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
Mysterious, beautiful;
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?

Footnotes

  1. The swans have been touted as a symbol of permanence or timelessness throughout this poem, retaining their youth and passion while the speaker grows old and tired. However, this rhetorical question acknowledges that these swans are not separate from the events of life, and they too will at some point migrate and move on to a different place to delight the eyes of different people. To end on this note is to further the emphasize the inevitably of change, growth, and death.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Once again the water is described as still; although this time, the speaker is aware that this stillness is only momentary. In this context, this image is one of transient beauty, emphasized by the adverb “now” to draw attention to the ephemeral nature of the present moment. The repetition of still with the previous line suggests a double meaning that encompasses both stillness as a lack of motion and stillness as a continuation of the same. This is relevant to the central concern of the poem as the speaker views the swans as being from another world compared to himself since they are able to continue acting in youthful vigor while he is doomed to grow old and weary.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The reference to the swans’ hearts here directly contrasts to the previous reference to the speaker’s own heart as “sore.” He is burdened with age and an awareness of mortality; the swans appear youthful, active, and “unwearied.” These descriptions serve to draw a divisive line between the speaker and the swans, as the speaker envies their companionship and everlasting youth. The tone created here is one of painful longing, as the speaker acknowledges both the beauty and the seemingly eternal nature of the creatures.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The adjective “companionable” means “pleasant” or “relaxed.” In this context, the word is used to describe the cold streams in which the swans paddle, but also it draws similar meaning to “companion.” This echoes the manner in which each swan is described in pairs, “lover by lover,” while the speaker stands alone. This separates the speaker from the swans and emphasizes his loneliness as a passive spectator.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. The verb “to tread” means “to walk.” Here, the speaker describes the lighter walk of his younger days, signaling how he was more carefree and less weighed down with the worries of time. Now, the speaker’s heart is “sore” as if he physically feels the ache of age and experience in a way not felt in his youth. Once again, this description further emphasizes his envy of the swans whose freedom and youthful joy are quite literally manifest in their ability to fly into the air.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. The verb “mount” here may be construed in two ways: first, as a mode of flight, with the swans “mounting” the air as they ascend upwards. Secondly, mount also has sexual connotations, which perhaps further increases the speaker’s sense of envy. While this stanza describes the swans as capable of great passion and liveliness, the speaker is merely a lone spectator, one painfully aware that he has entered the dwindling stages of later life. In either reading, both uses of the verb point to the “wild” of the poem’s title, further demonstrating the unsurmountable division between human and animal, restrained and free.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The speaker states he has returned to count the swans for nineteen autumns. The nineteen years prior to the writing of this poem would have spanned both World War I and the Irish Civil War. These were times of immense upheaval and change, which means that the speaker’s world in this poems would now be dramatically different to that of the world nineteen years prior. The speaker’s experience of the dramatic changes and suffering of these times causes him to look upon the swans with envy, as he desires to share in their youthful innocence and passion.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. As we’ll soon see, the speaker envies the swans for their seemingly endless capacity for passion and life. Perhaps with the use of this odd number, the speaker is signaling that he would like to join the swans, to complete the group and make an even number.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. Fifty-nine may come across as an odd choice for a number, which may create a sense of discord or dissonance for the reader. However, since swans mate for life, with fifty-nine swans there is one swan that is alone. Yeats suffered numerous romantic rejections throughout his life, most famously at the hands of activist and actress Maud Gonne and later her daughter Iseult. The odd number here foreshadows the desertion found at the end of the poem and extends a sense of loneliness found across a number of Yeats’s poetic works.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. In contrast to the stillness of the previous line, here the water is described as “brimming,” a word which connotes movement and life. When read against the previous line, this may suggest that nothing on earth may ever truly capture the eternal timelessness that the poet seeks. While the setting until this point has been undeniably idyllic, it is only now that the speaker introduces the element of movement. In this way, the brimming water may serve as a larger symbol for the inevitable movement of life.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. The description of stillness could also represent an inherent timelessness found only in nature. We are soon to learn that this “stillness” is what the speaker yearns for but cannot reach, as both he and the world around him must continue to develop and change.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. This poem was written between 1916–1917, a time when Yeats was having considerable trouble creating new poetry. The reference to stillness here, coupled with the “dry” paths of the previous line, could very well be a comment on Yeats’s own struggle to write or create during this period.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The description of the setting as “autumn” and “twilight” uses the changing of the seasons to foreshadow the central theme of aging, change, and mortality. Autumn is often employed metaphorically to connote sentiments of decay or decline, as the life of summer gives way to the death of winter. Written at age fifty-one, after years of turmoil in both in Yeats’s personal life and in the wider political life of Ireland, this poem reflects the potential despair one may feel when contemplating the inevitable passage of time.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. This poem has numerous “Yeatsian rhymes,” also known as slant rhymes. These rhymes between words whose vowel sounds do not quite match were a stylistic signature of Yeats’s work. Examples of Yeatsian rhyme in this poem include “beautiful”/“pool”; “lover”/“air”; and “stones”/“swans.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. The description of the swans’ wings as having a “bell-beat” is quite figurative, because wings do not make such a sound. The line is a poetic blending of the bell-like sound of the swans’ cries with the image of the beating of wings through the air. Finally, bells often mark important moments, be it an hour of the day or an event in a religious ceremony. The “bell-beat” here marks the significance of the speaker’s first encounter with the swans nineteen years ago.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. The image of the swans flying off in “great broken rings” gets at the heart of the poem’s theme. The speaker has seen the swans at Coole each autumn for nineteen years in a row, an annual cycle. At the poem’s end, the speaker expresses fear for the day the swans will be gone. The breaking of this cycle is foreshadowed by the metaphor of the broken ring.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. Yeats employs an interesting metrical scheme. In each stanza, the first four lines follow a pattern of alternating tetrameter and trimeter—four beats and three beats—a classic song-like scheme. The fifth line, however, is in pentameter, a five-beat line. This causes a noticeable pause before the stanza ends in a line of familiar trimeter. The pause is fitting with one of the the poem’s themes: the desire to stop and appreciate the world while there is still time, before the swans fly away.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. In this context, “rushes” means marsh or waterside plants that generally have stiff, hollow stems and large flat leaves. One can assume the speaker is asking where these birds will build their home; a question which signals the transience of the birds’ presence on this particular lake.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. The statement “[a]ll’s changed” suggests that there are two versions of the speaker: the young, innocent speaker before he saw the birds, and the weary, experienced speaker after he saw the birds. These two versions of the speaker cast the tone of the poem as a wistful longing for a time past.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. The adjective “clamorous” is generally association with the noise of people shouting, crying, or loudly exclaiming. Notice that in this context, clamorous describes “wings,” something that does not have a voice. The speaker uses this characterization to show that every part of the bird is full of life while the speaker can only stand and watch them.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff