The Wild Swans at Coole | Critical Studies

The Wild Swans at Coole | Critical Studies

  • In a Nutshell

    • About 130 miles from Dublin is a place called Coole Park. It now belongs to the government (it’s kind of like a national park), but it used to belong to a woman named Lady Gregory, who was a close friend of many important Irish writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
    • Her group of friends and admirers included a number of authors associated with the Irish Literary Revival, such as George Bernard Shaw, Edward Martyn and, you guessed it, one William Butler Yeats.
    • Yeats used to visit Lady Gregory at Coole Park every year.
    • Coole Park made such an impression on Yeats that he wrote a poem called “The Wild Swans at Coole” and even gave the book in which it was published (in 1917) the same title.
  • Overview

    • Upon the water float “nine-and-fifty swans.” The speaker says that nineteen years have passed since he first came to the water and counted the swans; that first time, before he had “well finished,” he saw the swans mount up into the sky and scatter, “whelling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings.”
    • “The Wild Swans at Coole” is a lyric poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939). Written between 1916 and early 1917, the poem was first published in the June 1917 issue of the Little Review, and became the title poem in the Yeats’s 1917 and 1919 collections The Wild Swans at Coole.
    • Their hearts, the speaker says, “have not grown cold,” and wherever they go they are attended by “passion or conquest.”
  • Summary

    • With the trees “in their autumn beauty,” the speaker walks down the dry woodland paths to the water, which mirrors the still October twilight of the sky.
    • The speaker says that his heart is sore, for after nineteen autumns of watching and being cheered by the swans, he finds that everything in his life has changed.
    • The swans, though, are still unwearied, and they paddle by in the water or fly by in the air in pairs, “lover by lover.”
    • But now, as they drift over the still water, they are “Mysterious, beautiful,” and the speaker wonders where they will build their nests, and by what lake’s edge or pool they will “delight men’s eyes,” when he awakes one morning to find that they have flown away
  • Concepts

    • Observing Swans on a Lake.
    • Nostalgia for the Past.
  • Themes

    • Natural Cycles.
    • Aging and Death.
  • Techniques

    • There is still an ABCBDD rhyming pattern, with some near rhymes used, and one long stanza, with a very rough 10 / 6 syllabic pattern shows drift away from rigid Romantic structures to a more Modern voice.
    • The swans, as elsewhere in Yeats work, symbolise innocence and contrast with the aging and spiritual corruption of humans over time.
    • There are many motifs running through this poem. The first is natural cycles e.g. “autumn beauty”.
    • Another is a fixation with numbers “nine-and-fifty swans” which connotes a preoccupation with aging.
    • A final motif is that of boundaries: shore, lake’s edge, twilight – where the edge of one thing meets another. This may be where life meets death.
    • There is an allusion to Yeats’ own work: A Vision when the swans “scatter wheeling in great broken rings” which describes concentric circles which move against each other to bring about the different eras or ages of mankind.
    • Towards the end of the poem, Yeats uses syllepsis to show the changability of nature e.g. “Passion or conquest… Attend upon them still. / But now they drift on the still water”.
    • The final metaphor: “Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day / To find they have flown away?” is Yeats wondering who will look on the swans when he “awakes” which here is a euphemism for death.
    • This euphemism and the syllepsis show Yeats’ concept of life and death as part of one whole, a continuum.
  • Example question

    Example question regarding The Wild Swans at Coole

    How do themes of aging and loss pervade Yeats’ poetry? 

    What does the paragraph sound like? 

    Cycles of time that are drawing to a close recur in Yeat’s poetry – seasonal cycles are referenced in Wild Swans at Coole, while cycles of history and mythology feature in Second Coming. Personal experiences of aging and loss, however, are perhaps best dealt with in his poem, When You Are Old, a romantic sonnet believed to be written to Maud Gonne, his long-unrequited love. The poem makes direct references to the woman’s loss of beauty through aging in the blazon, ‘dream of the soft look / your eyes had once’, and develops this loss into a sense of bereftness for both the subject of the poem and the composer. The woman loses her admirers, the many who loved her ‘with love false or true’, the antithesis reminding the responder that love should be metaphysical, ‘true’ and more than skin-deep with the religious metaphor, ‘but one man loved the pilgrim soul in you’. Both the subject and the composer, the composer suggests, suffer a sense of loss as time progresses and they each age, as the personified love that could have flourished between them has been metaphorically lost ‘amid a crowd of stars’. Yeats suggests that age, because it is an austere time, with less false and true distractions, distils human experience, allowing us to reflect on what we have had, and what we might have had, but lost.


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