Episode 46

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B. Yeats

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ by W. B. Yeats.

Poet

W. B. Yeats

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

The Wild Swans at Coole

by W. B. Yeats

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?

 


Podcast transcript

It’s the best part of forty years since I first fell under the spell of this poem and its melancholy music.

Yeats, of course, is the poet who gave this podcast its name: A Mouthful of Air. That phrase comes from the first poem I read on the show, back in Episode 2, ‘He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved’. Now I love that line and that phrase, but no one would argue that that was one of Yeats’s greatest poems. But ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ unequivocally is.

Yeats describes the swans as ‘mysterious, beautiful’, and I’ve always felt the same way about this poem. There’s certainly something beautiful about the imagery and the sound patterns and the rhythms, and also slightly mysterious; for a long time I simply read it and enjoyed the fact that I couldn’t quite couldn’t quite work out how it worked. And I hadn’t really bothered to take a closer look, maybe because I didn’t want to break the spell.

And it was only when I decided to record it for this podcast that I got the hood up on the poem and had a good look at what’s going on inside it. But far from breaking the spell, I found that doing this has increased my respect for Yeats’s artistry and the magic of the poem, as well as his craftsmanship.

So. You could say this is the quintessential lyric poem. A man walks out into nature, and contemplates it and feels sad and becomes aware of the passing of life and its ephemeral beauty.

This is one of the things I really admire about Yeats, the fact that he tackles these big subjects in an overtly poetic way. I mean, he’s certainly trying to write Poetry with a capital ‘P’ here. And you know, it’s easy to be cynical and ironic and post-modern, and to disguise your poetic form by using half rhyme so that nobody notices it too much, and not making the metre too obvious, in case people tell you it’s a bit too much, a bit old-fashioned.

But Yeats doesn’t care about any of that. He really goes for it. And I think this shows his ambition and is part of his greatness. Um, it did lead to some silliness as well! But there are worse things he could do.

And okay, to us now, this is quite an old poem, so we might expect it to feel old fashioned. But it was written in 1916 and 1917, and published in 1919. So for context, that obviously means it was written at the time of World War I, which many commentators have seen as the brutal advent of the 20th century.

1917 was also the year T. S. Eliot published his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations, a book which would come to be seen as revolutionary, although it didn’t make a massive splash at the time. But only five years later, Eliot would publish The Waste Land, which is seen as the foundational text of modernist poetry. And between the poetry of Yeats and Eliot, we can clearly see a great gulf, between the old world and the new. They are often bookended together for this reason, with Yeats representing the last gasp of 19th century Romanticism, and Eliot heralding the dawn of a new and bleaker century.

So, even at the time that this was published, this would have been seen, at least by sections of the literary elite, as a bit old fashioned and passé. But Yeats doesn’t care about that, because he has seen the trees in their autumn beauty and the swans upon the water, and he is going to tell us all about that, in the most poetic way he can.

Not much happens in the poem: a man walks out, looks at the trees, looks at the woodland paths, the October twilight, the water, the sky – and then, ‘upon the bringing water among the stones’, he sees these ‘nine and fifty swans’, and evidently he did count the swans. And let’s just pause to consider the difference it would have made if he’d said ‘fifty nine swans’, instead of ‘nine and fifty swans’:

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are fifty nine swans.

It doesn’t really work, does it? Partly it’s because the metre doesn’t work any more. But even if we fix that, and use a bit of poetic licence and make it fifty seven swans, to smooth out the metre, like so:

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are fifty seven swans.

Metrically, that works, but it’s still a bit flat, isn’t it? We are on the brink of bathos, are we not? And of course the poetic inversion of ‘nine and fifty’ is one of the things that makes it sound like a 19th century poem rather than a 20th century one, but we can’t deny that it elevates the tone.

Numbers are evidently important to Yeats in this poem. As well as the nine and fifty swans, he tells us this is the nineteenth autumn ‘since I first made my count’. So he’s been swan watching for quite some time. And he’s drawing attention to the passage of time, the fact that he’s no longer a young man. He was actually 51 when he wrote this poem, the same age as me. Which is maybe another reason why I find it particularly resonant today.

This first stanza is in the present tense: ‘The trees are in their Autumn beauty’, and he’s telling us about this particular October twilight, right now, when he’s looking at the swans and counting them. Then the second stanza looks back to nineteen autumns ago, when he first tried to count them, but before he had finished counting they all took off:

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.

The poetry really rises to the occasion, doesn’t it, with that magnificent description of the swans scattering ‘in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings.’?

Then the third stanza, he returns to the present:

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.

