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The Wild Swans at Coole by WB Yeats
“The Wild Swans at Coole” lyric poem written by Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) and published in a collection of the same name in 1917. It is a wonderful poem that many people love, and it is regarded as one of the best poems of W. B. Yeats. The poem, written when Yeats was in his fifties, depicts a speaker visiting Coole Park in Ireland (a place which Yeats himself had visited). Here, he views a large group of swans, comparing the present moment to his first visit to the park 19 years ago. Though the speaker admires the swans, the entire poem is tinged with melancholy and regret, with the speaker projecting attributes onto the swans that he believes he now lacks. There has been much debate about the source of the speaker’s emotions. The poem itself quietly alludes to lost love, and many critics consider the period of the poem’s composition—shortly before the end of World War I, amid Ireland’s war for independence from the British—to be immensely significant.
Summary of the Poem
A first-person speaker wanders through an autumn wood, observing a beautiful forest and meditating on bygone times. He arrives at the shore of a lake and observes that fifty-nine swans are swimming upon the reflective water.
He remembers a time when, nineteen years ago, he came to this very lake and was watching the swans when suddenly they all flew away into the sky and scattered. Observing them now makes the speaker’s heartache because he realizes that so much has changed since he first began to observe the swans nineteen years ago. Things were better back then—even the swans’ wings seemed to beat more lightly in the air.
However, he observes, the swans seem unaware of the passage of time. They remain together, going where they wish. He realizes that even when they fly away from him, or even when he no longer comes to see them, they will still be doing what they have always done, elsewhere for some other observer. They are testaments to the fact that some things are eternal even in a rapidly changing, transient universe.
Analysis of the Poem
The Wild Swans at Coole is a bleak mournful poem, composed by a great poet of Modern Age W. B. Yeats. It is a poem of remembrance of the past. In which the speaker returns to a lake in Ireland (the Coole of the title) that he first visited 19 years ago. Here, he observes a group of swans, just he had years before. But instead of boring his joy, the swans’ beauty and vitality now fill the speaker with bittersweet feelings. This is because the unwearied swans seem to have stayed the same – still filled with passion, mystery and brilliance while the speaker’s own life has been changed irreversibly by the onward passage of time.
The poem is essentially a tale of two moments: the memory of the speaker’s first visit to Coole, and the present day in which he finds himself there again though it is not clear if has visited in between those two moments, the poem can explore the way the relentless passage of time has affected the speaker, diminishing his lust for life and making him weary.
The poem begins by signalling that the speaker feels himself to be in the autumn of his life. The general setting establishes a sense of transition, one which echoes the way that the speaker feels that, ultimately his hopes and dreams – later phrased as passion or conquest- have passed by him. Looking at the numerous elegant swans on the lake, the speaker starts to distinguish between the time when he first saw them 19 autumns ago and the present moment. He clearly admires the swans, calling them brilliant. Everything is changed since he first stood on the shore at Coole. The swans’ brilliance is kind of constant – true then and true now- which contrast with the way that the speaker feels himself to have changed over the years. Back then, the speaker walked with a lighter tread, now his age and life experiences make him metaphorically heavier and slower. This, of course, juxtaposes with the ever-present grace of the swans, which again appears the same now to the speaker as it was back then.
To that end, the swans ‘way of being’ reminds the speaker of how he himself used to be. This is drawn out by the way the poem describes the differences between the swans and the speaker in the present time, implying that he used to have more of the traits he continues to perceive in the birds. Whereas the swans are unwearied still and hearts have not grown cold, the speaker can no longer say the same of himself. The poem implies that he has grown weary, and his heart has grown cold.
The poem The Wild Swans at Coole shows an individual struggling to come to terms with the path that life has taken. Ultimately, this speaks to the way that life runs an irreversible course- people can’t go back or change the way that things have turned out. The speaker holds on to happier memories, but these are tinged by the sadness that they are fated never to become real experiences again.
“The Wild Swans at Coole” is written in a very regular stanza form: five six-line stanzas, each written in a roughly iambic meter, with the first and third lines in tetrameter, the second, fourth, and sixth lines in trimeter, and the fifth line in pentameter, so that the pattern of stressed syllables in each stanza is 434353. The rhyme scheme in each stanza is
Questions and Answers
Q.1 Sum up in 50 of your own words the main gist of this poem.
