The Wild Swans at Coole
From Modernism Lab Essays
by Andrew Gates
William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole” appeared during a significant moment in the poet’s life and stands therein as a crucial turning point in his relation to the poetic task. Daniel Tobin comments on the unhappiness of the poet during its 1916 composition; Yeats faced a rejection by Iseult Gonne after years of equally fruitless courtship of her mother, his beloved Ireland was in the midst of turmoil and rebellion, and, at the age of fifty-one, Yeats saw his autumn years rapidly descending upon him (Tobin, 57). Yet, although this melancholy looms throughout the poem, Yeats succeeds in establishing, by the very structure of the poem, a response to it, transcending his individual despair through the creation of the poetic object itself. The first stanza of the poem, in its impersonal reflection on an idyllic natural scene, is reminiscent of Yeats’ earlier poetry and his quest for the eternal and immutable. This is immediately contrasted with the introduction of the poet’s voice in the second stanza, which carries through to the fourth stanza, there offering a forceful juxtaposition of his own experience of fleeting time with the permanence he seeks. How can the poet seek beauty, an eternalized quality, as the world careens and changes around him? Or perhaps better phrased: how can a mortal, defined by temporality in his very nature, make beauty eternal a part of himself? The answer appears in the final stanza of the poem with an appeal to the transpersonal nature of beauty, whereby an eternal beauty of the human condition is extrapolated from the very vicissitudes of the individual’s life. How does this self-transcendence accomplish itself?
The poem’s opening stanza presents an impersonal and idyllic description of a landscape, in which the particular cares and concerns of human life are markedly absent; indeed, where does man first turn to escape his own mortality other than to the seemingly indifferent majesty of nature? “The trees are in their autumn beauty,” and this beauty is intensely related to the notion that “the water/Mirrors a still sky” (ll 1, 3-4). Nature stands as a perfect mimetic relationship; the stillness of the heavens—their eternality—is echoed in the water that appears to reflect its timelessness unproblematically. The stanza concludes with the introduction of “nine and fifty swans,” which seems to bear a somewhat mythic significance, due not only to the specificity of the number, but also to the archaic manner in which the number is expressed—one might instead expect a realist poem to recall ‘fifty-nine’ swans (l 6). Moreover, Martin Puhvel remarks that “any reader of the poem who has ever paid even fleeting attention to a flock of wild waterfowl can hardly avoid reflecting that the counting of such a large number of wild swans would be no mean feat for anybody,” and this fact serves further to distance the poem from human reality (Puhvel, 29). In seeking the origins of this rather arbitrary quantity, Puhvel recalls that fifty-nine is the number of bells said to be on the horse of the Queen of Elfland in the Scottish ballad “Thomas Rhymer”; he therefore sees the poem as a static contrast between the “fairy immortality and immutability” of the swans and the strictly linear nature of the aging poet’s life (Puhvel, 30).
I believe, however, that this categorical bifurcation—a bifurcation nevertheless implied by the poem—is overly simplistic and fails to recognize that change is endemic to the poem as a whole. Even in the first stanza, we witness the pall of mutability hanging over the bucolic scene; the water, at first mirroring a still sky, returns in fifth line with the epithet “brimming,” indicating that nothing on earth can wholly reflect that celestial stillness of eternalized beauty that the poet seeks. Moreover, the beauty of the trees is their “autumn beauty” glimpsed “under the October twilight”; Yeats has left behind the carefree days of summer, illusorily endless, and now sees himself standing upon an unmistakable temporal limen. He is in the autumn of his life, a time when man is forced to reckon what fruits are to be harvested from the seeds his life has sown; surely in view of the biographical context that Tobin has painted for us of Yeats’ 1916, this must have seemed to him a very meager crop. Does this fact, then, undermine the possibility that there might be any allusion to a static mystical realm? In response to Puhvel’s assertion cited above, Raymond Younis contends,
Interpreters who attempt to trace such influences [of faery legends] in poems such as ‘The Wild Swans at Coole,’ which were written at a time when the poet was deliberately avoiding such concerns in his poetry, may mislead the reader…Indeed, one suspects that the aging speaker admires them because they are empirical presences like himself, and because they can never be aware of weariness, of transience or of decline, which the speaker feels quite acutely at this stage of his life (Younis, 25).
