The Wild Swans at Coole Themes
by William Butler Yeats

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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 in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings.

The verb “mount” does double duty, clearly referring to the swans’ ascension into the sky, but also bearing with it overtones of its other meaning: to copulate. The verb pulls together—admirably, for Yeats’s purposes—his main associations with wildness: power, freedom, and passion.

The power and passion that Yeats finds wanting in himself are imaginative as well as physical. He was in a dry spell as a poet in 1916-1917. Of the 374 lyrical poems in Yeats’s Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1956), only ten (totaling 273 lines of verse) were composed during these years. In contrast, twenty-three poems (963 lines) come from the following two years. While two or three of the 1916-1917 poems could be considered major poems, as many as eight or nine poems from 1918-1919 could be placed in that category. “The Wild Swans at Coole” reflects Yeats’s discouragement as a poet as well as a lover. He was shrewd enough, however, in uncreative periods of his life, to write poems about the difficulties of writing poems. It was a good strategy, for it helped Yeats get through dry spells with something to show for them.