The Poem

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“Coole Park, 1929” is a thirty-two-line poem composed of four stanzas. William Butler Yeats wrote the poem to honor Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932). Lady Gregory was an important playwright and cofounder of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre; she also received many Irish writers as extended guests at her elegant estate, Coole Park, in western Ireland. There they were surrounded by great natural beauty and were free to spend uninterrupted days writing their poems and plays. Coole Park represented an oasis of calm and beauty that contrasted sharply with the poverty that existed in Ireland during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

The poem is written in the first person. Yeats meditates upon the many visits he and other writers had made to Coole Park, where the aged Lady Gregory is now dying from cancer. At first reading, “Coole Park, 1929” can be interpreted simply as an extended compliment to Lady Gregory, but at a more profound level it is also a lyrical meditation on death and dying. The inclusion of the poem in Lady Gregory’s 1931 memoir Coole was especially appropriate because in this work, which dealt largely with the architecture and gardens of Coole Park, she wrote eloquently about the intense grief she had experienced after the deaths of so many family members and friends who used to visit the estate.

In the first stanza Yeats speaks of the flight of a swallow. A swallow is a migratory bird that does not stay for lengthy periods of time in a single region. This image of a swallow reminds one of the transitory nature of human life. Yeats then speaks of Lady Gregory as “an aged woman” whose stay in this life would not be very long. He recalls not the exquisite beauty of the formal gardens at Coole Park but rather his recollections of a beautiful sycamore and the beautiful blue sky of western Ireland. He contrasts these impressions of the constant changes in life and in nature itself with the permanent nature of the literary works created at Coole Park.

In the second stanza Yeats refers to five people who had experienced the beauty of Coole Park, three of them deceased and two still living. Those deceased were Lady Gregory’s beloved nephews John Shawe-Taylor, a well-known Dublin painter, and Hugh Lane, a collector of French paintings who was killed when German torpedoes sank the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, and the Irish dramatist John Millington Synge, whose Playboy of the Western World (1907) had sparked a lively controversy because it portrayed Irish people in a realistic but not always favorable light. Those still living were Yeats himself and the Irish folklorist Douglas Hyde, who would later serve as president of the Republic of Ireland.

In the third stanza, Yeats compares those people whom Lady Gregory had befriended to swallows, but he adds that her “powerful character” persuaded her guests to use properly the precious time they spent at Coole Park and on this earth. In the final stanza, Yeats suggests to his reader that even though the gardens and mansion at Coole might not be preserved for future generations, readers should never forget the importance of Lady Gregory’s contributions to the cultural life of Ireland. In Greek mythology, laurel wreaths were placed on the foreheads of heroes and heroines. In the final verse of “Coole Park, 1929,” Yeats compares Lady Gregory to a Greek heroine worthy of admiration when he asks his readers to pay homage to the “laurelled head” of Lady Gregory.

Forms and Devices

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For modern readers it is almost impossible to separate this poem about Coole Park from...

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Yeats’s very famous 1917 poem “The Wild Swans at Coole,” in which he describes both the exquisite beauty of fall at Coole and the grief he felt because so many people whom he had met at Coole were now dead. The second poem in the book entitledThe Wild Swans at Coole (1919) was an elegy for Lady Gregory’s only child Robert, who was killed in action in World War I. Lady Gregory never really recovered from her grief. In “Coole Park, 1929,” Yeats refers to five swallows who came to and then left Coole, but in the third stanza he writes that there were “half a dozen in formation there.” The sixth and unnamed swallow is clearly her beloved Robert.

“Coole Park, 1929” effectively contrasts the continuing presence of an aged woman with the repeated departures and returns of swallows. Yeats’s very choice of swallows may seem paradoxical because few people associate swallows with beauty. Swallows, however, mysteriously return to the same places for brief periods of time each year. The writers and artists who came to Coole found the inspiration and moral support which enabled them to reach their full creative potential. Yeats had the pleasure of returning to Coole several times between his first visit in 1896 and Lady Gregory’s death thirty-six years later. He realized that she had helped him to develop from a writer with a “timid heart” into a richly complex poet. The artists who created works of lasting beauty at Coole had differing personalities. Yeats refers to Synge as a “meditative man” who found inspiration in the solitude of the Aran Islands. Lady Gregory’s nephews Hugh Lane and John Shawe-Taylor were “impetuous” men convinced of their own importance, but their aunt persuaded them to use their wealth and interest in painting to improve the cultural life of Ireland by developing the talents of younger and poorer Irish painters.

Each time Yeats refers to swallows in this poem, the meaning is different. In the first stanza Yeats refers to a real flight of swallows, and readers can interpret this as the evocation of a pleasant memory of a visit to Coole. In the third stanza, however, the flights of swallows remind one that several of these “swallows” have completed their final flights and are now dead. Real swallows can fly, but the swallows whom Lady Gregory guided at Coole were free to dream and to create works that continue to bring pleasure to others long after their deaths.