The Wild Swans at Coole

The Wild Swans at Coole

by William Butler Yeats

The Wild Swans at Coole Summary and Analysis

In Short

  • The speaker describes a beautiful October autumn evening at the Coole Park, Ireland with fifty-nine swans swimming at twilight in the lake.
  • He’s been watching those swans for years here. While he is watching, the birds take a flight together.
  • The speaker feels sad in the fact that he has grown older over the years but those swans have remained young and energetic as before.
  • The next moment the speaker thinks that the swans won’t be there at the Coole forever. They will fly away to some other region someday and he will then miss them.

The Wild Swans at Coole – Explanation

Stanza 1

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,

The poem opens with a beautiful scenario. The time is autumn, a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. The trees with their rich greenery are in the ripe somber beauty of early autumn. One can imagine the gorgeous colour of the leaves before they fall.

The woodland paths made by the treading of the rustics of the woods are still dry because it is early autumn now and the rains and mists of the autumn have not begun yet.

Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;

The month is October. The cloudless sky of the autumnal twilight is clear and unagitated by the windy clouds. That ‘still’ sky is reflected on the transparent surface of the water in the evening. The title of the poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” suggests that the speaker is talking about the beautiful lake at the Coole Park, Ireland.

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

On the wooded mountain lake now full of water to the brim with rocks and boulders rising their heads here and there “nine and fifty” (59) swans swim. It is interesting that the speaker has focused enough on the swans to count all 59 of them. So, he is keenly studying them.

Thus, in stanza one the speaker describes the quiet and serene beauty of the lake at Coole Park. It has a calming effect on the readers.

Stanza 2

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;

So, the speaker has been counting those birds for nineteen years now. It is, however, possible that he has been visiting the Coole Park for more than nineteen years, but started keeping track of them only 19 years ago. On the contrary, the speaker may also mean that it’s been 19 years since he first visited the Coole Park.

I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

Hardly had the poet finished counting the swans when they took off (mount) suddenly. The whole flock rose up on their wings wheeling pell-mell in the sky in broken circles. Loud whistling sound was made by the flapping of their wings.

Stanza 3

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.

The speaker has been watching those beautiful swans (brilliant creatures) for years now. But having looked at them he currently feels upset. His heart is ‘sore’, i.e., he feels a heartache.

So, something has changed over the years. The same swans which he found ‘brilliant’ and used to make him happy now brings some feeling of sadness. But so far, we are unsure of the reason behind his sadness. Let’s read on.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

The speaker feels that everything has changed during the intervening years. When he first visited the Coole Park and saw the birds at twilight flying noisily overhead, he was simply enraptured. He then with a happy heart walked with a much lighter tread on the shore of the lake in a joyous mood.

Though we still don’t know exactly what changes our speaker is talking about, we can guess that the change is more about himself than anything else. After all, he indicates a change in his feelings on seeing the swans. However, that ‘all’ in “All’s changed” may mean the surrounding at the Coole, the political scenario of Europe, and of course, his own life.

Stanza 4

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;

Though everything has changed, the swans are not tired yet. They are still full of joyous, youthful spirit. Pair by pair they swim in the cold streams by cutting the water with their webbed feet. They are enjoying the supreme bliss of love and probably that has made the otherwise cold water more bearable (companionable streams). The swans either move about the marshy coast or fly up high in the air.

Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

This is now becoming clear that the speaker is implying a contrast between him and the swans. Though the speaker has grown older and lost his buoyancy of spirit over the years, the birds still look young and energetic.

Passion or conquest – in passion of love for their mates or in the fight with a rival bird – their vigour is still unchanged. The vitality still attends on them.

So, now we know what makes the speaker’s heart ‘sore’. While he is exhausted with so many cares and worries in this world, the swans are free-flying and worry-free.

Stanza 5

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;

The swans are now floating passively on the calm shallow portion of the lake where there is no current (drift on the still water). The speaker finds the birds “mysterious and beautiful”. They are ‘mysterious’ in the sense that the speaker has no clue as to how the birds have maintained to stay so energetic over the years.

Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

The speaker ends the poem asking a question. Where will these swans be when he visits the park someday next time?

