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In Yeats' greatest of poems, he writes that "the falcon cannot hear the falconer."

  • Who is the falcon and who is the falconer?
  • Why might Yeats have chosen this metaphor?

The Second Coming

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?

William Butler Yeats, 1919

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The symbolism of the Falcon seems relatively easy to unpick. Slightly further down, Yeats explains the result of the disconnect between Falcon and Falconer is:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

Which implies that the Falcon here is humanity. Without guidance - trained Falcons are supposed to narrow their "gyre" toward a target and then back to the Falconer - we are headed back toward a state of anarchy.

This begs the rather more interesting question of who the Falconer, who should be providing us with guidance, represents.

The most obvious answer is a deity figure, presumably - given that Yeats was raised in a Protestant culture - Christ. There is symbolic value in this comparison since Christ was described as a "shepherd" of men, just as a Falconer takes charge of a falcon. Also, the symbolism of the Gyre itself may, in fact, have come from Dante's Divine Comedy where the devil Geryon moves in "gyres".

This, however, is problematic. Yeats' family was not actively religious. And Yeats himself seems to have been agnostic at best. As I have described in this answer - What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? - Yeats developed his own system of faith, in which Christianity was merely a fragment of a wider whole.

Yeats set out his ideas in a book entitled A Vision. Unfortunately, this seems to have a been a rather fruitless attempt to reconcile religious yearnings with enlightenment values, which he clearly felt were important.

Given, then, that his own thoughts on the subject were an attempt to impose some rational structure onto a jumble of religious ideas, it is perhaps better to see the Falconer as something more vague and metaphysical such as a sense of ethics or moral philosophy. Even, perhaps, the symbolism of an ideal: a school of thought in which humanity strives for moral perfection, attained through an impossible union of the rational and irrational.

References:

  • Falcon and Falconer: "The Second Coming" and Marvell's "Horatian Ode", Murray Pittock, Irish University Review, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 175-181

  • Yeats, Religion, and History, Peter Allt, The Sewanee Review, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1952), pp. 624-658

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    Nice answer, but I would say Yeats can be deeply theological, his play The Resurrection as an example. Yeats was also deeply mythological, in the Ulster Cycle plays in particular. (imo, his plays are all modern verse dramas, not "prose";) So I'm inclined to believe Yeats is very specifically talking about Christ and humanity--it's the only choice that is consistent with the poem's theme. – DukeZhou Jan 24 at 23:59
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    I do quite like the idea of an anonymous "lover of wisdom", but can the incisive admonition that is the function of the poem operate if it does not accept at least the mythological reality of the Bethlehem story? The idea of return, or, more pointedly, having lost our, is implicit. This this would seem to relate to God--from whom we originate and should want to return. – DukeZhou Jan 25 at 1:34
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    Surely, a poem which talks about "the Second Coming" and being born in Bethlehem has enough Christian imagery in it that you could take the falconer to be Jesus or God (not necessarily the standard Christian one), even if Yeats didn't strictly believe in Him. An "anonymous philosopher" just doesn't have the stature needed for Yeats' poem. – Peter Shor Jan 25 at 2:45
  • @PeterShor That's a fair point. But everything I've read about Yeats suggests he saw godliness as much wider than Christianity including - as the OP points out above - elements of Irish myth and nationalism. Perhaps "anonymous philosopher" is too weak, but I do think there's significant doubt as to what Yeats' intended here, and indeed whether he had a firm conception in mind, even given the biblical imagery. – Matt Thrower Jan 25 at 13:03
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    @MattThrower: Yes. if you'd said something like "sense of morality", I probably wouldn't have objected. But I suspect that the falconer represents whatever is closest to God in Yeats' system of mysticism, and I am fairly sure that this is much more like God than an "anonymous philosopher" is. – Peter Shor Jan 28 at 0:00
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Yeats wrote this in 1919, one year after the First World War ended. It’s not surprising that looking at the horrific devastation, the killing fields of Europe (‘the blood-dimmed tide’) and what was then their colonial possession, the rest of the world, that he felt that the world had lost its centre and could no longer hold, and that mankind (the falcon) could no longer hear what guided it (the falconer) for the ‘worst are full of passionate intensity.’ It’s not surprising he yearned for a ‘second coming’ and it’s likely he was lamenting his Nietzchian infatuation (he wrote a poem on Nietzsche) as the picture he draws of blind, remorseless will is not a pretty one and this might be why he invokes Christian imagery, setting his face against power for powers sake and this suggests that the falconer is Christ.

