The Wild Swans at Coole
A Poem Without Therapy: A Reading of The Wild Swans at Coole
“The Wild Swans at Coole” is a poem of equal parts reticence and disclosure. Though the substances are the same, a logic of proportion fails; reticence is disclosure. The poem is about mortality, transience, disillusionment, and loss; more literally, it is about beautiful trees and a lake of swans. The mystery of the poem lies in the intensity and resonance of its emotional charge: one finishes it feeling that an interior has been excavated, laid bare, as in the baldest confession, but of the poem’s propositional content only one, entirely conventional statement directly addresses the poet’s feeling: “And now my heart is sore.” This is not an unbeautiful line, and it is a significant event in the poem; but the source of emotional impact lies elsewhere – in suggestion, elided narrative, and especially displacement: the speaker reveals himself through implied contrast with the landscape around him, and particularly with the swans that are the poem’s subject and occasion.The poem’s manner is casually eloquent, poised between high and low art. The stanza invented by Yeats begins as a ballad, with alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter. He adds a final couplet, any epigramatic force of which is muted by the lines’ differing lengths (pentameter and trimeter), and also by enjambment between quatrain and couplet in all but the first and third stanzas. The stanza rhymes x a x a b b; twice (“stones”/”swans”; “beautiful”/”pool”) the rhymes are slanted. The casual feel of the poem is heightened by an extraordinarily fluid prosody: by far, the majority of the lines contain metrical variations. Initial truncations, anapests, and feminine endings abound; some lines require elisions for proper scansion; at least one line (l. 21, with its extra foot) seems unresolvably irregular. All of this contributes to an air of extempore rumination, and even the poem’s grandest moments – “And scatter wheeling in great broken rings”; “The bell-beat of their wings above my head” – hover just this side of speech. There is nothing in the poem (like the figurative density of the penultimate paragraph of “Adam’s Curse”) that crosses unquestionably into hieratic mode.The organizing structural principle of the poem is time. However, the poem does not move chronologically; instead, the first twenty-six lines vacillate between present and past in a restless concatenation, sometimes shifting over the course of a single line. The poem participates in that genre of nostalgic lyric for which time is the great antagonist: returning to a place first visited nineteen years earlier, the speaker finds reflected in the landscape his younger self, and senses between what he was and what he is a difference that can only be called loss. Unlike Wordsworth in the Immortality Ode, Yeats does not cast this loss outward, onto the natural world. Indeed, the first stanza presents a natural scene that is all harmony: the trees are as they should be, beautiful in their season; things are neither too wet (“The woodland paths are dry”) nor in drought (“the brimming water”); the sky, like the water, is untroubled, “still”; and there is a touch even of hermetic order in the “mirror[ing]” of high and low (“as above, so below”) on the lake’s surface. The prepositions of lines three, four, and five – “under,” “upon,” “among” – feel exhaustive, as though all possible space has been accounted for and proven sound. Nor are things in any way extraordinary: the easy propriety of “The trees are in their autumn beauty” attests to the normalcy, the rightness, of the scene. The single note of discord is muted, and perhaps as yet unnoticeable: “nine-and-fifty swans” gains its proper resonance only with the “lover by lover” of stanza four.The second preposition of the series, “upon”, returns in line seven entirely transformed. In line five it was a preposition of buoyancy, its downward directionality balanced by the rise of “brimming”; here, it is a preposition of oppressive weight. The speaker is passive in the face of time. The years “come upon” him – he does not “live” them or “pass” them or “spend” them. The following lines turn to the past, when nineteen years earlier Yeats made his first visit to Coole Park. Immediately, the passivity is broken. This happens, though, not in the verbs (“made my count,” “saw,” and “had well finished”), which hardly signify great activity; the difference is conveyed rather in the swans’ response to the speaker’s presence. In his youth (his relative youth: Yeats was thirty-two), the speaker disturbed the natural scene he came upon. Before he could finish counting their number, he caused them to “scatter in great broken rings”. “Scatter,” “broken,” and “clamorous” all convey disorder: the swans have been scared off. (I suspect that “great broken rings” also carries some hermetic charge, the significance of which I am not qualified to discuss.) In his first visit to the lake, the speaker was not part of the harmony and order figured in the poem’s first stanza; to the contrary, he disturbed it, he was a note of discord. After two decades, he can count the birds at his leisure. The swans, we discover, are sublimely unconcerned: either the birds have grown accustomed to the speaker’s presence in the intervening years, or part of the loss the poem laments is figured in this inability to disturb a natural order, some lapsed vigor and accompanying threat. The two explanations are not, I think, incompatible; either way, lost to the speaker are the “passion and conquest” he later envies in the swans.For the first two stanzas the description of the swans is neutral, but admiration emerges in line thirteen, accompanied by the poem’s central act of disclosure: “I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, / And now my heart is sore.” The disclosure stops the poem: this is the only sentence that ends mid-stanza. The stanza restarts with an extraordinary performance of a sentence, mirroring, in its remarkably complicated syntax, the temporal concatenation that structures the poem: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.The syntax in line fifteen, embodying a particularly dramatic break in that it falls between subject and verb, continues only after a three-line suspension. Moreover, the interpolation itself is broken between verb (“hearing”) and object. The primary clause is “All’s changed since I trod with a lighter tread”; the