Though he previously felt sad looking at the swans, it seems he does not want to lose their sight. Maybe he is worried that the birds will not be there at the Coole forever. They will migrate to some distant lake or pool and build nest among the rushes near the ground by the side of the water and charm the eyes of men of some other regions.

It does not matter where they will go next because they will delight others by their beauty wherever they go – a circle of beauty and life. But the poet will miss these birds when he returns (awake some day) to Coole once more in the future and sees that the birds have flown away.

The wild Swans at Coole – Into Details

Publication

“The Wild Swans at Coole” by William Butler Yeats was written in October 1916. The poem was first published in the June 1917 issue of the “Little Review”. Later the poem appeared in his book “The Wild Swans at Coole and Other Poems” published in 1919.

Background/Context

Yeats was 51 when he wrote the poem. He realised how he had changed since, at the age of 32, he first visited Lady Gregory at the Coole Park.

This poem is closely related to Yeats’s own life, especially his love for Maud Gonne. Yeats fell hopelessly in love with the 23-year-old English heiress and ardent Irish Nationalist in 1889 and she had a significant and lasting effect on his poetry and his life thereafter. The poet’s love, however, was unrequited. Yeats was melancholy. He was reflecting on his advancing age, romantic rejection by both Maud Gonne and Iseult Gonne (Yeats proposed her in 1916, but got rejection), and the ongoing Irish rebellion against the British.

All these factors made the poet sad. He found himself in a contrasting situation in comparison to the wild swans at Coole. The birds were ever jolly, full of vigour and enjoying the bliss of love. And all these feelings and realisations got an expression in the present poem.

Setting

The poem is set in the Coole Park, Ireland, in the estate of the poet’s friend and patron Lady Gregory. The park is situated in Galway, an eastern county of Ireland on the sea. It is a wild mountainous village which Yeats must have visited. He used to spend a lot of time in the lap of nature to escape the reality of life.

Title

Apparently, the title of the poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” refers to something literal – the wild swans that Yeats observed at Coole Park, Ireland. The title thus names real place and real thing. But it actually has more significant meaning in it.

Here the swans are called ‘wild’, meaning untamed. They are different from us. They can wander wherever they want. The swans don’t have the worries and hardships of human life. That is why their heart don’t grow old. On the other hand, we, human beings are not worry-free like the swans. Our life has become painful with the burden of mundane activities and emotional complexities.

Again, the park is situated away from the buzzing city life. And similarly, the wild swans live worry-free in the lap of nature. The speaker also takes shelter at the lap of Coole Park when he feels exhausted. Unfortunately, there is no escape from the cold, hard reality.

Thus, the title suggests the similarity the wild swans share with the Coole and the poet’s feeling of loss and melancholy.

Form and Language

“The Wild Swans at Coole” appears to be an elegy, a lyric poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead. Specifically, this is a poem mourning the loss of the poet’s own youth and personal loneliness. According to the critic Huge Kenner, it’s actually about something even more tragic: the loss of feeling which he experienced with age. So, the poem can also be seen as an autobiographical poem of Yeats.

The poem has a very regular stanza form. Each stanza has six lines. The speaker describes what he sees, thinks and feels in first person using ‘I’. He reminisces the past, describes the presents and also gives his thought to future.

In diction, the poem is superb. The language is bold, bare and simple like that of everyday life with none of the ornaments of his earlier poetry. The rhythm of the verse is wonderfully attuned to the thought and content.

Meter and Rhyme

The poem is written roughly in iambic (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable) meter. The first and third lines of each stanza are tetrameter (four feet) while the second, fourth and sixth lines are trimeter (three feet), and the fifth line is pentameter (five feet).

The trees | are in | their au– | tumn beauty (Iambic tetrameter)

The wood– | land paths | are dry (Iambic trimeter)

Besides the varied number of feet, there are also extra syllables every here and there. Though controlled, the metrical pattern is not strict.

The rhyme scheme of each stanza is ABCBDD. Despite the varied meter structure, the rhyming lines make up for some musical aspect.

We think you would enjoy listening to the audio poem here.

