The Wild Swans at Coole
By W. B. Yeats
The trees are in their autumn beauty
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and fifty swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
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.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
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 Wild Swans at Coole basically finds Yeats contemplating a game of swans (apparently “game” refers to a group of swans when they’re sitting or swimming, and “wedge” refers to them when they’re in the air). The poem has a lot of external references, from Yeats’ Irish nationalism, to his unrequited love of Maud Gonne, but, on the surface, it shows Yeats watching the swans that he has watched for many years, and, as he watches, they all take off into the air, leaving him to contemplate what he will do when they are no longer around.
Metre & Structure
The poem is written in a balladic style, echoing how Yeats is reflecting on the past, glorifying nature and love through this style’s connection to tradition and romance.
Coole Park was the home of Lady Gregory, a patron of the arts and Yeats’ close friend. Yeats must have watched the swans when he wandered the park on his visits to Lady Gregory.
Line by Line
- “The trees are in their autumn beauty, / The woodland paths are dry,” – Ireland, Yeats’ home, is thought to be a place of peace and serenity, filled with nature and beauty. These lines may also, however, reference Maud Gonne and how she is in her “autumn beauty”, her veins “dry”, due to her lack of passion for Yeats.
- “Autumn” / “Twilight” – Yeats considers time a lot in this poem; he thinks of Autumn, which marks the beginning of the end of a year, and twilight, the beginning of the end of a day. This demonstrates how he is considering the end of his life, as he does in other poems such as “The Cold Heaven“. It may also reference the end of nature, however, relevant considering the changes that were beginning to happen in Ireland during Yeats’ lifetime.
- “Mirrors a still sky” – This poem was published in 1917, a year after the Easter Risings of 1916, suggesting that Yeats may be reflecting on his peaceful Ireland before the chaos broke out.
- “Among the stones / Are nine-and-fifty swans” – The swans surround the “stones” – inanimate objects that may represent the dead Irish from the Easter Risings. This is particularly notable as, whilst the last two lines of each stanza generally rhyme in a ballad, Yeats only offers a half-rhyme here, which emphasises the discord in the serene setting – all is not as peaceful as it seems! The swans, however, offer a stark contrast to this eerie setting, as they provide the imagery of elegance and serenity. They could perhaps represent the spirits of those who died, linking the ideas together.
- “Suddenly mount” – “Suddenly” represents the changing pace of Ireland, a contrast to how the word is used in “The Cold Heaven” to represent the explosion of Yeats’ inner turmoil. “Mount”, meanwhile, conveys sexual connotations that link the poem to the myth, put into poem by Yeats, of “Leda and the Swan”, where Zeus impregnates the girl, Leda, whilst in the guise of a swan.
- “And scatter wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings” – The plosive language of “great broken rings” demonstrates Yeats’ resentment at being rejected by Gonne and his anger at having his traditional, romantic Ireland, essentially taken away from him. The peace is broken by the swans, echoing how the Easter Risings broke Irish peace.
- “My heart is sore” – Yeats’ mental frustration at losing Ireland is causing him physical pain, too. This passion and association with the heart not only links back to Maud Gonne, but also demonstrates just how much love Yeats has for Ireland.
- “All’s changed since I” – Ireland’s changing around Yeats; the structure of this sentence also suggests that it’s leaving him behind, as the personal pronoun “I” comes after the changing process considered in “all’s changed”.
- “The bell-beat of their wings above my head” – The “bell-beat” could represent the end of a life, perhaps Yeats’, as he considers this, or perhaps the Nationalist heroes’, which were lost in the previous year.
- “Unwearied still, lover by lover” – Swans mate for life, and this line reveals just how much they are “unwearied” by each other’s company. Yeats resents this as he compares it to his relationship with Gonne.
- “Their hearts have not grown old” – Reference to how the Nationalist heroes died young, or perhaps a reference to how Yeats is ageing.
- “Passion or conquest“ – Perhaps again linking to the myth of “Leda and the Swan”, and Zeus’ mysterious reasons behind it.
- “But now they drift on the still water” – The swans came back to Yeats, suggesting that his traditional Ireland has not quite come to an end, and that there is still hope for it. From a more eerie interpretation, the fact that the swans “drift” and the water is “still” gives the impression of a lack of movement, and therefore also perhaps a lack of life.
- “Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day / To find they have flown away?” – Yeats realises that his life will have very little value after Gonne is dead and his beloved Ireland is changed forever. Both his poetry and his actual life will have no purpose without either of these great loves. The conclusive question mark represents Yeats’ overall confusion – how can he live when he’s lost so much?
The Wild Swans at Coole is one of Yeats’ poems that most aligns him to the Romantic poets. Yeats himself, of course, is never labelled a Romantic poet in the same way that people like William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Percy Shelley (1792-1822) are, simply because Yeats (1865-1939) was too late. Yet the Romantics were clearly a strong influence in some of Yeats’ poems, particularly those, such as The Wild Swans at Coole, where he romanticises nature.
This poem demonstrates Yeats’ nationalism and loyalty to Ireland, along with his sadness at how, essentially, time has changed things. It has changed things for Yeats on a personal basis, but it has also changed things for Ireland. Yeats doesn’t want to imagine what might happen in Ireland’s future; he doesn’t want to imagine an Ireland where his swans don’t exist anymore. So, essentially, this is a poem about reflecting on the past, the future, and fearing the loss of natural beauty and tradition. It’s also one of Yeats’ more political poems, if only in how it links to the Easter Risings of 1916.