subordinate clause is “hearing at twilight the bell-beat of their wings”; “the first time on this shore” qualifies both. The result is a braid the dazzle of which obscures how little information is actually conveyed. “All’s changed,” the sentence declares, and the elaborate deferral of the verb promises some dramatic elaboration of the claim. One expects a psychological revelation commensurate with the effort of deferral. What comes, though, is – like the more direct “my heart is sore” – entirely conventional, as though a great difficulty has been approached, attempted, and retreated from. Nor does the information conveyed by the deferral seem to justify the force of its intrusion; it repeats the scene already described in stanza two, adding only that it too occurred at twilight. Importantly, though, the swans have been transformed: while before they were merely “clamorous”, now the sound of their wings is a “bell-beat”. This image receives the poem’s greatest aesthetic investment, conjuring grandeur, solemnity, and order.Still, the poem has hit a snag. A stanza has trod water; the speaker has attempted one strategy of revelation, and has failed. Stanza four returns the poem to the present scene, and attempts revelation through displacement, describing the swans in terms that are fully meaningful only as contrastive commentary on the speaker: “Unwearied still, lover by lover, / They paddle in the cold / Companionable streams or climb the air.” Important here is not just the swans’ agelessness or resilient vitality (“unwearied”), but also their freedom and their suitability for contrasting elements. “Companionable” is the most striking word in these lines, and it underscores both the ease of the swans in their environment and, especially with “lover by lover”, the harmony and fullness of their society: each swan has its mate. The adjective is poignant, however, because we suspect that it characterizes a state different from the speaker’s; it is a quiet revelation of his own solitude. (“Lover by lover” sparks an unexploited but, I think, undeniable reminder of the number of swans given in line six: one of these creatures is missing its mate. Perhaps to make this loss explicit would tip the poem unhappily toward sentiment, but loss is encoded nonetheless.) This contrastive mode of reading is enjoined also by the next line, which is set off by another syntactical anomaly. Each of the poem’s stanzas is divided into two syntactical parts by a semi-colon, except in stanza three, where the parts are framed as discrete sentences. In this stanza, though, there are two semi-colons; the syntax of the sentence falls into three parts. The effect is to highlight line twenty-two, a line that must receive its proper and necessary scansion, a trochee for the first foot, in order to resonate with its proper force: “Their hearts have not grown old.”The third and final segment of the sentence imagines the fullness of the swans’ lives: “Passion or conquest, wander where they will, / Attend upon them still.” A curious turn has been effected by the recognition of line twenty-two: while the first three lines of the stanza celebrated the ease of the swans’ lives, their placidity and society, the couplet envies instead their capacity for disturbance and even violence: “passion” is not a word of the same order as “companionable”, or even “lover by lover”; it denotes extremity, and a loss of self-governance and ease. Similarly, “conquest” requires violence, or at least displacement – an initial disquiet with a new environment that is overcome by persistence or force. These lines should, I think, be shocking: these are not the placid, loving swans one expects to find in poems; instead, there is a suggestion of praiseworthy violence, of “the brute blood of the air” Yeats will conjure so powerfully in “Leda and the Swan.” This violence is inescapable; the swans’ true freedom comes from the inevitability of the “passion and conquest” so necessary to their youthful hearts: they will find them “wander where they will.”The adversative with which line twenty-five begins suggests the appeal of the swans’ lives as imagined by the poet, who must tear himself away from his own imaginings: “But now they drift on the still water, / Mysterious, beautiful.” The repetition of “still” so quickly after its use as an end rhyme in line twenty-four underscores its presence throughout the poem. It appears both here and in line four in its adjectival sense: “still sky”, “still water”. Its two occurrences in stanza four, however, are adverbial, and especially in line twenty-four it signifies something quite contrary to the current adjective: the persistence of the potential for disturbance and violence. After their imagined conquests, however, the swans receive their most pacific verb, “drift”, and as though to undermine his own vision the poet insists upon their mystery. His conjectures as to their lives beyond Coole Park are merely that: conjectures. Surely it is strange, then, that the poem immediately returns to such imaginings, as the speaker considers what seems to be the swans’ inevitable departure from the lake:Among what rushes will they build,By what lake’s edge or poolDelight men’s eyes when I awake some dayTo find they have flown away?The shift of tenses is a surprise; the poem has expanded the now/then genre to include a third term in the future tense. The effect is devastating: current loss will not be eased or assuaged, but compounded. Finally the poem speaks to a concrete, if only anticipated, privation, and we have been taught by the poem’s reticence to suspect that this loss speaks for others. The sentence’s correction or change of course after line twenty-seven is telling: merely imagining the swans in a continued, if now absent life (“Among what rushes will they build”) is not so terrible as the thought of that life savored by others. The gender of the “men” – other than the speaker the only human beings present in the poem – is not merely generic or conventional; this loss of “delight” has an erotic edge. Even if it is impersonal, the poet has been trumped by a rival. The future tense offers no promise or possibility, but only deprivation, turning the screw of the speaker’s unspeakable loss. The poem’s despair is quiet; its source and the means by which it is conveyed – the poem’s logic of reticent disclosure – are revealed slowly, and with much hesitation. The despair, however, is complete. This is a poem without therapy.
