This poem was written in 1919, during the aftermath of the First World War, but it is a response to the disillusionment with changes that began at the turn of the century. There were new, astonishing inventions — the motor car and aircraft for example — but also cataclysmic and irreversible societal changes. The Russian Revolution of 1917, the Easter Uprising in Ireland of 1916, and the First World War (1914-1918), which produced a death rate that exceeded anything in history.
Many observers — poets, writers, analysts, journalists — viewed these changes as destructive. Yeats’s poem compares the events to the Christian notion of the Apocalypse and Second Coming of Christ.
The poem comprises two stanzas of eight lines and fourteen lines. There is no rhyme scheme or regular metrical rhythm. Sentences are long but divided into short phrases by semi-colons, producing a choppy, staccato rhythm. An example is lines three and four of stanza one.
The metrical rhythm is broadly iambic pentameter, its elegance juxtaposed with the chaotic language.
Language and Imagery
This is a complex and deep poem. The third person speaker, we can assume the poet, draws a range of analogies to establish his theme. So, for example, in stanza one the “falcon cannot hear the falconer” represents dislocation of relationships. In stanza two a sphynx-like creature represents the unnatural linking of ideas, or merging of disparate concepts; hence the “centre cannot hold” and “things fall apart”. The latter are just two memorable phrases that have been quoted or used in literature, for example, as book titles; Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart”. “Slouches towards Bethlehem” has also been used as the basis of a book title.