So everything has changed since he was younger and his step was lighter, and his heart is sore because of the change.

What has changed? Well, you don’t get to be 51 without seeing a lot of change, a lot of disappointments, personal and professional, as well as public and political. All of which, in Yeats’ life, have been read into this poem: disappointments and rejections in love; the frustrations and disappointments of the artist which, as we know, are typically too numerous to count.

And as you know, I don’t like to go too far into the biographical hinterland of a poem without a literary warrant. But I do think the phrase, ‘All’s changed’, from the line, ‘All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight’, and the fact that this poem was written in 1916 – well, if you’re a fan of Yeats, then that will of course alert you to his great poem, ‘Easter 1916’, with the lines:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Those lines relate to the Easter Rising of 1916, when a group of Irish Republicans seized buildings in Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic and independence from British Rule. The rebellion was quickly suppressed by the British and most of the leaders were executed. Yeats knew some of the leaders and he had very mixed feelings about them and the rebellion, but he was very much on the side of Irish nationalism and the idea of a free Ireland, and it’s clear from ‘Easter 1916’ that he felt a lot of grief over the outcome of the Rising.

And Yeats dated ‘Easter 1916’, ‘September 25, 1916’, when he published it, so he was working on that poem at about the same time as he wrote ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’. And therefore I think we can definitely pick up a note of political disappointment, as one of several reasons why his heart is ‘sore’.

So that’s the third stanza. And in the final two stanzas, he contrasts his own situation with that of the swans:

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;

Unlike the man, the swans are ‘unwearied’; ‘Their hearts have not grown old’ and they are still gathered ‘lover by lover’, while he’s all alone, watching them like an old man on a city street, seeing the youngsters on their way to pubs and nightclubs while he’s heading home to bed.

Then in the last stanza, he brings himself back to the present moment, ‘But now they drift on the still water’, and then he ends with this amazing image, framed as a question, one of the great rhetorical questions in poetry:

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?

This is one of the great liftoff moments in poetry, and I think it’s all the more powerful because we’ve already had the earlier image of the swans taking flight when he was a young man, and now he’s looking at them and they are about to fly away from him, it’s implied, forever.

Now on one level, all of this stuff about the swans staying young while Yeats and his heart grow old is, of course, absolute nonsense. Because most swans have a much shorter lifespan than human beings. You know, their hearts haven’t grown old because they are not the same swans! The ones he looked at as a young man are dead and this is the next generation.

But of course, we are in the realm of Poetry with a capital P. Clearly Yeats sees the swans as symbolic of some eternal principle, something that remains ‘unwearied’ and forever young, something that endures even as his own passion and powers fade away, and something that will continue after his death.

What exactly is that something? Well, I’ve said before on this podcast that we can’t or we shouldn’t try to reduce a poem to a single interpretation. That’s not how poetic symbols work. There may well be some strong candidates for interpretation – in this case, we could make a good case for saying the swans represent youth or romantic love or poetry, or even life itself. And each of us will have our own feelings about the poem and what it means to us, and that’s part of the joy of poetry.

Okay, so that’s the basic scenario and the movement of thought and feeling in the poem. Let’s have a look at the poetry of the poem. In other words, how does Yeats embody and express those thoughts and feelings and themes through the verse?

And this to me is where it gets really exciting, because obviously you can never explain away the music, and that’s absolutely not what we’re in the business of doing. But what we can do, I think, is look at how the poem is constructed, and use that as a way of tuning in to the music in a more sensitive way.

So for instance, when you first look at the poem on the page, it makes an interesting shape: the lines are uneven length, even though it’s written in very regular stanzas. He’s used a mixture of tetrameters, with four beats, trimeters, with three beats, and every stanza has one line which is a full-on five-beat iambic pentameter.

The great American critic Helen Vendler, in her book about Yeats, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric From, gives us a metrical key to the poem.

Vendler points out that when we read the opening of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ with a sensitive ear, we can hear that the first four lines of every stanza are a ballad stanza – which as you may recall from Episode 22, when we looked at the anonymous ballad ‘The Unquiet Grave’, is a quatrain, a four line stanza, with the lines alternating four beats then three beats, four beats then three beats.

So let’s try Professor Vendler’s experiment and listen to just the first four lines of Yeats’s poem:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;

Okay, now hold that tune in your head. And now listen to the opening stanza of ‘The Unquiet Grave’:

‘Cold blows the wind to my true love,
And gently drops the rain,
I never had but one sweetheart,
And in greenwood she lies slain.

Can you hear that? It’s basically the same tune, isn’t it? Four beats and then three, four beats and then three.

