In 1921, two volumes of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry were published in New York: A Few Figs from Thistles and Second April. The latter contains many poems about Millay’s romantic disappointments and heartbreaks. These poems are sometimes passionate and sometimes subdued, but they are all intensely personal. Scholars often comment that Millay’s poetry is feminine in its focus on emotions, but it also breaks from the feminine tradition in its raw honesty. “Wild Swans,” which appears in Second April, is a good example of this phenomenon. The speaker expresses traditionally feminine feelings of heartache and despair, but she is less traditional in that she is harsh toward her own heart. Although she focuses on her feelings, she seeks a solution to her emotional upheaval by escaping domesticity.
In only eight lines, Millay describes an episode in which the speaker recalls observing the flight of wild swans and then longs for their return. The subject of birds in poetry about human emotion is a long-standing tradition, but Millay uses it in a unique way. In response to seeing the birds, the speaker essentially makes a choice between her “tiresome” heart and the swans, and she chooses the swans. Millay creates a subtle tension in the structure of the poem, which is both measured and spontaneous.