Ans. This poem presents Yeats’ commentary on the unhappiness generated in him due to the passing of time. Yeats here gives us a beautiful description of the grace and enduring splendour of the swans in the lake inside Coole Park. The poet has grown old while the swans have maintained their beauty.
Q.4 What sort of a life did Yeats find at Coole? (25 words)
Ans. At Coole, yeats found a life of order and of labour where all outward things appeared to be signatures of inward life.
Q.3 Identify the three main characteristics of the verse pattern used in this poem.
Ans. The three main characteristics of the verse pattern used in this poem are:
a) six-line verse
b) alternate lines rhyming
c) each verse climaxed by a couplet
Q.4 Explain what the following phrases signify.
a) “companionable streams”
b) “lover by lover”
Ans. “companionable streams”: the warmth Yeats envies.
b) “lover by lover”: envy of the swans who have mated while the poet has himself not
been united with his beloved.
Q.5 Which Yeats do you find in this poem. (Tick one)
And. We find an austere Yeats here.
Q. 6 Discuss the memory of Yeats in the poem.
Ans. In The Wild Swans at Coole Yeats uses a memory of his youth, caused by his viewing of the swans before him, to contemplate how his relationship with Maud Gonne has changed over time, as well as how he himself has changed.
Q.7 Explain, The trees are in their autumn beauty’.
Ans. He opens the poem with the line ‘The trees are in their autumn beauty,’ emphasising the word ‘autumn’ to suggest things coming to an end, the end of youth and the approach of death. This is reflected in the following line with the word ‘dry’ as well as the phrase ‘October twilight’ in line 3, creating a mysterious setting, conveying the gradual effects of old age. This imagery of decay and autumn contrasts to the ‘brimming water’ of line 5, suggesting playfulness and youthful vibrancy.
Q. Discuss the contrast used in the poem.
Ans. Throughout the poem, Yeats makes this contrast between youth and old age—the declarative and monosyllabic phrase of stanza 3 ‘And now my heart is sore’ emphasises his loneliness, caused by the pain of his past memories of his relationship with Maud Gonne, in 1893, as well as her repeated rejections of his many proposals. This loneliness contrasts to the peace and consistency of the swans, who can also be seen to represent social order, conveyed in stanza four, ‘Passion or conquest, wander where they will/ Attend upon them still’. Yeats emphasises the freedom of the swans, conveyed in the alliteration of ‘wander there they will’, with his own loneliness and fear they will abandon him, conveyed in the final stanza, which ends with a question to convey how the changes of time make him feel increasingly uncertain.
Q. What do you mean by ‘Unwearied still, lover by lover’.
‘Unwearied still, lover by lover’ contrasts to how Yeats himself grows old
and is continually subjected to loneliness and isolation as his love for Maud Gonne is
unrequited, emphasized by the declarative and monosyllabic line ‘Their hearts have
not grown old’.
Q. Write a short note on the structure and form of the poem.
Ans. In terms of structure, Yeats emphasises the concept of change by creating a cyclical structure in which the poem starts in the present, goes into memory, and returns back to the present. The imagery of a peaceful lake reflected in the sky, emphasised in stanza one by the sibilance ‘still sky’ and the trochee placed on ‘Mirrors’, breaking away from the usually iambic rhythm in the poem, is mirrored in stanza five with the phrase ‘But now they drift on the still water’, the word ‘drift’ emphasising the peacefulness of the swans, who are idealized into ‘Mysterious, beautiful’. The word ‘now’ brings the poem declaratively back into the present, contrasting this peaceful imagery to the sense of disturbance created in stanzas two and there, in which the dramatic line ‘All suddenly mount’ is followed by the participle ‘wheeling’ in the next line, creating a sense of lack of control and disunion, continued in the next line with the onomatopoeic adjective ‘clamorous’. In this way, Yeats transfers his own feelings of loneliness and vulnerability in his old age to the swans—this is further brought out in stanza three with the alliteration of ‘bell-beat’, creating a sense of vulnerability to the swans ‘above my head’.