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.
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