This thought and feeling is signalled elsewhere, for example, in the thought of Hannah Arendt who wrote of an ‘epistemic break’ in Europe.

  • PS- you're on track for the accepted answer, but I'm going to see what else pops up. The Arendt reference is particularly nice, though I might recommend linking, since, surprisingly, many have not heard of her. – DukeZhou Jan 26 at 22:47
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I don't believe this was intended allegorically. The falcon and the falconer aren't anybody but who they are.

It is, instead, an image, drawn from the sport of falconry. The bird flies overhead in a circle: it can't stay still because then it would fall, but it also has to stay close so that it can hear spoken (or whistled) commands. The falconer is at the center of the circle, but if the bird's gyre "widens", it won't be able to hear, and the system breaks down: "Things fall apart".

Which raises the question of why Yeats would choose an image from the somewhat obscure sport of falconry. The visual image is certainly arresting: a stable situation that slowly but inevitably drifts into chaos. It is both noble and violent, animal and human. The bird itself is controlled chaos, and perhaps its "widening gyre" is inevitable.

But as Stan Smith puts it, "this bird of prey is a symbol too fraught with historical meanings to be so pinned down". I don't know how much Yeats expected his audience to know about falcons and falconry; I doubt we're much more distant from it today than when he wrote it. The image confuses readers, and in that sense is perhaps a failure as poetry.

  • OED defines allegory as "A story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one." This poem clearly fits both definitions. – DukeZhou Jan 26 at 3:16
  • Eliot would seem to affirm Yeats in referring to the "spirit unappeased and peregrine". That the symbol is nuanced only strengthens the analogy--so too is the human spirit. The only required information is that falcons are fierce, soaring, and return to the falconer. The greatness of the poem is partly a factor of its not requiring any special knowledge, literary or otherwise. General knowledge of the Bethlehem cycle is assumed and sufficient to grasp the very specific meaning. – DukeZhou Jan 26 at 3:17
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Here's a take on the obvious answer. (I highly recommend Matt Throwers answer providing a supportable interpretation in an alternate framework. Also Mozibur Ullah's answer, which shows that the symbols can have a range of meanings, without undermining the poem's intent.)

  • The Falconer is the Redeemer, the falcon the human spirit

Birds have long been used as a symbol of the spirit, but this is an astonishing choice. Yeats forces us to regard the paradigm in a fearsome form, not lambs and shepherd, but as hunter and bird of prey. In Blake's most famous poem, he asks of the Tyger: "Did he who made the lamb make thee?", and, later, C.S. Lewis uses a lion (Aslan) as the Christ figure.

Yeats' is a deep metaphor because here we have a relationship where the benefactor (the falconer) sends the ward into the world seeking nourishment. This must be understood in the context of spiritual nourishment, because the falcon brings it home to share with the benefactor. If the falcon goes so far afield that it cannot return, it can't share the nourishment with the benefactor--potentially the nourishment is no longer spiritual, but merely material.

Note that Eliot will later refer to

"the spirit unappeased and peregrine"
Little Gidding

The choice of the falcon may also refer to the spirit of inquiry that begins with humanism and the Ancient Greeks ("5th Century" Athens in particular) and leads to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Second Coming was largely a response to the horrors of World War I, but the 20th Century, even in the first decades, was also a century of wonders.

