Themes of The Wild Swans at Coole
Death and the passage of time
The speaker’s gloomy mood in the poem stems from his realization that so much has changed since he began counting the swans at this lake nineteen years earlier. At its heart, the poem is a meditation on the fact that some things are oblivious to the changes wrought by time on human lives. So much has changed for the speaker since he first observed the swans; yet the swans and the woods are still the same—as beautiful as ever. This makes the speaker feel happy and sad at the same time because although he is sad about all that has changed, he is also glad that the swans will continue to exist and could perhaps provide the same joy they gave to him to some other observer. The poem is both a meditation on ageing and the passage of time and a tribute to things that are immune to change.
“The Wild Swans at Coole” juxtaposes its speaker, who is ageing and who has lost much of his former energy, with nature, which is eternally suspended in time, constantly dying and rebuilding itself again and again. Nature is one of the poem’s central themes, representing both a reflection of the speaker’s interior landscape and a divine force independent of human frailty.
Even though the speaker and the human world he knows have changed during the nineteen years since he started visiting the lake, he observes that the swans and the lake remained unchanged. The poem concludes with the idea that while human generations will die and new ones will be born, nature will remain the same, beautiful and eternal. It is in nature that man can find himself—fractured and changed though he may be—as part of a much larger, eternal whole.
The collection of poems for which this poem provided the title was dedicated to Lady Gregory’s son, Major William Robert Gregory, who died in World War I. He may be symbolized by the sixtieth swan, the one who disappeared, leaving the count of swans at fifty-nine; the sixtieth swan may also be Maud or even the speaker’s youthful self. The poem’s mournful mood makes it a meditation on the way that time changes humans, youth and beauty fade, and loved ones are lost.
Many of Yeats’ poems, especially those in the collection The Wild Swans at Coole, invoke fantasies of self-discovery and the self-actualization that the speaker wishes to attain.
The poem begins with the speaker departing from society and walking into the woods to meditate on his life. He places himself in a quiet space where he can look back on himself without being distracted or influenced by anything. He detaches himself from the pollution of the modern world and thinks back on memories that belong only to him. Yeats did this in his real life, too, moving into a tower in County Galway, far from the business of Dublin so he could focus solely on his writing.
“The Wild Swans at Coole” does not directly mention the brutality of World War I or the violence in Ireland that tainted the period in which it was written. Instead, it focuses on the speaker’s own ageing process, his own fractured relationships, and his own creative process. It thus creates space for Yeats to come to a sort of self-discovery that allows him to understand his relationships to higher, more eternal things like love and art, and it ultimately allows him to find peace with his own mortality.
Loneliness and Isolation
This poem is mostly a tale of a solitary wanderer, caught up in his memories, and it trembles with loneliness at every turn. The speaker is lonely, even jealous of the swans, who can swim with their lovers, escaping the ravages of time and rejection (except for the missing sixtieth swan and its partner, who have somehow been separated).
The speaker is conscious of his own unimportance in the grand scheme of things. He talks about the swans jealously, like he is describing a youthful lover who he knows will move on after he is gone. (He may have been describing Maud Gonne, who did move on and married someone other than him). Even the streams seem companionable, providing a watery embrace for the swans that they carry, but the speaker is unable to find any real comfort. Instead, he is left only with his memories, and the words he has to write about them. His experience is a lonely one, and he knows he will disappear into nothingness one day.
This sense of loneliness and isolation is also conveyed in Yeats’s poem The Cat and the Moon in which Yeats, represented as the Cat Minnaloushe, stares longingly up at the Moon, who can be seen to symbolize Maud Gonne. As with Wild Swans, the moon is presented as distant from the Cat, conveying Yeats’s loneliness, ‘The pure cold light in the sky/ Troubled his animal blood’. Yeats emphasises the emotional pain caused by the moon with the adjectives ‘pure’ and ‘cold’, juxtaposing this with Yeats’s idealization of Maud, conveyed in the phrase ‘light in the sky’. In the same way, looking at the swans causes feelings of loneliness and isolation in Yeats, emphasized by the odd number ‘nine and fifty swans’ and the disruptive and fragmented imagery of stanza 2, in which he uses the word ‘scatter’ and ‘great broken rings’ to create a sense of disturbance and disharmony, contrasting to his idealization of the swans as ‘brilliant
creatures’ representing continuity and consistency over time.
This sense of memory is also conveyed in Broken Dreams. Like The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats emphasises changes over time, beginning the poem declaratively with the line ‘There is grey in your hair’, contrasting this to her previous beauty: ‘Your beauty can but leave among us/ Vague memories, nothing but memories’. Like Wild Swans, Maud Gonne’s elderly state is contrasted to Yeats’s memories of her in youth ‘Leaning, standing or walking’—conveyed with the repetition of three participles to convey a youthful vibrancy which parallels the dramatic imagery used to describe the swans, emphasized by words such as ‘scatter’ and ‘wheeling’. Likewise, Yeats recognizes the futility of these memories due to the inevitable changes of time, contemplating how ‘from dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged/ In rambling talk with an image of air’. In the same way, this poem uses the paradoxical language of ‘cold companionable streams’ emphasized by the alliteration of the harsh consonant, to emphasis the consistency and tranquillity of the swans, compared to Yeats’s loneliness—the streams are ‘cold’ because Yeats knows that he himself will never enjoy the tranquillity and love the swans enjoy; these are memories that will never be realised again—unlike him the swans’ ‘hearts have not grown old’. In this way, Yeats uses the imagery of swans to depict the changes of time and the pains caused by his memories of previous experiences at Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, which he greatly enjoyed visiting when young, contrasting this to his present lonely and unhappy state.
Although the poem is primarily a melancholy piece, there are some silver linings. Not everything changes, Yeats seems to say. Some things last forever. In the poem, the things that intimate eternity are the swans, which he observes continuing to live and love as they always have, unaware of the passage of time. The swans’ love for each other, and their passion and dreams, never die. (Now it seems like Yeats is projecting a bit of himself onto the swans). Even after the speaker leaves, he knows that the swans will continue to live their lives. This touches upon the poem’s central theme that some things in the world can transcend time, escaping the forces of change and remaining always the same.
Immortality through creativity
As much as this poem fixates on the speaker and his own perception of ageing, it also focuses on immortality, which is expressed by the reverent descriptions of the swans that contrast with the more sorrowful imagery reflecting the speaker’s mortality. The swans are “unwearied still,” Yeats writes, riffing on their ageless beauty. Like the swans, this poem itself has long outlived Yeats, retaining its beauty to this day. In his art, and in his reverent appreciation of the swans, Yeats was able to access a form of immortality that transcended his own mortal self and that lives on in each reader of this poem. In a way, words themselves are like swans, fluttering across the page and into the minds of thousands of readers across continents and time, bringing pangs into the heart of each reader no matter who they are. Some things are truly unchanging, Yeats seems to be saying, and creativity, accessed through memory and imagination, can be a pathway to this eternity.