THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE
W B Yeats
Yeats' poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” is set in Coole Park in County Galway, Ireland, where Yeats loved to spend time. It is autumn, and the trees look beautiful, but autumn of course is a season of decay. The time of day is 'twilight', so the light is fading and the day is drawing to a close. There is an air of tranquillity at first as the lake reflects 'a still sky'. The first stanza ends, however, with the announcement that there are fifty-nine swans on the water. Yeats states this number as 'nine and fifty', and the fact that the nine comes first emphasises that this is an odd number. One of the swans is alone, without a mate.
Yeats opens the second stanza by stating that it is nineteen years since he first counted the swans at Coole, but we don't know how old he was at the time. He can remember that while he was counting he saw the swans take flight all at once and then split up, 'wheeling in great broken rings'. The noise of their wings must have been almost deafening; Yeats describes it as 'clamourous'. It was an experience that obviously remained with him, striking as it was.
Yeats had great admiration for the swans, describing them in the opening line of the third stanza as 'brilliant creatures'. In the following line, however, he turns to his own feelings: 'my heart is sore'. He is remembering a sight he first saw when he was much younger, and this makes him acutely aware that he is ageing. He refers again to the noise of the swans' wings, this time using alliteration in the phrase 'bell-beat'. Yeats closes the third stanza with the statement that he 'Trod with a lighter tread' when he first heard the sound, implying that he was younger and more carefree or joyful then.
Yeats opens the fourth stanza by describing the swans as 'Unwearied', contrasting the fact that they do not tire with the reference to his own ageing. The swans are 'lover by lover', flying in pairs. Yeats uses alliteration to describe the movement of the swans, this time with the hard 'c' sound in 'cold / Companionable streams or climb the air'. 'Their hearts have not grown old' forms another strong contrast with the line 'And now my heart is sore' of the previous stanza. A softer alliteration features in the phrase 'wander where they will', conveying a sense of the swans' freedom. Their vivacity and energy are alluded to as Yeats says that they still seek 'passion and conquest'. The implication once again is that the poet has aged and is no longer young enough for a new love affair. (In actual fact Yeats married after this poem was composed.)
The two opening lines of the final stanza echo the mood and setting of the first stanza, describing the swans as 'Mysterious, beautiful' on the calm water of the lake. In the last four lines of “The Wild Swans at Coole”, Yeats faces the fact that the swans will not be there forever. They will build nests in another place for the winter, and they will give pleasure to other people who will see them beside a 'lake's edge or pool'. Yeats will 'awake some day' to find that they have gone. The poem ends with this air of sadness, which could be symbolic of the transitory nature of a love affair.
The poem is set in five stanzas of six lines each; the lines are of varying length, but long and short tend to alternate. The rhyme scheme is ABCBDD, although 'stones' and 'swans' in the fifth and sixth lines of the first stanza are really just a half rhyme. Yeats uses a combination of end-stopped lines and enjambment within each stanza; the enjambment allows one line to flow into the next and extend the image. In the second stanza this device is used over the last three lines where Yeats describes the powerful effect that the sight and sound of the swans flying up had on him.
“The Wild Swans at Coole” is an evocative poem in which Yeats uses a setting and the memory of an experience, now being re-lived, to express his awareness of the ageing process. The season of autumn and the time of twilight symbolise this process, as nature dies away and light fades. The beauty and power of the swans create a contrast that Yeats experiences through sight and sound. They have not aged or lost their 'passion' for life and love. Yeats is aware, however, that youth slips away and his heart becomes heavy, knowing that ageing is inevitable and that change has to be confronted.
Here is the full text of “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.
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 clamourous wings.
I have looked upon these 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.
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.
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?
First published on helium.com