Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A word often overlooked in discussion of this poem, perhaps because it appears only in the title, is “Wild.” Yeats called the swans wild, first of all, to indicate that they are in no way domesticated. They do not nest at Coole; thus, as the poem’s ending suggests, they may fly away at any time. Yeats also called them wild because of a set of admiring associations he had with that word. He habitually called all manner of flying things wild, and he had done so since he began publishing in the mid-1880’s.

He associated the quality of wildness with the power and freedom of flight, and he recognized it in certain people—rebels, for example—who led active, independent lives. In “September 1913,” he applied the traditional Irish term “wild geese” to exiled heroes from history. Although he did not always approve of Maud Gonne’s firebrand political activities, as early as 1910 he compared her with Helen of Troy, offspring of Leda and Zeus-as-swan, thus one of the “daughters of the swan.” Yeats also associated the quality of wildness with passion and mating, and in this respect too Maud Gonne came to his mind; passionate herself, the object of his passion, yet unwilling to mate with him.

The wild swans at Coole are independent, vigorously active, and passionate. The second stanza provides a powerful image of the whole flock of swans taking off in unison:

I saw, before I had well finished, / All suddenly mount / And scatter wheeling...

(The entire section is 449 words.)