“The Wild Swans at Coole” consists of five six-line stanzas rhymed abcbdd. The meter is iambic, but loosened to accommodate the irregular cadences of speech. Odd-numbered lines have four stressed syllables, even-numbered lines three. The stanza, then, is a modified ballad stanza plus a rhymed couplet. Although William Butler Yeats uses six-line stanzas in many other poems, nowhere else does he employ exactly this stanza, which is stately but not stiff, well-suited to the poem’s reflective tone and melancholy mood.
It is a lyric poem both because of its musicality (in the oldest sense of “lyric”) and because it is a direct expression of personal feelings, which may be identified as the author’s. It is a dramatic lyric in that the poem’s physical setting, particularly in the opening stanza, serves as an objective correlative to these feelings—representing, reflecting, “dramatizing” them.
“Coole” in the title refers to Coole Park, the estate in Ireland’s County Galway of Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats’s friend, collaborator, and benefacter. Yeats spent a considerable part of each year there for many years, beginning in 1897; he often walked paths through the woods on the estate and to Coole Lake, with its swans.
On its first appearance, the poem was dated October, 1916, a time when Yeats’s spirits were at a low ebb. Still unmarried and childless at age fifty-one, he felt that life was passing him by. Over the years, his friend Maud Gonne had rejected several proposals of marriage from him, and in 1916 she had done so again; even her daughter Iseult had declined a proposal from him that summer. (In 1917, Yeats would marry Georgia Hyde-Lees; their daughter would be born in 1919, their son in 1921. This poem, then, unknown to Yeats, was a farewell song to lonely bachelorhood.)
The speaker in the poem draws two contrasts: On the one hand, between himself now and himself when first he walked “on this shore”; on the other hand, between himself and the swans. “All’s changed,” he says, since first he came there; and the change is in him: He walks with a heavier tread and his heart has “grown old.” This sets up the second contrast, for the swans—energetic, “Unwearied,” passionate—exhibit the very traits that he finds diminished, or lacking, in himself. The apparent lack of change in the swans underscores the changes that the poet feels, at age fifty-one, recollecting himself at age thirty-two.
The poem’s opening lines describe a scene of “autumn beauty” and also objectify Yeats’s depressed state of mind. “October twilight” establishes at the outset a sense of things—a day, a year—coming to an end. Yeats’s mood, as it emerges over the course of the poem, is correspondingly autumnal, reflecting his awareness of the mortality he shares with everything terrestrial and temporal. That the “woodland paths are dry” is significant because Yeats characteristically associated dryness with physical and imaginative sterility. No less than “water/ Mirrors a still sky,” landscape mirrors mood.
Yeats often thought in terms of the four traditional elements: earth, air, fire, and water. (See, for example, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” 1897, and “Sailing to Byzantium,” 1927.) “The Wild Swans at Coole” omits fire but makes conspicuous use of the other three, particularly by associating air with water and by distinguishing the two of them from earth.
Water mirrors sky (air) not only literally but also figuratively. In the Yeatsian cosmology, air and water are spiritual, earth is physical. “What’s water but the generated soul?” Yeats would ask in “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”; and “spirit” means breath (or air). Earth is solid,...
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shaped, fixed—hence (paradoxically) mortal; air and water are amorphous, unstable—hence (paradoxically) immortal. Earth is temporal; air and water are eternal. There is no “autumn” for air or water, as there is for earth and terrestrial organisms, such as trees and poets. Swans hold dual citizenship of the spirit: “They paddle in the cold/ Companionable streams or climb the air” with equal ease and grace. At a practical level, Yeats’s inability to complete his count of the swans enables him to sustain the illusion that the ones he sees now are the same swans, unchanged, that he saw nineteen years earlier.
The most profound paradox relating to the swans, which makes them “Mysterious” indeed, is how they can be so completely engaged in life yet not subject to mortality. The solitary man wistfully watches the paired swans, still passionate, “lover by lover,” and wonders why he is alone and feeling his age. The poem does not attempt to resolve this paradox. It remains an enigma, like the “still sky” and the “still water,” their surfaces smooth and untroubled, with no indication of what might be beneath or beyond them. “Still,” though unobtrusive, is one of the key words in the poem. Not only does the word describe the two spiritual elements—tranquil, apparently motionless—in the opening and closing stanzas (thus again mirroring each other), but it also appears twice in the penultimate stanza, in a different sense: “Unwearied stillAttend upon them still.” Here “still,” meaning “now, as before,” refers to duration in time. The swans are at once in and out of time. The paradox deepens.
The title poem, “THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE,” contains the most important themes of the collection and is one of the landmark poems of modern poetry. The speaker stands contemplating the wild swans that float on the water at the country estate of Lady Gregory, Yeats’s patron. They cause him to reflect on the years that have passed and the changes in himself since he first saw these swans, seemingly the same ones, nineteen years before.
The speaker’s reverie suggests attitudes about death and eternity and the possibility of immortality. The poem is essentially romantic, with a distinctly modern obliqueness, in its treatment of these themes, and in the movement between external nature and the inner longings of the poet.
Many of the poems of this collection were written during the time of World War I, a period of great personal as well as international turmoil. One of the personal tragedies of Yeats’s life was the death of the brilliant Major Robert Gregory, the only son of his patron and a symbol for Yeats of a kind of enlightened aristocracy which he felt was crucial to Ireland’s future.
Yeats wrote a number of powerful poems on Robert Gregory’s death, genuinely lamenting him and, at the same time, using the occasion to meditate on death in general.
The transition to Yeats’s important later poetry begins in this book with the introduction of poems based on his theories of the mask, cones, gyres, phases of the moon, and so on--as later detailed in his book, A VISION (1925). Yeats infuses personal aspects of his private life, such as the restored tower which he seeks to make his home, with great symbolic and universal meaning in a foreshadowing of his later efforts to wed the temporal and transcendent worlds in a unified whole.