“The Wild Swans at Coole”: Analysis

The Poem

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,
Mysterious, beautiful;
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 Message

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.

The Analysis

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.

The Title

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?

Overview

The Wild Swans at Coole.JPG
My original analysis of this poem

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.

“The Cat and the Moon”: Analysis

The Poem

The Cat and the Moon

By W. B. Yeats

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun around like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon
The creeping cat looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For wander and wail as he would
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnalousche runs in the grass,
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnalousche, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnalousche creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnalousche know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnalousche creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.

The Message

The Cat and the Moon is, on the surface, about a cat trying to catch the moon. It’s been suggested that the cat in the poem was based on either Maud Gonne’s cat (the muse and love of Yeats), or his friend, Lady Gregory’s. However, it’s also about a dance between lovers (the cat here represents Yeats, whilst the moon would be Maud Gonne), and may also hint at the Romantic concept of mutability (this basically means ‘change’, but it’s an idea that the Romantic Poets latched onto in their works).

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

The poem moves rhythmically with a mainly iambic metre to accentuate the tone of a dance. A mixture of assonance and alliteration then gives it a soft tonality that matches the lyrical, child-like feel to it.

Line by Line

  • “The cat went here and there / And the moon spun round like a top,” – No matter what Yeats does, as he goes “here and there”, he cannot reach the moon (Gonne); she, meanwhile, “spun” in front of Yeats, which gives the impression that she’s almost laughing at him. Spinning also means that she would be constantly changing, the first link to the concept of mutability. This changing could be a reference to age, or else her revolutionary involvement. Yeats sees her everywhere he goes, but he can never reach her. There is a duality between Yeats’ movement and Gonne’s, the “and” pairing them; this could demonstrate how, in Yeats’ opinion, he and Maud belong together. Despite this, their movements are too different; one spins gracefully while the other darts “here and there”.
  • “And the nearest kin of the moon” – Hints at Yeats’ relationship with Iseult Gonne, Maud’s daughter. He sees her as a part of the dance, but she will always come second to Maud (this is shown by the preceding description of the moon in juxtaposition to Iseult’s reference).
  • “Creeping cat” / “Stared at the Moon” / “For wander and wail” – These phrases show Yeats’ general self-hatred; his love for Gonne controls him. He is always “creeping” towards her, even though the physical distance between them will always be too far. This demonstrates his acceptance of the fact that he will never be with Gonne, an idea also considered in “The Cold Heaven“.
  • “Animal blood” – Yeats bestialises himself as Minnalousche (thought to be the name of the cat Yeats based The Cat and the Moon on), perhaps to suggest that he is not in control of himself when it comes to Gonne – he is driven by his more primal instincts.
  • “Do you dance, Minnalousche, do you dance?” – This rhetorical question accentuates the idea that Yeats is questioning his attitude, as well as his future. He mocks himself, the repetition here amplifying the impression that the poem is actually a song.
  • “What better than to call a dance?” – This directly links “dance” to the poem. Yeats sees himself as taking part in a neverending dance.
  • “Maybe the moon may learn, / Tired of that courtly fashion, / A new dance turn.” – This is a contrast to earlier as Yeats hopes that Gonne will change and suddenly accept him as her lover. “A new dance turn” may also reference Iseult, as he considers his relationship with Maud’s daughter.
  • “From moonlit place to place” – Yeats reminds us of how his love for Gonne is eternal, haunting him wherever he goes, just like the moon. Yet, at the same time, it could be argued that he only feels the love some of the time, as the moon does not shine in the day.
  • “Change to change – In these few lines, as well as the final two, Yeats considers how he and Gonne will change over time (similar to how he wrote, “there is gray in your hair” in his “Broken Dreams”. It could also represent how he is beginning to resent his eternal love for her.
  • “Alone, important and wise,” – Yeats closes the poem with his self-praise, to perhaps reassure himself that he is not as weak and worthless as Gonne’s rejection makes him feel. The Cat and the Moon thus acts as a journey of Yeats’ acceptance of the situation; although he creeps through the grass after the moon, he sees himself as wise, because he knows that he has no choice.

Overview

The Cat and the Moon.JPG
My original analysis of this poem

The Cat and the Moon is, on the surface, one of Yeats’ less serious poems; because of its form and metre, it is almost impossible to read the poem in anything but a sing-song voice. Yet this poem still addresses big concerns that were quite important to Yeats. He thinks a lot about Maud Gonne, and her place, as well as her daughter’s, in his own dance. Overall, though, the poem represents change. It considers how people change, and how dances change.

Whether Yeats is accepting that, as he and Gonne change, their relationship may never prosper, or he is still hoping for “a new dance turn”, he is looking to the future in a somewhat positive way, particularly compared to some of his other poems, such as in “The Cold Heaven“. This leaves his readers on a positive note, which gives a satisfactory feel to the close of the poem.