Younis is correct to emphasize that the swans are themselves a part of these temporal changes, but there is a balance to be struck nevertheless; the number of the swans is very likely chosen as a reference to such fairy imagery, but this allusion is juxtaposed with the fact of their location in the temporal world. This ultimately proves to be a more powerful position than either of the two proposed, for through the window of the swans, the poet sees the possibility of temporal beings transcending ‘transience’ and ‘decline’ in an attainment of eternal beauty. This possibility, however, is intrinsically tied to Yeats’ introduction of the personal in the middle stanzas of the poem, and it is to this that we must now turn our attention.
Man seeks an eternal sense of himself, that is, a relationship to eternal beauty that overcomes the mutability of the human condition; yet this movement cannot be accomplished as an escape from the temporal to the eternal, but only through a transmutation of the specifically personal in a poetic context. Tobin examines the nature of this shift in Yeats’ poetic strategy: “Man was nothing, Yeats believed, until he was wedded to an image…Still, it took him many years of arduous labor…to realize fully personal utterance in his poetry” (Tobin, 57). His earlier poetry was characterized by a focus on symbolism and the realization of the eternal principles contained there, but “the symbolism of his [earlier] poems often seemed to overwhelm the human emotion it was intended to express” (Tobin, 57). That is to say, Yeats so privileged the image to which he wished to wed himself that the very man who was to be thereby expressed was lost in a mire of solipsistic generalization; preoccupied with the image itself, he was unable to reconcile the timeless beauty of the swans to himself, the aging poet who admires them. “Poetry as personal utterance, on the contrary, was a turn away from solipsism, a gesture toward the ideal condition of ‘all men’s speech.’ He came to understand that, though idealized in poetry, ‘all men’s speech’ had to be concrete and personal” (Tobin, 57). Despite the value that the image might bear in redeeming man’s existence, in giving him a solid identity whereby he can understand his relationship to the eternal, the image is ultimately empty once it has been loosed from the moorings of personal context. Without interjecting himself—the aging poet—into the contemplation of the eternal glimpsed through the swans, an infrangible gulf remains between his reality and his ideal.
In reflecting on Younis’ acknowledgement of the empirical reality of the swans themselves, we see that the highly personal and local nature of the poet’s encounter with these swans—who remain beautiful nevertheless—offers the possibility of reconciliation. Norma Hahn comments on the nature of this encounter, asserting that
Yeats places himself here as representative of man caught in the flux of time, and of artist torn by the exigencies of that ever-present theme of his poetry, the opposing values of being and becoming. From the anguish of his experience, the poet turns, not for escape but for confirmation of the worth of such suffering, to the opening image of the poem. He sees that the swans still ‘paddle in the cold/Companionable streams or climb the air’…The swans—art images—retain beauty…Suffering is a part of the experience of beauty (Hahn, 420).
Yeats’ previous conceptions of the nature of beauty are here completely overwhelmed; beauty does not reside, then, in the eternal itself, but in the encounter of the temporal with the eternal. Through reflection on the specific and painful experience of time and mutability, the poet extracts eternal principles from it, thereby creating the image of the beautiful. The beautiful image does not preexist the poet, but rather it is through his own labor that the changing nature of the October twilight and the fleeting swans are raised up to eternity in the creation of the poetic object. He does not merely admire eternity; he creates it. Let us turn to the poem itself to see how this new relationship is effected.
The second stanza begins immediately to contradict the first stanza’s sense of immutability. We are told: “The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me/Since I first made my count”; not only do we have the introduction of temporality, but also an explicitly subjective temporality: the autumn has come upon him, and it is the nineteenth since a specific event in his life (ll 7-8). Thus, the poem and the imagery it contains flow inextricably from the context of his personal experience. Nevertheless, this progression of time, characterized by change, is not unique to him as an individual in an otherwise eternal landscape; change is seen here as endemic to life itself. Before he can finish his count, “All suddenly mount/And scatter wheeling in great broken rings/Upon their clamorous wings” (ll 10-12). They mount before he can finish his count, that is, before he can extract from them a static symbol or image; it is not nature herself that gives us images of eternal beauty, but the poet who captures, through his own perception and reflection, a specific moment drawn out of a sea of change. Moreover, the swans mount suddenly and scatter, refusing any attempt to apply deterministic logic to the flow of time and implying its ultimately random nature; were the poet merely a scientist reading a knowable future through the present, we would be forced to admit that the image was contained from the beginning in the incontrovertible flow of nature, leading rationally from one state to the next whether or not a poet were there to observe its course. Instead, we are left with a sense that naturally is inherently meaningless and unpredictable, and that the task falls to the poet to extract an image from this scene, to snatch a moment and give it form in the poetic text. Their wings are inherently clamorous, but through the hand of the poet they are brought together in a harmonious whole.
