By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ is the opening, title poem in W. B. Yeats’s 1917 poetry collection The Wild Swans at Coole. Perhaps the best way to offer an analysis of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ is to take the poem a stanza at a time, and summarise what’s going on and what feelings Yeats is articulating through the imagery of the swans.
The Wild Swans at Coole
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
Yeats wrote ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ in October 1916. He’d just proposed to Maud Gonne, his (almost) lifelong muse and former girlfriend, and (more weirdly) Maud’s daughter, Iseult, over the summer.
Having been rejected by two generations of the Gonne family (Gonne … Gonne … going), Yeats wrote this poem, using the autumnal surroundings, and the wild swans found at Coole Park, the Irish home of his friend Lady Gregory, to represent his feelings. Yeats had often stayed with Lady Gregory at Coole Park in the summer, and even lived there for some time. The trees are beautiful, the sky is still, and fifty-nine swans (an oddly exact number) are on the water.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
Indeed, it turns out Yeats has always counted the swans, for the last nineteen years. As he is counting them this autumn, Yeats observes all of the swans rise up and scatter, circling in imperfect ‘rings’ in the air just above the water.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
But seeing these ‘brilliant’ (meaning brightly shining as well as generally excellent) swans once again has underscored just how much has changed in those nineteen years since Yeats first clapped eyes on the swans. Back then, he was a young man in his early thirties, and now, but he in his early fifties, in late middle age, unmarried and without children.
Note the emphasis on decline: summer has declined into autumn (it’s October) and now Yeats mentions ‘twilight’ – contrasting that first twilight evening when he heard the wings of the swans nearly two decades ago, with the deeper ‘twilight’ of his own life, as he grows older.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
The old adage about swans, of course, is that they mate for life: hence ‘lover by lover’. Even the streams they paddle in are ‘companionable’, suggesting the companion Yeats himself doesn’t have.
The swans’ hearts have not grown old, Yeats tells us: they are possessed of the same youthful passion and vigour (‘conquest’ carries a sexual connotation here, and there is an undercurrent of violence, even sexual violence, running through ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’: fittingly, Yeats would go on to write ‘Leda and the Swan’, a poem about Zeus’ rape of Leda while disguised as a swan).
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
Yeats concludes ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ by telling us how the swans drift on the water, an air of mystery attending them. As so often with a W. B. Yeats poem, he ends with a question. Where will the swans, being wild swans, fly away to, and in which lake will they build their homes? When Yeats discovers one day that they have flown away from Coole Park, where will they be?
It becomes apparent in this final stanza of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ that Yeats isn’t merely using the swans as a symbol for lifelong love (swans mating for life) or a way of reflecting on the passing years since he first visited Coole Park as a young man. No, the swans clearly represent Maud and Iseult Gonne: Yeats’s reference to the swans as ‘beautiful’ and ‘mysterious’, as creatures which can ‘delight men’s eyes’ (emphasis added), suggests the romantic attachment he had to both women.
‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ appears to be an elegiac poem: specifically, a poem mourning the loss of the poet’s own youth and his personal loneliness. But as the critic Hugh Kenner so keenly saw, there’s more to the poem than this, and it’s actually about something even more tragic: the loss of feeling that is experienced with age.
Thomas Hardy, as a man of late middle age, may have looked at himself in the mirror and lamented the fact that his heart was as youthful (and prone to passionate heartbreak) as when he was a young man, but ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ acknowledges a more complex romantic attitude towards getting older: that the greatest tragedy is not growing old alone and feeling it keenly, but rather, growing old and losing feeling altogether.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
This is my favorite poem by Yeats. It’s so full of melancholy that it captures the beauty and brevity of life and the mortal beauty of youth as it fades into memory. It’s one of the best poems I have read in my long life of reading.
I appreciate your making a point of Yeats’s particularity in enumerating the total number of swans as fifty-nine and elsewhere in the same essay you relate the problem of his twofold rejection by Maud Gonne and her daughter as well as the well-known fact that swans stay together as couples for life.
But I think you miss the point of the number fifty-nine, which is an odd number! it points to the fact that all the rest of the swans seemingly have found their mates, whereas only one of them has not! Obviously, the swan that cannot find a life-mate is a symbol for the lonely poet, who sees the “odd” swan as an objective correlative for himself.
The poem’s last stanza bodies forth the poet’s feeling of earthbound exclusion. If he had found a life-mate, he too would be “flying off” with the rest of the swans when the time comes! At that moment, their number would be sixty, rather than fifity-nine! But as things stand, he knows he will be deprived of that great experience and can only wonder where it is that they will land.
In the poem’s symbolic argument, Yeats seems to feel that a life-mate would who have been a muse who would would have lifted him and his poetry to new heights. But now he feels he will never experience that flight in its full glory. He seems to be giving up the hope that he can ever be a participant at life’s feast, feeling doomed to be a perpetual observer, one who will always see what he yearns to have, with no hope of ever achieving it.