Conflicts in W.B. Yeats’ poetry
Utilizing multidisciplinary knowledge gained from analysis of critical readings grants the individual the ability to better understand that William Butler Yeats’ thought was profoundly dialectical and that for every truth he found, he embraced a counter truth. This idea aligns, to a significant extent with my own view, and Yeats makes this particularly evident in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ and ‘Easter 1916’ through his constant unification of the antithetical elements of the mortal and the immortal existence.
In my opinion, Yeats’ begins to contrast the mortal and immortal existences through his questions about aging and the immortal existence. For instance, he makes evident these antithetical elements in ‘Wild Swans’, by contrasting images of the timelessness of the swans against the persona’s mortal existence. Here his age is aligned with the natural cycle of life through the symbolic images of ‘the trees…in their autumn beauty… under the October twilight’. The time of twilight symbolizes his aging and the end of his life, which ultimately provokes his questioning and envy of the swans and their immortal existence. This alignment with the seasons and the day night dichotomy implies the persona is questioning his existence in approaching the end of his mortal life and this is contrasted against the immortal swans who remain ‘unwearied still’.
Yeats further explores these conflicting dualities through his struggle to accept the mortality of his existence. For instance, he metaphorically asserts that his ‘heart is sore’ and all has ‘changed’. His tone of despair here ultimately reflects his struggle in accepting the mortality of his own existence in contrast with the symbolically eternal ‘nine-and-fifty swans’ as ‘their hearts have not grown old’. Rachel Billigheimer reinforces this idea in ‘Passion and Conquest’:“The swans, which in contrast have remained unchanged, are thus a symbol of eternal life…” such that Yeats is envious of this eternal life and is trying to discern if he too will exist in such a realm. The persona resonates the ‘brilliant creatures’ with an energy as they ascend in a symbolic gyral movement in the visual image of ‘them’ as they: ‘scatter wheeling in great broken wings’. This ultimately becomes a catalyst for his counterbalancing of his mortal existence with the possibilities of an immortal existence. Further, the reversal in making the persona the object of ‘autumn’ coming ‘upon him’, suggests a strong sense of life moving forward in a way in which he has no control over. This further reflects his despair towards his mortality and his envy for the immortal swans.
Despite the persona asking these questions about the realm of immortality, there is no sense yet of him having come to a resolution of the two antithetical elements. This is particularly evident in the rhetorical question: ‘when I awake… To find they have flown away?’. The nature of the question implies a curiosity about something that transcends the mortal world as Rachel Billigheimer describes it in ‘Passion and Conquest: “leaving the mortal world, he will be reborn into the realm of … immortal swans”. The question reflects Billigheimer’s statement as it carries a degree of ambiguity but holds an acknowledgement of the opposing mortal and immortal existences. The soft fricatives ‘find…have…flown…’ add to the reflective nature of his final thoughts where he is contemplating his existence in the future. While the mix of long syllables ‘delight…eyes…find…flown…away’ in the final lines seem to prolong the moment of his thought and reflect on his idea of awakening, in a metaphorical sense.
