Sunday, 15 April 2012

Portsmouth Point Poetry: The Wild Swans at Coole

Review by George Laver

The Wild Swans at Coole

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? 

By William Butler Yeats [1917]

I have chosen for this fortnight’s entry a work written by William Butler Yeats (13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939) during a stay with friend and fellow Abbey Theatre founder Lady Gregory at her home in Coole Park, entitledThe Wild Swans at Coole. The poem was included in a collection of the same name first published in 1917, which became known primarily for its political observations and its role in the formation of an Irish literary aesthetic and identity.

Yeats is recognized nowadays as one of the foremost figures of 20thcentury literature as well as a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival. His earliest works owe much of their inspiration to Edmund Spenser and Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as the Pre-Raphaelites, but many of these pieces were also influenced by a fascination with occultism and Irish mythology. Among the most acclaimed of these are the fantastical, Spenserian Isle of Statues (1884), the mythological Wanderings of Oisin (1889) and the dramatic work Mosada (1886). Mysticism and spiritualism remained of interest to Yeats throughout his literary career, although their influence became less evident after the turn of the 20thcentury, whereupon his writings took on a more realistic, physical aesthetic. This conversion is often considered to be due in no small part to frequent rejections from his muse Maud Gonne, an ardent Nationalist who, to Yeats’ horror, converted to Catholicism and married fellow Nationalist John MacBride in 1903. After a troubled relationship with Gonne, Yeats resolved to marry 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees in September 1916, with whom he had a successful marriage, producing two children, Michael and Anne, despite their difference in age. In 1923, he became the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and after this produced some of his most critically acclaimed and recognized works, becoming heavily involved with the political and financial system of Ireland. He died at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour in Menton, France and was buried Roquebrune-Cap-Martin after a quiet funeral.

The Wild Swans at Coole is a wistful reflection upon the societal and personal changes the speaker has experienced since he first visited the lake nineteen years before the poem’s being written. The observer notes the swans’ indifferent serenity in the face not only of the political and social turmoil in Ireland but also of ageing and personal tragedy: “Their hearts have not grown old;/ Passion or conquest, wander where they will,/ Attend upon them still.” In the closing lines, we almost feel that the speaker has come to appreciate the ultimate insignificance of man’s unending struggles, recognizing that one day the birds will inevitably fly to some new home and “Delight men’s eyes” by some other “lake’s edge or pool”. Although Yeats continued to involve himself in political affairs for several years after this poem’s publication, it is clear that he had by this time recognized a greater circle of being in musings such as that described in this poem, and this realization is likely to have held relevance throughout the rest of his creative and political life.

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