The wild Swans at Coole – Themes

Time and Aging

In this poem Yeats presents his anguish of aging. This problem has been suggested through comparison and contrast between the poet and the swans in a lake at Coole Park. He first visited the park in 1897. During his second visit after nineteen years in 1916, he felt that he became old and many things around him changed.

The poet was in a romantic mood almost like the swans with all the merry time in his youth. After 19 years everything has changed. The poet has become old. The swans are still free from the hard realities of life. The burden of aging has not touched them. He becomes gloomy after thinking about all this.

Nature vs Humanity

The poet spends a lot of words in depicting the nature and its various aspects in the poem. The gorgeous October autumn twilight, the forest paths, the beautiful energetic swans and from their paddling to flight – all invariably presents nature.

Though the speaker grows older and tired with this life, the swans doesn’t. They remain the same. Nature never loses its vitality and it has its own fixed rules. The poet here presents nature’s changeless pattern through the swans in contrast to humanity.

Immortality

In the last stanza of the poem, the poet immortalizes the youthful joy of swans. Just as John Keats’s nightingale goes singing from generations to generations, Yeats’s swans will go on enjoying the same romantic spirit. A swan may die; another swan will come to play the same role in this world. They may not be here at Coole, but they will continue to please other men in some other part of the world. Symbolically, the poet upholds the immortality of not only swans but of every beautiful aspects of nature.

The wild Swans at Coole – Symbols

59 Swans

The odd number in “nine and fifty” swans can imply that one has lost a mate. The poet has lost his beloved too. So, one could argue that the single swan is the narrator himself who was turned down by Maud Gonne and is now desolate.

Moreover, swans are elegant and graceful, symbols of love. They represent permanence or immortality. Their passion, energy, beauty will last. They as a species will remain in this world and delight people. Their hearts remain young. The passing of time can’t change the swans.

Autumn and Twilight

Autumn comes after summer. Twilight comes after the day. Both these time references signify the poet’s growing age. The poet’s summer days (youth) are gone and now he has reached his autumn. And this seems a deliberate choice of words then that the speaker says –

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Again, autumn is represented in the poem as a symbol of beauty and colourfulness. This is evident in the opening line of the poem –

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The speaker does not even bother to go into more detail on how the trees exactly look like. That he has said ‘autumn beauty’, he supposes the readers know what he means. It also suggests the poet’s craving for everything beautiful.

19 Years

19 years is a particular length of time, but what the speaker actually wants to mean is the constant run of time. Time has the greatest decaying power. None can escape its hands. The speaker finds himself tired with the worldly worries with the passing of time.

The wild Swans at Coole – Literary Devices

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in neighbouring words. A few examples are –

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Their hearts have not growold;

Delight men’s eyes when awake some day

Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in nearby words. Here are the examples from the first four lines of the poem –

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;

Alliteration

Alliteration is a sub-category of consonance. It is the repetition of consonant sounds in the beginning (or, stressed syllables) of nearby words.

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

Their hearts have not grown old;

Enjambment

Though many lines of the poem are end-stopped lines, enjambment is used in places where a sentence continues to the next line of verse without pause.

Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

Personification

Personification is the attribution of human qualities to non-human things.

In the poem the poet mainly personifies the swans. The speaker says the birds are not tired yet. They all have their lovers with them and they swim pair by pair. Their hearts have remained young. They are passionate at love and challenging in fight. Thus, the poet describes the swans as if they are human beings.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold …

Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Again, autumn is personified when the poet says that it attends on him.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Similarly, the poet personifies vigour (though not mentioned directly in the poem) when he says that it still attends upon the swans in whatever they do – in their love or fight.

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

Rhetorical Question

A rhetorical question is a question in form but not meant for an answer. It is rather to achieve a dramatic effect or to highlight a point. The last four lines of “The Wild Swans at Coole” is a great example here –

Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Imagery

The poem is full of imageries used to make readers perceive things better.

We find some great visual images (that readers can almost see) in the following lines –

Upon the brimming water among the stones

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams …

Again, there are auditory images (sounds that we hear) in the lines –

Upon their clamorous wings.

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Finally, tactile imagery (sense of touch) is found in the following lines –

Trod with a lighter tread.

They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams …

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