“The Cold Heaven”: Analysis

This is the first of a new blog section that I’m starting, dealing with poetry analysis. Analysing poems is something that I’ve always liked doing, so thank you for reading; I hope this may be of some use to someone.

The Poem

The Cold Heaven

By W. B. Yeats

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quick,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

The Message

The Cold Heaven is all about emotion; it’s Yeats’ revelation, supposedly inspired by strange clouds and patterns in the sky. It explores big concerns, such as life, death and destiny, as well as his personal concerns, which were primarily about his muse, Maud Gonne, and how she refused to love him. Yeats was also extremely concerned about death, particularly as he grew older, and this poem, published in 1914, marks the time when he began to think seriously about the end of his life.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

The poem is made up of Alexandrines within free verse, which demonstrates a limited order within chaos. It represents Yeats’ own confusion about death and afterlife. The enjambment throughout the poem demonstrates how The Cold Heaven itself is a rush of emotions, as well as a revelation; he cannot control the pace of his thoughts.

The Title

The idea of a “cold heaven” is the exact opposite to the idealisation of hell. This could suggest that it is pure and divine, yet “cold” also presents an image of emotional detachment and a lack of passion. These contrasting impressions of an afterlife reveal Yeats’ uncertainties over his death and his fear as he begins to contemplate the unknown.

Line by Line

  • “Suddenly” – Reveals the power of Yeats’ thoughts as they burst from him (an idea also considered in “The Wild Swans at Coole”).
  • “Rook-delighting heaven” – Could refer to crevices and sharp edges (an unfriendly image), or to how death is satisfied in heaven, suggesting that it is a positive image, and thus a positive afterlife.
  • “Ice burned and was but the more ice” – Could demonstrate how heaven is a form of hell; here Yeats critiques religion, suggesting flaws through the image of a “cold heaven”; it is “cold” to represent its opposition to hell, and yet Yeats suggests that heaven is still imperfect, as it is “cold” and unwelcoming. He suggests that, regardless of where he ends up after his death, he will not be happy.
  • “Imagination and heart were driven / So wild that every casual thought of that and this” – Yeats suggests that “the cold heaven” would be a place void from “imagination and heart”. These lines also indicate what would happen to the “heart”, if it was to enter a “cold heaven”; if heat represents passion, then he way be considering his unrequited love for Maud Gonne.
  • “Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season” – Here Yeats considers how his passion for Gonne could not be a part of the idealised heaven. His heaven has gone “cold” as he realises his rejection and feels as though a part of him (the heat of heaven) has left him, leaving only the memories.
  • “With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago; – This could be a Shakespearean link; similar lexical tones suggest that love and death are intertwined, just as they were in Romeo and Juliet, with the “star-crossed lovers”.
  • “Sense and reason” – Yeats can’t logically define or understand the concept of an afterlife, no matter how hard he tries.
  • “Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,” – Yeats weeps over his own confusion; he is desperate to determine what he will face once he dies and whether Gonne will be a part of this existence. He is overwhelmed by grief from her rejection, as well as his own confusion; this line most accurately reveals the emotion within this poem, “to and fro” illustrating how he alternates between concepts of a pleasant afterlife, and an unpleasant afterlife. It also demonstrates how he has nowhere to turn now that he has lost Maud Gonne.
  • “Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken, / Confusion of the death-bed over” – Yeats has another revelation within the first. He is no longer scared about his future; “ah” separated by a caesura in either side slows down the pace of the poem and represents Yeats’ satisfaction over this realisation, suggesting that heaven must be good and that his “confusion of the death-bed [is] over”.
  • “Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken / By the injustice of the skies for punishment?” – Yeats is “out naked on the roads” because of his vulnerabilities. “Stricken / By the injustice of the skies” indicates that Yeats’ “punishment” will be met in heaven, but their “injustice” also hints at the idea of destiny and that it is not his fault that Gonne does not love him; it is “the injustice of the skies”, whether this be God or not, that seeks to punish him.

Overview

The Cold Heaven
My original analysis of this poem

The Cold Heaven is all about oppositions. It’s emotional, passionate and messy, but that’s the point. Yeats is torn between his need to move on from Maud Gonne, so he can focus on much bigger things, such as the questions about death, and his inexplicable love for her. Even though this poem represents his realisation that Gonne will never truly love him, he still wonders whether she might change her mind.

The most important thing to take away from this poem is probably Yeats’ own confusion. He honestly doesn’t know what he’s thinking, because his thoughts are no longer logical. He’s working through his emotions, which is why the issues about Gonne and about death merge together, as he worries about both at the same time. Like I said, it’s messy, and it’s confusing.