So that’s the tune and hopefully you can hear it. It’s a bit like a magic eye illusion – once you focus on the ballad stanza, it pops out and throws the rest of the poem into relief.

So Yeats is using the ballad stanza, but he doesn’t stop at the usual version. He introduces an innovation, which Helen Vendler describes beautifully. After those first four lines, she says it is a ‘ravishing surprise’ to discover that the stanza doesn’t end there, but that there are two extra lines, in her words, ‘a long and luxurious full pentameter which, by enjambment, overspills itself in wonder into a conclusive trimeter’:

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

Well, I can’t beat Vendler’s description here. I’d never think to describe an iambic pentameter as ‘luxurious’, but she’s exactly right, it feels almost like an indulgence after the short ballad lines; she goes on to describe the ballad stanza as ‘overbrimming both its quatrain-base and its tetrameter-trimeter metric’. And of course she doesn’t mean that it’s needlessly indulgent, but that it’s absolutely expressive of the overflow of emotion that the speaker of the poem, who is basically Yeats, is feeling.

So let’s have another listen to the opening stanza, while listening out for the ballad rhythm in the first four lines, followed by the extra two lines that ‘overbrim’ the stanza:

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.

So what do these extra two lines add to the poem? They deepen the contemplative mood in two ways: firstly, by giving the poet a bit of extra legroom, to stretch out and expand his thoughts; and also, they slow the poem down. It was already pretty languid, but that extra beat on the pentameter means we have to linger on that line a little more, which means its hard to build up the kind of headlong narrative momentum we get in a lot of ballads.

And in the rhythm of the poem, I think we can hear the the heavy ‘tread’, in Yeats’s phrase, of this middle-aged man walking along.

So he’s walking along, and he’s walking along:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,

And he’s walking along, and he’s walking along:

Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;

And then we get this great big sigh:

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

So as we read the poem we fall into step with this 51 year old disillusioned man, trudging along on the earth, looking at these glorious creatures over on the water and up in the sky.

And this variation on the standard ballad metre is actually part of a larger pattern, which I think is a key to the music of the poem, and that is the way Yeats balances regularity and variation, similarity and difference, in lots of different ways throughout the poem.

Another example of this pattern is Yeats use of metrical regularity and variation. So the metre of the poem is iambic, which goes ti TUM, ti TUM. For instance, this line from the final stanza is a perfectly regular iambic tetrameter, which has four ti TUMs, exaggerated for emphasis:

Among what rushes will they build,

Okay, you can hear those four beats, nice and regular? Now, if we contrast that line with this one, from the fourth stanza, we can hear that Yeats has reversed the pattern at the start of the line, so that the stress falls on the first syllable, ‘their’:

Their hearts have not grown old.

So instead of a regular iambic trimeter, we have a variation on the pattern, with the stress falling on ‘their’, which means we then have two unstressed syllables, ‘hearts have’, before we get to the next stress, the word ‘not’.

Their hearts have not grown old.

And there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s normal practice for poets to vary the metre this way, partly to avoid sounding robotic and boring, and also for expressive emphasis on particular lines.

In this case, if we stress ‘Their hearts’, instead of ‘their hearts’, then it emphases the contrast Yeats is making, between his heart, which has grown old, and the swans’ hearts, which have not. It wouldn’t really make sense if we read the line as ‘Their hearts have not grown old’, because this would imply that maybe it wasn’t the swans’ hearts, but another part of their anatomy, that had grown old. And hopefully I’ve shown in my reading that stressing ‘their’, and ‘not’, makes the contrast all the more heart-rending.

So Yeats, like any skilful poet, is mixing perfectly regular lines with lines that use some kind of metrical variation. And I was curious about this, and I was inspired by Yeats’ enthusiasm for counting, so I went through the whole poem and I totted up the number of unequivocally regular lines… and by my reckoning these account for 15 out of the 30 lines of the poem. That’s right: the poem is split exactly 50/50 between metrically regular and irregular lines.

Now I’m pretty sure Yeats didn’t add these figures up himself, although maybe we shouldn’t rule it out, given his penchant for counting. I think this is just a case of extreme skill and intuitive judgment, about how to achieve perfect lyrical balance in a poem.

Okay, we’ve seen this pattern of regularity and variation, similarity and difference, in Yeats’s use of the ballad stanza form and also of the metre. And we can find the same thing going on in his use of rhyme.

