The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats: A Detailed Analysis

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at 2016.11.11
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The Poem

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?

Starting with the Poem

The Wild Swans at Coole, published in 1917, is primarily based on the scenic beauty of Coole Park, an estate about 130km from Dublin that belonged to the poet’s close friend, Lady Gregory and where Yeats was a regular visitor every year.

Background of the Poem

The poem marks an important phase in Yeats’ life; his futile relationship with Iseut Gonne had received a rejection, his treasured Ireland was going through rebellion and the World War 1 with its brutalities had just ended. Moreover, Yeats was 51 years old, an autumnal juncture that supports his feelings of dejection and hopelessness, much reflected in the poem.

A Short Summary

The poet begins with the setting of the poem; it is an autumnal twilight in October, the trees are covered with multicolored leaves (the trees in their autumn beauty), the weather is dry and the lake resembling a “mirror” reflects “a still sky.” Revisiting the park after 19 years, the poet revives a familiar sight; he spots 59 swans in the lake that “mount” even before he had “well finished” counting. However, though the birds fly about “in great broken rings,” the poet himself feels “sore” at heart. The crippling sensation that “All’s changed,” (chiefly with regard to his fading self due to approaching age), makes him recall his first visit, when he had walked with a “lighter tread.” He concludes that the swans embody an ever youthful heart (their hearts have not grown old), and it must be either “passion” or “conquest” that motivates them. As the swans “drift on the still water,” he is left musing that this enjoyment too is transient, for one day they would fly away and “delight other men.”

Analyzing the Poem

FormLyric
GenreAllegory
MoodPessimistic
StructureFive stanzas; mixture of iambic pentameter, iambic trimeter, and iambic tetrameter
Rhyme schemeABCBDD

The Themes

Man’s limitations VS. Nature’s Permanence: The vitality of the swans directly contrasts Yeats’ dispiritedness. The swans (embodying Nature) relish permanent bliss in comparison to the poet who is bowed down by age and experience. The everlastingness of the scene is further intensified by phrases such as “still sky,” and “still water.”

An Inescapable Gloom: Throughout the poem, the poet’s looming despondency, nostalgia for a segment of his life he had 19 years ago, is ascertainable. Finally, the fact is typified by the line, “And now my heart is sore.”

Death: Two vital aspects of the setting, autumn, and twilight, subtly hint at the impending cessation – death. Autumn is universally the season before barren winter and twilight is the period before total darkness; thus both are effectively employed by the poet as fitting precursors of an inevitable termination. Further instances that evoke the sense of death are, Yeats’ premonition of the swans flying off in the last stanza, or the realization that “their hearts have not grown old” unlike his own.

Meaning of the Title

The title makes it clear that Yeats’ subject concerns undomesticated (wild) swans that live on a lake at Coole Park.

Diction

Yeats uses ample adjectives like, “wild swans,” “still sky,” “dry” “woodland path.” Enjambment is also used by him, for instance in the second stanza, the lines,

“All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings,”

the idea of the bird’s flight is not complete at the end of the line, “All suddenly mount,” but goes on to the next two lines.

The Literary Devices Used

Symbols

  • The swans stand for imperishable youth
  • The “bell beat” of the swans symbolizes a relentless passing of time
  • The phrase, “autumnal twilight,” symbolizes an imminent end
  • “Companionable streams” suggest the intimate passion the swans have
  • The number, 59 symbolizes something odd (since swan pairs mate for their entire lives, the last swan is lonesome as the poet).

Image and Imagery

The entire first stanza with the “dry” “woodland” “paths,” the “still sky, “October twilight,” establishes a picture of serenity and loneliness and builds up the idea that Nature is on the threshold of death. Contrastingly, the second stanza describing the sudden “mount” of the swans creates a powerful image of their unending energy and vigor.

Prominent Figures Of Speech Used

Metaphor: Line 4, “the water/Mirrors a still sky,” in which the lake is said to be like the “still sky.”

Alliteration: Lines 17-18, the “bell beat” of the swans.

Personification: Line 22, “Their hearts have not grown old,” that declare the swans as having “hearts,” a human quality.

Repetition: The words, “dry” and “still” are repeated a number of times.

Onomatopoeia: The expression, ”The bell-beat of their wings above my head” tends to arouse the sound of the wings of the swans as they fly off.

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