The Wild Swans at Coole
By WB Yeats
Upon analysing a poem, I like to decode it in a particular way. I like to read the poem as if it were a story. This helps me to generate an understanding of both the poet and the poem’s context. The following notes outline the story of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. Once an understanding of this poem’s story has been established you will then be able to more effectively create your own opinions and observations.
The Story of the Poem
- Yeats starts off the poem by describing the aesthetic qualities of Coole Park, Co. Galway. He states that Coole Park is particularly beautiful in Autumn time. ‘The trees are in their Autumn beauty…’.
- The poet creates a very tranquil scene here in stanza one. The descriptions of the ‘…October twilight…’ and the lakes ‘…brimming water…’ are both powerful and sensuous (appealing to one’s senses). There is a definite contrast in the dryness of the ‘…woodland paths…’ and the wetness of the lake. The lake represents life and activity while the woodland paths may represent lifeless-inactivity. It is interesting then to note the location of Yeats in this context. He may well feel as though he is in a transitional period of his life, going from youth to old age.
- Yeats counts ‘…nine-and-fifty swans’. We know that swans mate for life and typically exist in pairs. Is this idea important to Yeats? Does he feel alone? Is he represented by the 59th swan who has no partner and appears to be lonely?
- Nineteen years have passed since Yeats last counted the swans at Coole Park. Nothing has changed since then in relation to the park or the swans. They have remained the same, withstanding time and life’s hardships.
- The use of the onomatopoeic word ‘…clamorous…’ is effectively used here to describe the sound of the swans as they ‘All suddenly mount and scatter…’. This is a particularly vivid and sensuos image created by the poet.
- Stanza two contains a very powerful symbol/image. Yeats describes the swans as ‘…wheeling in great broken rings’. The swans are flying in a circular motion (the circle symbolises the idea of eternity).
- The poet goes on to state how ‘All’s changed since…’ he had last counted the swans. Perhaps he is lonely or reminiscing over a troubled relationship (research Maud Gonne for the context of this idea).
- Yeats gives us a deep insight into his mindset in stanza four. It is clear from the observations outlined in this stanza that he yearns for the loving relationships the swans seem to be experiencing. There seems to be a gap in his life that perhaps his current wife was not fulfilling. He comes across as being almost jealous of the swans as he describes how they have the ability to persevere together through life’s hardships, along their ‘…companionable streams…’, always sticking by each other.
- The poem concludes with Yeats mentioning that these wild swans at Coole will continue to provide delight to their observers. Winter naturally succeeds Autumn and Yeats understands that this won’t affect the swans. The swans, like in their relationships, will persevere the harsh conditions associated with Winter. Winter for Yeats, however symbolises something similar, but he is not overly confident in his own ability to withstand the challenge the season will bring him.
- There is a stark contrast here between the immorality of the swans and the inevitable death of the speaker.
- “Under the October twilight the water mirrors a still sky…”
- “…scatter wheeling in great broken rings upon their clamorous wings.”
- “…the bell-beat of their wings above my head…”
- “Unwearied still, lover by lover, they paddle in the cold companionable streams…”
- “But now they drift on the still water, mysterious, beautiful..”
When to Use this Poem in the Exam?
Use this poem when asked about:
- A poem with a sense of place
- A poem that talks about love
- A poem that offers an insight into the challenges/difficulties of love
- A poem with a theme such as love, loneliness, heartbreak, animals
- A poem with vivid imagery
- A poem with lyrical or musical qualities (sound techniques)
As always, don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have.