MONSTERS OF POETRY: W.B. Yeats!
The Wild Swans at Coole
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
– – –
This is one of my favorite poems by someone who used to not be one of my favorite poets. Yeats is the sort of poet you hear your parents grumble about having to read and recite when they were schoolchildren. I imagine it was these rote lessons that made so many folks find poetry and certain poets unappealing. (The dictionary entry for “rote” is telling; the sample phrase is this: a poem learned by rote in childhood. There is something so sad about that!)
Mentioning Yeats especially seems to bring a certain look of distaste to the faces of many. Conversely, people my age would be hard-pressed to name but a single Yeats poem. We were spared the memorizations, but we seem to have been spared poetry altogether. Until taking an Irish literature class senior year of college, I really could’ve cared less about Yeats. I can’t remember ever reading Yeats in school until then, but my impression was always that he was a bit of an old grouch. (He is, but it makes for good poetry.) It’s a shame, though – not only is Yeats’ repertoire filled with incredible, beautiful poetry, his place in English literature and thought deserves to be appreciated. We don’t need to deal with all of that right now, as I’ll surely be presenting more Yeatsy offerings in the future. The simple point is this: I’d like people to read a Yeats poem without looking like they’re sucking on a lemon.
To that end, “Wild Swans” seems like a good place to start. Yeats’ poetry and his life as a poet have two distinct eras. In his younger years and in his first published poems, Yeats was an image-heavy post-Romantic, his books filled with lyrical descriptions of the Irish countryside and his home, County Sligo. These were the poems that made him famous in Ireland; their use of Irish myth and patriotic themes provided fodder for the growing Irish Independence movement. The books Responsibilities and Wild Swans at Coole signaled a sea change; as he entered his late forties and early fifties, his poetry became less playful and quite serious. Wild Swans especially, published in 1919, contains frequent meditations on death, old age, and the loss of youth and love. The poem “Wild Swans at Coole” encapsulates this latter-day heartache in the lyricism of his younger days, making it the perfect tipping point for his career.
The rhyme and meter are both complex but rambling. Written (mostly) in iambs (flat syllable + accented syllable, or -‘), the first and third lines of each stanza are tetrameter (-‘-‘-‘-‘), the second, fourth, and sixth lines are trimeter, and the fifth line is pentameter. But the prosody is hardly exact, and little syllables find their way in throughout. The rhyme scheme is ABCBDD. The end result is a poem that seems to move slowly and unsteadily, but with purpose, perhaps like an older man walking around a lake. One of Yeats’s greatest assets as a writer was his liberal use of rhyme and meter, and the way he manipulated both to reflect the meaning of the words themselves.
As for the subject of the poem, well, Yeats had every right to feel dejected and melancholy. Coole is the estate of Lady Gregory, his patron and friend, the woman who first gave him his start. Simply being at Coole takes him back to his early years, when the world lay open to him. Now it is autumn, and “all’s changed” since he was last here, 19 years ago. “Wild Swans” was written in 1917, and the years 1916-17 were not great for Yeats. The Irish rebellion against the British failed miserably, the Easter Rising resulting in the execution of many of the leaders of the Irish movement. World War I was reaching its bloody climax.
During these years love eluded Yeats; the infamous Maud Gonne rejected him for the last time, as did her daughter; after much persistence he landed a woman named Georgie, who was half his age, and for the first few years of marriage he was quite unsure about the relationship.
By contrast, the swans Yeats watches at Coole are all paired off, “unwearied still, lover by lover.” These swans, he knows, are mated for life, blissfully united, flying in the air, swimming in the water, together. They almost seem to mock him. They have no cares or worries, there are no executions or wars in their world. Yeats, however, wanders the lake at his life’s definite low point, his goals (minus poetry, of course – that would only continue to get better. Unfortunately the most interesting poets are always miserable.), love and a free Ireland, have eluded him. The only things he has are memories, which are brought into fine, painful focus by his surroundings and his beautifully ignorant companions.