is anything but a joyous occasion as the baptism of innocence is itself 'baptized", drowned in the blood-dimmed tide of mere anarchy that has been loosed upon the world.

  • Yeats was not a practicing Christian.
    – Mary
    May 4, 2022 at 0:37

Maybe hopeful thinking but I would hope and think that The ceremony of innocence is drowned but not dead, possibly to grow and mature in a different place - down below

Innocence does not just relate to Christian baptism and personally - as a foundation that is set - it can’t be removed

  • 1
    Can you explain (through context, biography, etc.) how this would be a valid interpretation in the poem?
    – CDR
    Oct 20, 2023 at 13:00

"The ceremony of innocence is drowned"to my level understanding it means that ceremony of innocence..is the act of being a good faith and hope even though our hope is been drowned. Infact the role of any ceremony is to keep us from forgetting what must not to be forgotten.....

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