What do the swans represent in The Wild Swans at Cole?
On the most basic level, the swans represent the vitality of youth as life and love ‘attend upon them still’. This is used in juxtaposition with a narrator that is growing old and can only remember a time when he ‘trod with a lighter tread’. While his body is decaying, the swans remain the only constant in his life; for nineteenth autumns he came to gaze upon them and as such they serve as the reminder of a nostalgic past. However, their existence in a physical world is doubtful as their description conveys magical, fictive creatures that live only in the romanticized world of the narrator’s mind. This idea is reinforced by the way their movement mirrors the energy of the narrator. Their return to stillness in the last stanza follows the rhythm of the poem as it ends on a sad, tranquil note.
How is old age presented in the poem?
Nature mirrors the state of the narrator as the ‘October twilight’ and the ‘wood paths dry’ are the first clue readers receive as to the age of the speaker. Indeed, autumn is associated with the death of nature and the approach of winter and thus advanced age is equated with the winter of the life. The changes cause a mood of nostalgia that is exhibited through mentions of the past and time passing such as ‘nineteenth autumn has come upon me’. By using the phrase ‘has come upon me’, the narrator is showing the unexpected nature of the realization that time has passed and thus also his surprise. Again, the juxtaposition with the energetic swans serves only to reinforce the decay of the body as the slow pace of the stanzas seem to evoke the pace of the narrator himself. Another characteristic of this period of life is the nostalgia caused by reflecting on the past. His sore heart is either a reminder of past heartache or regret at his current predicament and thus we could go as far as to argue that the prospect of the swans going away is a symbol of the disappearance of his hope.
By what means and with what effects does the poet set the mood?
A romantic atmosphere is created through the overall tone and mood which also confer a fairy tale feeling. The ‘brilliant creatures’ give a glowing quality to the swans and it makes them seem enchanted, creatures of an idyllic, magical Ireland. Also, the rhyme scheme of ABCBDD illustrates the symmetrical beauty of nature through the couplets and gives the poem a serene flow. Indeed, through close inspection of the structure of the poem, once could notice that the discovery of the swans only in the last stanza of the poem creates a sense of journey which might go as far as to echo traditional fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel. Moreover, the clamor of the wings suggest that the narrator is intruding in a realm where he does not belong and in doing so he temporarily destroy the peace and quiet.
What mentions are there of real life persons and places? What do they contribute to the poem?
Coole is a real place in County Galway, Ireland, and also the domain of Yeats’ long-time friend, Lady Gregory. The way in which the poem is rooted in reality and in the poet’s own experience in the nature retreat that was Coole Park, suggests it is autobiographic. Another passing reference to the life and times of W.B. Yeats is the sore heart which critics commonly accept to be related to Maud Gonne, the poet’s life-long infatuation. This confers a new interpretation of the line as well as of the juxtaposition of the romantically involved swans as, from a Historical Biographical point of view, it is important to consider the personal pity of rejection and a loveless life.
How far is this poem characteristic of Yeats’ methods and concerns?
The idea that ‘all’s changed’ be it the scenery, his life or politics relates to another of Yeats’ poems, Easter 1916, in which ‘all changed, changed utterly’. This new world is not described as ideal in either poem; as the oxymoron ‘a terrible beauty’ suggests in the later one, modern Ireland is stained with the blood of martyrs and does not resemble at all the ideal of Yeats’ imagination. However, his love for Ireland is apparent in both poems as he portrays its beauty in one and remembers its martyrs in the other – ‘MacDonagh and MacBride and Connolly and Pearse’. The difference is that the romanticized Ireland of The Wild Swans at Coole, with its ‘brilliant creatures’, contrasts with the troubled times described in Easter 1916. In the later one, we have the Easter Uprising and what the narrator considers ‘too long a sacrifice’ thus Ireland is nor idealized but rather mourned. It is also possible to view this poem as an idealization of Ireland Coole is an actual place. The ‘mysterious, beautiful’ swans and scenery depict Ireland as a romanticized place that has plenty of beauty and charm. This poem shares the same fairy tale like mood with The Lake Isle of Innisfree. In both, the ‘twilight’ and the ‘midnight’ respectively are used as a tool for creating this mood as they are associated with magic and romance. In the second poem this is further reinforced by the ‘purple glow’ and the ‘peace…dropping slow’ that portray Ireland, once again, as an idyllic place. However, as I stated before, this is just part of the narrators’ imagination as in the end he is either ‘on the pavements grey’ or predicting that one day he will wake up and the swans would have ‘flown away’. The difference is that in The Wild Swans at Coole nature does not bring the comfort of ‘peace’ but it reminds the narrator of his old age and of how his ‘heart is sore’. While in the first poem he retains hope to the end – as shown by his determination in phrases such as ‘I will arise and go now’ – in this one, his hope –symbolized by the swan- is leaving him. His emotional distress is caused by the lack of love, a theme that is also explored in Adam’s Curse, in which everybody had ‘grown quiet at the name of love’ thus suggesting that they are reflecting on their own heartache. Moreover, the narrator himself suffers from an unrequited love and thus was ‘as weary hearted as the hollow moon’. Again, nature – be it swans or the moon- reflect the psychological state of Yeats as he longs for Maude. In order to inspire regret, the poet uses a peaceful atmosphere created through iambic pentameter and lack of action in the narrative.
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