On one level the rhyme scheme, the rhyming pattern, is simple and standardised, because it comes from the ballad form. So the four lines of the classic ballad stanza rhyme XAXA. ‘X’ means those lines, the first and third, don’t rhyme. And ‘A’ means that the second and fourth lines do rhyme. Listen for this pattern in the opening of the second stanza:

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount

So the first and the third lines end with ‘upon me’, and ‘finished’, which obviously don’t rhyme. But we can clearly hear the full rhyme of ‘count’, and ‘mount’ in the second and fourth lines. So the pattern of similarity and difference is baked in, if you like, to the ballad stanza.

And as we have seen, Yeats has extended the ballad stanza with a rhyming couplet, which in this second stanza goes like this:

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

Now if Yeats were not careful, adding a rhyming couplet could tilt the balance of the poem too far towards regularity, because it would tie the end of the stanza up rather too neatly, like a bow. But Helen Vendler points out that these are ‘asymmetrical rhyming lines’ (my emphasis), because we’ve got a pentameter rhyming with a much shorter trimeter, so that the rhyme alerts us to difference even as it chimes its similarity.

And the poem gets even more subtle than that.

If we look at all the rhyme words in the poem, we can see that they are all what’s called ‘masculine’ line endings, which simply means the line ends on a stressed syllable. They are also almost all single syllable words. So we’ve got ‘dry’, and ‘sky’; ‘stones’, and ‘swans’; ‘count’, and ‘mount’; and so on.

But if we look at the unrhymed lines, the first and third lines of every stanza, we can notice something interesting. In the first three stanzas, all of these lines are ‘feminine’ line endings, which means they end on an unstressed syllable, and they all involve two-syllable words. So we have ‘beauty’, and ‘water’; ‘upon me’, and ‘finished’; ‘creatures’, and ‘twilight’.

Have a listen to the second stanza, where you can hear the full rhymes of ‘sore’, and ‘shore’, ‘head’, and ‘tread’, as well as the matching feminine endings of ‘creatures’, and ‘twilight’:

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.

So what?

Well, firstly, the matching feminine endings help to distinguish them even more from the rhyming endings. And it also means that they start chiming with each other in subtle ways. It’s almost like rhyming via the stress pattern rather than the vowels or consonants. The feminine endings are like the ghosts of rhymes, setting up an alternative pattern that is a counterpoint to the main rhyme scheme.

And this alternative pattern shifts in the final two stanzas, where instead of paired feminine endings, both stanzas have a feminine ending in the first line followed by a masculine one in the third line. Stanza four has the feminine ending ‘lover’, and the masculine ‘air’, and stanza five has the feminine ‘water’, and the masculine ‘build’. So this pattern that used to match no longer matches.

And maybe it’s no coincidence that in these stanzas, the speaker is looking at the swans and really feeling the mismatch between him and them, telling us that ‘Their hearts have not grown old’, and imagining them flying away and leaving him.

What do you think? Am I reading too much into this? I don’t think so, but then I’m the one doing the reading in. But have another listen to the whole poem, and have a look at the text on the website, amouthfulofair.fm, and see what you think.

Because whether or not you agree with me on this particular point, I do hope you will agree that this is a magnificent poem, that repays very careful reading and listening. And that part of its appeal is the very subtle and delicate balance of its sonic construction, balancing similarity and difference to perfectly express its themes of heartache and the passing of time, and the bittersweet feeling of having been touched by something mysterious and beautiful, while at the same time being aware that someday it will move on, and the beauty and the delight will be for someone else’s eyes.

 


The Wild Swans at Coole

by W. B. Yeats

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?

 


W.B. Yeats

Portrait photo of WB Yeats

W.B. Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright who was born in 1865 and died in 1939. He was a leading figure in the Irish Literary Revival and helped to found the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. He was active in Irish Nationalist politics and later in life served as a Senator for the Irish Free State. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

Listen to the show

You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Related Episodes

A Crocodile by Thomas Lovell Beddoes

Episode 64 A Crocodile by Thomas Lovell BeddoesMark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘A Crocodile’ by Thomas Lovell Beddoes.Poet Thomas Lovell BeddoesReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessA Crocodile By Thomas Lovell Beddoes Hard by the lilied Nile I saw A duskish...

‘you are not in search of’ by Martyn Crucefix

Episode 62 ‘you are not in search of’ by Martyn Crucefix  Martyn Crucefix reads ‘you are not in search of’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.This poem is from: Between a Drowning ManAvailable from: Between a Drowning Man is available from: The...

The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville

Episode 61 The Maldive Shark by Herman MelvilleMark McGuinness reads and discusses The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville.Poet Herman MelvilleReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessThe Maldive Shark By Herman Melville About the Shark, phlegmatical one,Pale sot of the...

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Arts Council England logo