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Poetry Commentary: The Wild Swans at Coole by Yeats

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Essay title: Poetry Commentary: The Wild Swans at Coole by Yeats

Poetry Commentary: The Wild Swans at Coole by Yeats

The Wild Swans at Coole by William Butler Yeats is, as the title suggests, a poem about a flock of Swans inhabiting the lake at Augusta Gregory's Coole Park residence. However, the theme of the poem is change and unrequited love, presumably inspired by the transformation Europe, and Yeats himself, underwent in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The poem is written in a consistently contemplative and plaintive tone, and it seems the poet is experiencing a sense of loss or dissatisfaction, especially in matters of love, with changes that have occurred. Keeping with the style of the romantic era, Yeats focuses his energy on glorifying nature to show the reader its contrast to the bleakness of the cities emerging and expanding rapidly across an increasingly industrialized Europe. On a more personal level, the poem reflects Yeats’ unanswered love for Maud Gonne.

Yeats sets a still and weathered scene in the first stanza. The word autumn in the first line symbolizes something coming to an end, and this is further emphasized by the time of day, “under the October twilight the water/ Mirrors a still sky.” This lack of movement reminds the reader of death and emptiness. In the last line Yeats mentions the subjects of the poem, “nine-and-fifty swans”, which is an odd number. This is significant because he later refers to the swans as couples in the third stanza, “Unwearied still, lover by lover,” meaning that one swan must be alone, missing a companion. This might be Yeats’ way of including himself and his rejection in the poem.

In the following stanza, Yeats expresses a sense of sudden surprise in his life through, “The nineteenth autumn has come upon me…. I saw, before I had well finished.” The final two lines of the second stanza may be references to the sudden violence and destruction of the First World War, “And scatter wheeling in great broken rings/ Upon their clamorous wings.” The suddenness of the birds’ noisy flight suggests that something, or perhaps someone, scares them away. In Yeats’ own life, this may have been similar to Maud Gonne backing away from his love proclamations. Further more, the second stanza makes use of consonance to ease the flow of the words by repeatedly using ‘o’ sounds, such as ‘come’, ‘count’, ‘mount’, ‘broken’, and ‘upon’. This repeated use, in conjunction with the hardness of the words gives a harsh tone to the second stanza fringed by the sadness of his broken heart.

Yeats is contemplating the imminent changes that take place from year to year in the third stanza. The reminiscence of how things used to be saddens him, “I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, / And now my heart is sore.” He realizes that not only he, but also the swans have grown older and heavier, “The first time on this shore, / The bell-beat of their wings above my head, / Trod with a lighter tread,” or perhaps the swans are the same, but his mind is heavier and older, ultimately altering his perception. The use of the word ‘bell-beat’ aids the auditory imagery of the reader by using alliteration and onomatopoeia to convey the flapping of the swan’s wings. Additionally, the enjambment present disguises the end-rhymes more in this stanza than in the others, creating a softer and doleful tone.

The poet closes in on the main sentiments behind the poem, and is much more direct, in the second to last stanza by actually identifying the swans as couples, leaving no doubt that the poem is about amorous love. It is no coincidence that the subjects of the poem are swans, knowing that swans are among the very few animals that never have more than one partner throughout life. Should their partner pass away they never find a new partner but chose solitude. Although not entirely by his own choice, Yeats remained un-married throughout his life but dedicated himself to Maud Gonne. The first line, “Unwearied still, lover by lover,” reveals a touch of jealousy on his behalf of the multitude of married couples surrounding him. Yeats feels different,

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