The Wild Swans at Coole

by William Butler Yeats

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How is symbolism used in W. B. Yeats's "The Wild Swans at Coole"?

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Yeats often used symbols in his poetry, whether traditional symbols or ones that he himself invented to convey the seemingly inexhaustible depths of his poetic imagination. In "The Wild Swans at Coole" the most obvious symbol would be that of the swans themselves. As with all of the symbols that Yeats uses, there is no one meaning here, but several. Primarily, swans are used to symbolize stability, a sense of place. The speaker has been counting the eponymous swans for nineteen years, and though the world around him may have changed, they have not.

It is the swans' unchanging nature that allows them to serve as yet another symbol, that of youth and vitality. We sense that the speaker has grown weary of life, apprehensive at the approaching onset of old age. (A familiar refrain in Yeats's poetry.) Yet the swans, "unwearied still," never seem to grow old, their very timelessness establishing a marked contrast to the tired, aging speaker. Though wearied by each passing year, the speaker will still retain a spark of life, however dim, so long as he can still count the swans each autumn. But if one day he should wake up to find that the swans have flown away, then what little strength and vitality he has left will depart with them.

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First, the question is ambiguous, since the whole collection of poems was called “The Wild Swans at Coole.”  Secondly, the question answers itself: the symbolism is used as a symbol.  But assuming you mean something like “How do the symbolic elements work toward the poem’s power?”  I would venture that two major symbols are at work here:  the swans in pairs, and the migratory habits of the flock.  “Nine-and-fifty” says that one of the swans has lost its mate since last migration; a reader of Yeats is never far off when remembering Yeats’ love (and loss) of  Maude Gonne, and the poem, set in Autumn and written in the Autumn of the poet’s life (he was 54), and speaking of life-long habits (counting the swans, and “all’s changed”), one begins to see the symbolic parallels.  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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What are the symbols used in William Butler Yeats's "The Wild Swans At Coole"?

The swans themselves symbolize the stability, the sense of continuity that Yeats so deeply venerates, and which he sees embodied by the old families of the Protestant Ascendancy. In the midst of all the turmoil of Irish politics and society, the swans represent a much-needed sense of place for the speaker, reinforcing his almost mystical connection to this ancient plot. The world outside may be changing, but the nature of the wild swans does not.

And it is because their nature never really changes that it can serve as an additional symbol, that of youth. The speaker is old and weary and gives the impression of a profound disillusionment with life. Yet the swans, "unwearied still," never get old, and so they provide the speaker in his twilight years with a rare spark of vitality. So long as the speaker can count the swans each year, then he will still retain an element in his soul, however tiny, of his long-lost youth.

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What are the symbols used in William Butler Yeats's "The Wild Swans At Coole"?

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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