The Wild Swans at Coole

Notes by Harry Savill

Historical Background

–          The poem was first published in 1917.

–          Coole Park is located in County Galway was the home to Lady Gregory, a patron of the arts and one of Yeats’ closest friends.

–          Yeats’s home at Thoor Ballylee was just 3 miles away

–          He also wrote “Coole Park, 1929”, a poem that describes the park as a symbol for the revival of Irish literature.

The Poem’s Structure

–          5 stanzas each consisting of 6 lines, 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,

–          a-b-c-b-d-d  rhyme scheme

–          The poem, according to this type of construction, has similar traits to a lyrical song or even a ballad – strong emotion is released in a sort of pitiful confession

–          The current stanza structure is different to how it was when first published – The stanza numbering structure, as it is now, was in the following order: 1, 2, 5, 3, 4

Stylistic Points

–          Repetition of plosive letter – words of vivacity and energy , such as ‘clamorous’, ‘paddle’, ‘beat’ and ‘scatter’ are emphasized to convey his own frustration towards the swans and his own bad life choices

–          There is a clear absence of personal pronouns in the early part of the poem, hinting at his passive nature. For 19 years, he has watched the world develop and the years ‘come upon [him]’, without actually changing his making positive changes to his own life.

–          The alliteration of the hard ‘c’ sound in ‘cold / Companionable streams or climb the air’ further emphasises his frustration; an image of regret augmented by the aural harshness of the plosive letter.

Key Links to other Poems

–          Leda and the Swan–        The sexual imagery of ‘Leda and the Swan’ is mirrored in this poem, describing the swans’ mastery and virile sterility in ‘mount[ing]’ one another. The swans, synonymous with beauty and having a wild streak, are definite and exact in pursuing their intentions and always seem to achieve what they want.

 

–          The Circus Animals’ Desertion–         The ‘themes of the embittered heart’ in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ refer to regret and the sentiment of wasted opportunity expressed in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. His ‘heart is sore’ because he yearns for the opportunity to be with Maud, a prospect which seems to have ‘drift[ed]’ away from him.

 

–          Sailing to Byzantium-       Yeats is jealous of the swans that are so emotionally fulfilled that ‘their hearts have not grown old’. In STB, he seeks immortality and intransience; he says ‘consume my heart away’ in frustration. He wants to be ‘gathere[d]’ into ‘the artifice of eternity’; a mindset which the fulfilled swans have.

Key Quotations

–          ‘And now my heart is sore’

After describing his watching of the ‘brilliant creatures’, he admits his envious state of mind. He often implicitly indicates his regret at not being able to consummate his relationship with Maud, but this is the first time he explicitly declares the emotional connection he has with her; something which is starting to cause him physical pain.

 

–          ‘Their hearts have not grown old’

He again augments the already pitiful tone by adding a one line clause, a sentiment resonated by the caesura at the end of the line. It is one of the first poems where Yeats bemoans his age and here, he seems to envy the romantically fulfilled swans.

 

–          ‘when I awake some day / to find they have flown away?

The swans in his poetry are a constant metaphor for Maud. Maud is his muse, and when she eventually dies, he is unsure what he will do. At the moment, he is dedicating his poetry and ultimately his life to Maud and therefore is worried about what the future will behold for him once she is gone. The question mark further compounds his confusion.

Further analysis  

–          In Yeats’s poem, they consist in the use of faded emphatic phrases such as “I have looked  upon those  brilliant  creatures,” or the Middle English way of counting “nine-and-fifty swans.” These techniques tend to reinforce the persona’s loneliness as they place him even further apart from men and as a consequence, probably exacerbate his communion with nature.

 

–          The landscape is richly described through the lexical fields of colour and light (the October twilight, mirror), sound (clamorous, bell-beat of their wings) and movement (brimming, mount, scatter) which provide a vivid experience of the landscape throughout the stanzas. This is particularly evident as far as sounds are concerned since a flight of swans is particulary “clamorous”, which is rendered through an accumulation of plosives imitating the violent flapping of wings when the swans appear. Afterwards, when they are out of sight, everything is hushed once more and only a faint fluttering movement may be heard through fricatives and sonorant glides.

 

–          The anapaestic rhythm of “they have flown away” creates suspense in that it delays the result of the actual finding, but more importantly reflects the poet’s pondering thoughts. An accumulation of unstressed syllables may be interpreted as a mumbling to oneself as though the poet had altogether forgotten to read aloud.

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12 thoughts on “The Wild Swans at Coole

  1. I was wondering if the lines ‘…great broken rings, upon their clamourous wings’, could symbolise marriage or perhaps the rejected proposals to Maude? Possibly the ‘clamour’ of a church bell and the broken rings could be the rejected rings he gave to her?

  2. Could the imagery of the “bell-beat of their wings” and “clamouring” potentially evoke the call to worship used in churches, or the tolling bell in a funeral service to further impress upon the reader the sense of mortality that Yeats uses throughout this poem?

  3. Could the swans perhaps represent Ireland flying away..?
    Swans used to be Irish (‘Mysterious, beautiful’) but now they are English (owned by the english monarchy-queen). Ireland now ‘delights’ English mens eyes…Swans (England) are seen as striking yet dangerous..
    –> Lack of personal pronouns at beginning shows his passivity to try and stop Ireland flying away, but now ‘Before i had well finished’, these swans (Ireland) are now british. Obviously effecting Yeats; ‘Now my heart is sore’.

  4. the ‘october’ ‘twilight’ and autumn’ all seem to suggest a degree of penultimacy- the 51 year old Yeats is reflecting back over his life and, as is said, starts to bemoan his age- he feels as if his best years have passed and he has reached a ‘twilight’ stage.

  5. perhaps the whole thing about “Autumn” Could mean that since autumn is when everything falls apart and makes way for the cold, death-like winter, it reflect Yeats himself, what with his old age and the sense of foreboding that death is just on the horizon and the frustration of all the things he couldn’t do within a single lifetime.

  6. This site is a good resource but it is frustrating how much of it is plagiarised with no sources cited. I have come across numerous examples of this, a prime one being the paragraph on this page beginning “The landscape is richly described through the lexical fields of colour and light”, which is entirely lifted from http://www.cercles.com/occasional/ops2009/noirard.pdf. It is not a good example to A-level students to rip off other people’s work and pass it off as your own, Harry.

  7. Pingback: The Wild Swans at Coole – W.B Yeats | Poetic Licence

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