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.
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,
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?