But that spirit of inquiry, which soars to unimagined heights, also can be said to have lead humanity astray. Nietzsche stated that god was dead. One of Yeats' responses is that god is continually slain and reborn:

I saw a staring virgin stand
Where holy Dionysus died,
And tear the heart out of his side,
And lay the heart upon her hand
And bear that beating heart away;
And then did all the Muses sing
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God’s death were but a play.

Another Troy must rise and set,
Another lineage feed the crow,
Another Argo’s painted prow
Drive to a flashier bauble yet.
The Roman Empire stood appalled:
It dropped the reins of peace and war
When that fierce virgin and her Star
Out of the fabulous darkness called.
Two Songs from a Play Full text of The Resurrection (1931)

Here Yeats is at once referring to Virgo and Spica (Kore as the female analogue of Dionysus) and the virgin Mary and the star of Bethlehem. He reveals, under the Greek conception, the origin of poetry in religion. (The Festival of Dionysus was a religious festival.)

"Fabulous darkness" is likewise the most brilliant possible choice--fabulous derives from the Latin word for story (fabula), which conjures an image of a cornucopia of light generated from the darkness. In some sense, stories are all we have—not only do we put our faith in them, it is from the miraculous they emerge. Here is it the death of God specifically that inspires the Muses to sing.

The second song also comments on Second Coming:

In pity for man’s darkening thought
He walked that room and issued thence
In Galilean turbulence;
The Babylonian starlight brought
A fabulous, formless darkness in;
Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all Platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline.

Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day.
Love’s pleasure drives his love away,
The painter’s brush consumes his dreams;
The herald’s cry, the soldier’s tread
Exhaust his glory and his might:
Whatever flames upon the night
Man’s own resinous heart has fed.
ibid.

The vocabulary is incredibly precise, with words such as "pity" (see the Pietà). These verses are have high information density, and layers of meaning, but "man's own resinous heart" seems a good place to leave things.

Yeats clearly regards the Bethlehem story in the greater context of Greek mythology, but this is in no way a repudiation. On the contrary, Yeats' connects it to something even older, and affirms the eternal nature of the cycle, here in the partly context of that which inspires mankind--poetry and stories.

One of the meanings that can be drawn from the play The Resurrection is the response to the miracle. The promise of eternal salvation quickly devolves into a death cult which venerates suffering.


Shakespeare and Birds of Prey

Here's a fun site I found "Shakespeare's Swooping Imagery" with a few salient excerpts:

Hist! Romeo, hist! O, for a falconer's voice,
To lure this tassel-gentle back again!
Bondage is hoarse, and may not speak aloud;
Else would I tear the cave where Echo lies,
And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine,
With repetition of my Romeo's name.
(Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2)

Note that this derives from that most famous of scenes which begins with "But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?" and the subject is love.

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty.
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg'd,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene 1

Here, Petruchio is referring to Kate, the object of his love. The Dauphin in Henry V also uses the metaphor, describing the feeling of riding his steed:

When I bestride him I soar, I am a hawk.
Henry V, Act III, Scene 7

There is also the dark side:

Look, as the full-fed hound or gorg'd hawk,
Unapt for tender smell or speedy flight,
Make slow pursuit, or altogether balk
The prey wherein by nature they delight;
So surfeit-taking Tarquin fares this night:
His taste delicious, in digestion souring,
Devours his will, that lived by foul devouring.
The Rape of Lucrece, 694-697

This said, he shakes aloft his Roman blade,
Which, like a falcon towering in the skies,
Coucheth the fowl below with his wings' shade,
Whose crooked beak threats if he mount he dies:
So under his insulting falchion lies
Harmless Lucretia, marking what he tells
With trembling fear, as fowl hear falcon's bells.
ibid., 505-511

The spiritual decay Yeats writes of is embodied in Tarquin. Measure for Measure comments more directly:

This outward-sainted deputy—
Whose settled visage and deliberate word
Nips youth i' th' head and follies doth enmew
As falcon doth the fowl—is yet a devil.
His filth within being cast, he would appear
A pond as deep as hell.
Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene 1

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