Wild Swans

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

Footnotes

  1. The word “trailing” bears two connotations here. First, we see the trailing legs of the swans, embodied through such detail. Second, the word describes the narrator’s perception. She tries to escape the confines of her daily existence and fully appreciate the swans, but her perception of the swans necessarily lags, “trails” behind them. The poet always chases the subject, never quite capturing.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. The poem follows a unique rhyme scheme over the course of its eight lines: *ABBCCBAC*. The most idiosyncratic feature of the scheme is the placement of the *A* rhymes, which fall six lines apart, essentially at the beginning and end of the poem. Both *A*-rhyme lines describe the sight of the swans flying overhead. In between the two swan sightings, the narrator’s perspective shifts. The first sighting offers metaphorical swans. The second sighting offers swans closer to their essential state.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. “House without air” also points to domestic life. The suggestion is that one loses touch with the world in the daily toil of life, “house” offering both metaphor and metonym for such a mode of existence.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. Millay builds on the metaphor of the “tiresome heart” with the image of the “house without air.” Both metaphors point to the narrator’s typical experience of the world, which is stifled and closed-off. The image of the “house without air” evokes in the reader a feeling of claustrophobic stuffiness. In a sense, the “house” is the mind, “air” the imagination.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Millay uses a dactylic tetrameter in the opening two lines, before transitioning into a more classic pentameter. The use of dactyls—a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables—creates a breathless quality which conveys the rapture of seeing wild swans soaring overhead. This initial sight spurs the narrator into deeper reflection and questioning.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. This command to the birds represents the narrator’s attempt to instruct or control the birds. Metaphorically this can be read as the poem itself: the narrator preserves her experience of the birds and their actions within the lines of her poem; in writing them she can control their movements and ascribe meaning to their existence.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. Here, the narrator tells the birds to “come over the town.” This could signify that the narrator wants others to see the birds flying and experience what she has just witnessed. It could also mean that the narrator does not want to lose sight of the birds as she goes about her daily activities.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. This “house without air” can be interpreted as the narrator’s literal house. If the narrator is locking her door to walk into town, then she uses this metaphor to map the physical onto her emotional or mental state of being. Her physical house can then metaphorically represent the mundane everyday cycles that she lives through and must grapple with.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. Here, the narrator recognizes the cyclical process of living and dying and recognizes that this process is “tiresome.” All beings live simply to perish a short time later. The narrator steps outside of this process and its tiresome futility in order to see something new about the birds. In this way, she enacts the poetic process of stopping to praise the world in order to give life meaning.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. This line states that the reader can see the narrator’s initial question— “And what did I see I had not seen before?—as rhetorical and dismissive or as a springboard for poetic imagination. Considering the question as rhetorical would be one question less. But imagining that there was something in the flight of birds that she had not seen before would give her new questions to explore.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. The premise for this poem is a narrator looking at swans and searching to see something new. Read with the first line of the poem in which she “looked in her heart,” the poem can be seen as the speaker’s internal exploration through the meaning she draws from the birds.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor