WB Yeats’ The Wild Swans at Coole (1918)

Wild Swans at Coole lends itself to multiple interpretations due to the symbolic value of the swans. What do they represent?

In one way, they represent everything that Yeats and humanity yearns for and cannot have: youth, beauty, immortality, permanence, love, Maude Gonne. Yeats’ relationship with the swans is one of admiration and envy, yet also confusion as he cannot comprehend their mysterious beauty; they fly away before he can count or grasp them.

In another, they represent Yeats’ only answer to those desires: art and poetry. Whilst Yeats and humanity decline and fall away through the crevices of time, his poetry remains. The swans continue to display the passion he once felt and will continue to delight the eyes of readers now and the years to come. Is his poetry not an attestation of the power of words and art to immortalise man?

Context:

  • The poem is a reference to Coole Park, which was the property owned by the Gregory family. Lady Gregory was a patron of Yeats and he spent much of his time at Coole Park.
  • During the time he wrote this poem in 1917, Yeats was depressed. He had been rejected by not only Maude Gonne, but her adopted daughter Iseult Gonne as well. Instead, he married Georgie Hyde-Lees, as he could never attain the love of Maude or Iseult.

Ideas:

Is this a poem about the pain of time’s passage and aging, in contrast to the endurance and immortality of nature?

Is this a poem about the loss of love and his isolation after being rejected by Maude?

Is this a poem about the loss of inspiration and passion for his writing?

Techniques:

  • What technique is in the line “And now my heart is sore”?
  • What kind of attributes does swans symbolise?
  • What does “autumn” and “dry” symbolise?
  • How is Coole Park described? Think about “still sky” and “brimming water”.
  • Describe how the tone changes throughout the poem. In particular, note the tone in the first stanza, the change in the middle of the second stanza, and the return to the original tone in the last stanza.
  • In what ways are the swans contrasted with humanity and Yeats?
  • What is the effect of the repetition of “still”?
  • What is the technique in the line “The bell-beat of their wings above my head”?
  • What is the purpose of the rhetorical question in the final line?

Relation to other poems:

Links:

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