In ‘Easter 1916’ Yeats seeks to find a sense of cohesion amidst the chaos that characterized his world by presenting a paradoxical assessment of the nationalist uprising of 1916. He juxtaposes the rebellion against the order of the natural world with the symbolic image of ‘Hearts with one purpose alone…Enchanted to a stone”. The stone, symbolic of the martyrs, acts as an agent of change ‘in the midst of all’ as it ‘(troubles) the living stream’, foregrounding Yeats’ idea that the martyrs have become powerful in altering Irish history. Jefferson Holdridge asserts in the frivolous eye that when ‘things have collapsed violence is the way to renewal’ which reflects Yeats portrayal of this destruction that leads to a ‘terrible beauty’. He particularly makes this evident through the verbs ‘tumbling’ and ‘slides’ that reveal a gyral movement engendered by the rebels’ actions. The movement from earth to sky, with the rebels occupying both spaces; ‘the horse that comes from the road’ to the ‘birds that range’ foreshadows this beauty that arises from the violence Holdridge describes. Yeats further foreshadows this idea of beauty born out of the violence of these events with a concluding paradoxical statement; ‘a terrible beauty is born’. It references the consequences engendered by this change as is also conveyed in the plosive d sounds; ‘we know their dream; enough to know they dreamed and are dead’ which emphasises the reality of their deaths as a result of their dreams and aspirations.
Figuring the ‘Her’ of W. B. Yeats’ “Her Praise”
One of the most sensational aspects of W.B. Yeats’ life is his unsuccessful romancing of Maud Gonne. It is widely acknowledged that she served as muse and inspiration for many of Yeats’ poems, and ‘Her Praise’ seems to be an example of such work. This poem, however, is slightly misleading because Yeats never identifies ‘Her,’ but rather focuses intensely on the speaker’s own pride and excitement. Through analysis of Yeats’ use of analogy, repetition, setting, and verb tense, it is evident that ‘Her’ is indeed Maud Gonne, and the speaker is Yeats himself. Therefore, this work is a celebration of Maud Gonne and her work as an activist in particular.
Noticeably absent in the poem is any description of ‘Her’ or an explanation as to why she is deserving of the speaker’s praise. Clearly, this is not the traditional ode or sonnet where the object of affection is illustrated in precise detail. The speaker instead continues with a description of his own pride in Her as he walks through the house, likening it to that of a man with a recently published book or a young girl wearing a new dress (Yeats ll. 3-4). This theme of possession is reinforced by the poem’s title – ‘Her Praise’ – which seems to suggest that the unnamed female actually owns praise as a tangible object. These two instances, coupled with the lack of a description, lead the reader to infer that the speaker is not an ardent admirer of her beauty and character but rather of her achievements or significant work. Though she may indeed be beautiful, those features do not carry the same weight as her actions in the speaker’s eyes. However, the speaker is dismayed to find that others within the house do not hold Her in such high regard despite his efforts to shepherd the topic of conversation ‘Until her praise should be the uppermost theme’ (l. 6).
Unsatisfied with the less than enthusiastic response, the speaker decides to find other like-minded individuals elsewhere. Here Yeats repeats the first line as the tenth line, thereby separating the single stanza of eighteen lines into two sections of nine lines. The reiteration of this particular line demonstrates the speaker’s desire and determination to hear only Her praised. Along with the repetition, the separation marks a physical shift in the poem’s setting. The beginning nine lines are confined to the home and to those found within, none of whom offer any fulfilment to the speaker. Following the shift, the remaining lines are imagined in an outdoor setting where the speaker plans to walk until he specifically comes across a beggar (ll. 12-13). In lines ten through eighteen Yeats engages another shift, this time in the poem itself as he makes a change in verb tense.
The first half is predominantly written in the past tense: ‘published’ (l. 3), ‘dressed’ (l. 4), ‘turned’ (l. 5), and ‘spoke’ (l. 7). The second half, however, transitions to the future tense as the speaker declares he ‘will talk no more’ of anything besides Her with this beggar who ‘will know her name / And be well pleased remembering it’ (ll. 15-16). Such an expectation is interesting because the speaker’s familiarity with Her would also be assumed of others within his social circle; however, it is obvious from the first section of the poem that this is not the case. Yet the speaker is absolutely certain that a single, chance beggar will harbor that familiarity and interest. With the revelation that the speaker is praising her deeds rather than Her, his certainty implies that her work directly and positively affected the poor without leaving much of an impression on the more fortunate.
Although the speaker does not explicitly name Her, there are several clues to her identity: his praise for her actions, the distinction between the inside and the outside of the home, the contrast between the kinds of people he finds in both areas, and each group’s sentiments for Her. All of these can be read as references to Maud Gonne, and the speaker can be assumed as Yeats himself. The choice to center the poem around the house itself, as well as Yeats’ assertion that a beggar will know Her, calls to mind Gonne’s involvement with The Land War in the late 1800s. The evictions won her over to the Irish cause, which she continued to advocate for until her death.
Yeats, W.B. ‘Her Praise.’ Selected Poems, ed. Timothy Webb, Penguin Books, 2000. p. 98.