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Two major symbols appear here that are Yeats’ main stock in trade: first, memories of an earlier, more pristine Ireland, here represented by swans in pairs. But “Nine-and-fifty” says that one of the swans has lost its mate since last migration, a symbol for the harm that has come to Ireland because of the “Troubles”; Yeats is remembering his lost love, Maude Gonne. Second, the poem, set in Autumn and written in the Autumn of the poet’s life (he was 54), speaks of life-long habits (counting the swans, and “all’s changed”); the symbolic parallels with Ireland and his own life history become the core of the poem’s strength. If we go further into Yeats’ predilections for bird symbolism (the falcons in their “widening gyre,” for example) and for nostalgic remembrance (“When you are old and gray” is an example ready to hand), we see how the poem works.
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