Change becomes even more personal in the third stanza. Although he returns year after year to look upon the same scene of the swans, “All’s changed” since his first visit nineteen years before, when he “Trod with a lighter tread”; at this point it becomes clear that time is not only fleeting generally, but it is fleeting for him; he is the one who is aging and who must make sense of the life he has led thus far; is there something timeless in it, or has it thus far been merely a meaningless progression of events, leading to the inevitable sleep of winter? After all, even the eternal images he has created in his poems cannot overcome the mortally he must face as an individual. Although these questions are not answered until the final stanza, we begin to see beforehand certain implications of the direction he is taking. He has “looked upon those brilliant creatures,/And now his heart is sore” (ll 13-14). The swans here are assuredly ‘creatures,’ not the source of anything new, and yet they are brilliant, insofar as they reflect light from somewhere else, from somewhere eternal. It is in his engagement with such other creatures, mortal and ephemeral like himself, that he sees the reflected light of the eternal creator. Yet, his heart remains sore, because he senses in it a divide between himself and the swans. Unlike him, “Their hearts have not grown old;/Passion or conquest, wander where they will,/Attend upon them still” (ll 22-24). Even in the midst of the changing seasons and the unavoidable and random forward momentum of time, passion—the engagement of the individual toward a goal—and conquest—the attainment of that goal—still characterize their existence. Without question, the poet sees reflected brilliantly in them a model for vivaciously relating to the world that nevertheless escapes him in his somber mood. Wherein lies the difference between them? He is alone—understandable in view of his recently failed marriage proposal to Iseult Gonne—and his life is a far cry from an image of permanence in view of his inevitable mortality, whereas the swans paddle, “Unwearied still, lover by lover” (l 19). The timeless arises not from nature itself, nor from the contemplative subject therein, but from the dynamic interactions between individuals in which eternal truths can be grasped; love does not reside in one location or another, unflinching and immutable, but is rather a timeless concept that appears only in the context of highly contingent, time-bound interactions between individuals; the eternal exists in no place or person, but arises always from in between.
Yeats sees the source of the swans’ courageous existence into a future of uncertainty and change in the eternal that has been achieved between them. With whom can he establish this eternal? With whom can he build an eternal image, an enduring meaning, that will continue after his own earthly sojourn has run its course? With the fellowship of humankind. He concludes the poem with a question, thus emphasizing the perpetual uncertainty of the future, against which his eternalizing image nevertheless prevails: “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?” (ll 27-30). Daniel Tobin comments on this sudden broadening of the poem to the greater human community:
Their eventual disappearance from the speaker’s sight allows him a glimpse of happiness beyond his personal sorrow, even as that sorrow is intensified…This final leap draws personal utterance beyond the personal experience of the speaker into the public realm. The personal becomes something transpersonal. The arrival of the transpersonal through the personal characterizes Yeats’s greatest poems, the end to which personal utterance is given (Tobin, 59).
Although one day Yeats will die, one day his swans will have flown away from him, yet they will delight the eyes of other men, for their image, eternalized in these words he has generated from his own contingent experience, will live on long after him. In this way, the enduring existence of Yeats’ poem answers the very question its text seems unable to resolve; by creating this textual image of his experience in the dialogue he establishes with the reader, he has, in language itself, found the eternal. He has written of the particular loneliness and mutability he has experienced in his own life, we, ninety years later, read into his poem these emotions such as we have experienced them in our own lives, and between us and him exists this poem, this timeless image of the ephemerality of human existence that will abide long after the churning wheel of the ages has ground us all to dust.
Hahn, M. Norma. “Yeats’s ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’”: Meaning and Structure. College English, (22:6), 1961 March, 419-21.
Puhvel, Martin. “Yeats’s ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’” Explicator, (45:1), 1986 Fall, 29-30.
Tobin, Daniel E. “Yeats’s Personal Utterance in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’” Yeats Eliot Review, (11:3), 1992 Summer, 57-63.
Younis, Raymond Aaron. “Yeats’s ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’” Explicator, (46:4), 1988 Summer, 25-26.