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
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?
Lady Gregory, undated. Library of Congress,
Washington (repro. no. LC-DIG-ggbain-06199).
[Click on images to enlarge them.]
In 1896, W. B. Yeats visited Ireland with his friend, the poet Arthur Symons. During the visit, Yeats took Symons to meet the playwright Edward Martyn, whom he had earlier met in London. Martyn lived at Tulira Castle, County Galway, and while they were there the widowed Lady Gregory called in, and invited them to lunch at her home, in the beautiful grounds of nearby Coole Park. Roy Foster points out that this was actually their second meeting: they had met previously in London, as guests of an Irish family (169). But this invitation to Coole marked the true beginning of a very important friendship for Yeats:
A carpet should have been spread for Lady Gregory's entrance into the life of Yeats, a red, regal carpet, although she, with her gently fervent patriotism, would perhaps have chosen a green one.... It is impossible to over-estimate her influence on Yeats. She was his friend and counsellor, an understanding eye in the tumultuous and haunted places of his mind. She was to help him more than he had ever been helped in his life, chiefly, and most significantly, by offering him access to her house at Coole. [Mac Liammóir and Boland 59]
It was typical of Lady Gregory, who had previously taken under her wing another young man, Paul Harvey, the orphaned and illegitimate son of the sculptors Susan Durant and Henri de Triqueti (and himself the future complier of the original Oxford Companion to English Literature): he had got engaged to her niece in the spring of that very year, and was now launched on his independent life. For Yeats's part, although he had only recently moved into Woburn Buildings (now Woburn Walk) in London's Bloomsbury, and would be based there until 1919, from now on and in fact "for more than thirty years he spent all his summers [at Coole], and often his winters" (Mac Liammóir and Boland 59).
Postcard showing a scene from "Spreading the News" by Lady Gregory, perforned at the Irish National Theatre (1904), from the New York Public Library Digital Collections. See bibliography.
Lady Gregory played a major part in the Irish literary movement, including the Irish National Theatre itself — of which, along with Yeats and Synge, she would be one of the directors. She also wrote many plays for what became known as the Abbey Theatre. In addition to her active inspiration, participation, and financial backing, she performed an important function simply by providing Yeats with a home in Ireland. Coole itself was a wonderful source of comfort and inspiration for Yeats.
In "The Wild Swans at Coole," the opening poem in a collection of the same title published in 1919, he reflects first on the beauty of the place in a particular month of year, and at a particular time of day: October, when the leaves had turned colour but not yet fallen, on an early evening when the light was soft and everything was still. At this very specific point in time, the sudden noisy wheeling of the swans in their broken arcs emphasizes the continuing energy in nature, which associates it with eternity itself — represented elsewhere by Yeats as a spiralling "gyre." He recognises that time moves on for him too, but in his case the change is by no means cyclical. Rather, time passes relentlessly, irreversibly. So much had happened in his life by now. He had been young and carefree when he first visited Coole (or so, at least, he recalls). Now he is older, careworn, his emotional reserves depleted: the energy for "conquest and passion" no longer attends on him, as it does on the swans. The birds settle, drifting on the generous waters of the lake. Stillness descends on the scene again. But while the swans resume their apparently ageless part in the natural cycle, he will leave it. Or, rather, they will leave him. He will be elsewhere. This meditation on life has much more than mundane, quotidien import.
There is something more than usually elusive about Yeats's poetry. Here, the counting of the swans, like the counting of the bean-poles in "The Lake isle of Innisfree," has something incantatory about it. Portmanteau adjectives like "bee-loud" in the earlier poem, and "bell-beat" here, convey more than can ever be (in modern parlance) unpacked. The emotion of the poet himself is complex, both passionately responsive to this world and self-obsessed, as most of us are. The poem reconciles the two aspects of Yeats's feelings, as he reaches out to his beautiful surroundings, and seeks to understand his own position within them, and in life itself, in a moment of intense reflection. Evoking that particular moment, and those same responses to it in the reader, by the words and compelling rhythms of the lines, Yeats has given us one of his most memorable poems.
As for Lady Gregory, she was an enabler: despite her own literary output, she is now less well-known than the protégés and projects that she supported. Sadly, her own son Robert died in World War I. Yeats, of course, had known him well, and this tragic event was very much in his mind in this 1919 collection as a whole. Indeed, in placing the longer "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory" right after "The Wild Swans at Coole," and recalling how much the young man had loved all these scenes, he adds a poignant addendum to it. John Unterecker suggests that "'The Wild Swans at Coole' introduces all the major themes" of the poems that follow: "Death, Life, and The Patterns of Life and Death" (131); but it does not simply introduce them. It embodies them in a way that still haunts the memory, perhaps more so than any of the other poems in the volume.
"Unwearied stiil, lover by lover...."
Photograph by present author.
Foster, R. F. W. B. Yeats: A Life. Part I: The Apprentice Mage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Mac Liammóir, Micheál, and Eavan Boland. W. B. Yeats and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.
"Spreading the News' by Lady Gregory." Performed at the Irish National Theatre (1904). New York Public Library Digital Collections. Web. 6 July 2021.
Unterecker, John. A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York: The Noonday Press, 1959.
Yeats, W. B. The Wild Swans at Coole. New York, London and Toronto: Macmillan, 1919. (Available on Project Gutenberg.)
Created 4 July 2021