"The Wild Swans at Coole" was written in 1916 when Yeats fifty-one. He was staying with his friend and patron Lady Gregory at her home near Coole Park, located in Galway, Ireland, a county located on Ireland's Atlantic coast. It was published in The Little Review in June 1917.
In 1919 it was included in a larger collection of seventeen poems and plays also entitled The Wild Swans at Coole. Yeats dedicated this collection to Major William Robert Gregory, Lady Gregory’s son, who died in World War I.
Galway is a mysterious and rainy land, and Coole Park especially is an enchanting place, full of lakes that disappear in drier seasons, only to reemerge with rain. One such lake inspired this poem. Yeats is said to have been filled with melancholy while writing this piece, partly due to continuing rejections from the love of his life, the recently widowed Maud Gonne, and also from her daughter, Iseult Gonne. His spirits were also dampened by the destruction of World War I and the burgeoning Irish rebellion against the British, a bloody fight for Irish independence that would explode into guerrilla warfare in 1919, resulting in over 1400 Irish deaths and leading to the separation of the Irish state into two countries, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Yeats was ambivalent about Irish nationalism, and many of his poems engage with this complex fraught issue.
This poem’s focus is inward rather than outward, however, and it mostly concerns the juxtaposition between Yeats’s perception of the peaceful, unchanging atmosphere of Coole Park and his knowledge of his own lost youth and his fear of change. It laments the destructive effects of change, but it is not entirely desolate; it also preserves the hope that some things are able to transcend the wearying onslaught of time.