The Wild Swans at Coole

by Yeats

When this poem first appeared in 1917, Yeats had recently married although he was already in his early fifties. His bride, the 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees, was the third woman he proposed to in fairly quick succession: the first was Maud Gonne, whom he had aspired to for years: she had been widowed by the execution of her husband after the Easter uprising in 1916. According To Yeats’s biographer R F Foster, however, by this time the proposal was more out of duty than genuine desire to marry her. When she refused him, he proposed to her daughter, Iseult – lunch at the in-laws would have been an interesting experience had she accepted.

A beautiful nature poem, the Wild Swans at Coole is about anxiety, loss and the inescapable passage of time: it may of course turn out to be the swans that eventually awake to a day when it is Yeats who has flown away, rather than vice-versa. The reader is Harry McFarland.

See the illustrated blog post here, and compare a passage in which Virgil 2000 years ago also saw meaning in a flight of swans here.

To listen, press play:

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?

More Poems by Yeats

  1. Leda and the swan