The Wild Swans at Coole

by William Butler Yeats

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What are the contrasts in "The Wild Swans at Coole" by W. B. Yeats?

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W. B. Yeats establishes a number of fundamental contrasts, including past to present, present to future, bound to free, and staying to leaving. Beginning with locating the poem in time, looking back 19 years, he makes the reader aware that contemplating the past will be one of the poem’s central concerns. The use of the words “Autumn” and “October” to describe the waning years points to the “first” time he had gone there.

At the end, when he speaks of the birds having gone elsewhere “some day,” he brings back the connections among past, present, and future. Along with contrasting his own earth-bound quality, using “trod” and “tread,” to the birds’ access to the sky “above my head” as they “mount and scatter wheeling,” he also juxtaposes the stillness of the water and sky to the brisk motion of the birds’ “clamorous wings.”

Yeats also points out the paradoxes in these contrasts, however. He is alone, and there are 950 birds in the group, some of them in pairs, “lover by lover." In this regard, perhaps it is he—with his “sore,” “old” heart—who is free.

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Yeats addresses two different contrasts in his poem "The Wild Swans at Coole".  The first is between himself in the present, and when he first wlaked along the water where the swans are found.  The second is between himself and the swans.

The poet says, "The nineteenth autumn has come upon me since I first made my count", meaning that nineteen years have passed since he first came to see the swans.  He realizes that "All's changed since I, hearing at twilight, the first time on this shore, the bell-beat of their wings above my head".  The change is within himself - he was "unwearied" back then, and "trod with a lighter tread", but now his "heart is sore", and he is tired.

Yeats then compares his condition now with that of the swans.  While he himself is old and weary, the swans are not.  They are still "brilliant creatures", and as "they paddle in the cold companionable streams or climb the air, their hearts have not grown old".  The swans still retain a sense of "passion or conquest", and are "mysterious" and "beautiful", capable still of "delight(ing) men's eyes".  The poet, in contrast, feels that all these wonderful attributes no longer apply to himself; he is tired, and treads heavily now in body and soul.

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