The poem “The Wild Swans at Coole” is a poem written about the scenery at a place called Coole. The poem is a dramatic lyric poem because of its musicality in the rhyme scheme and its direct expression of feelings. All five of the six-line stanzas are built upon the rhyme scheme abcbdd and are written in a loose iambic cadence intended to somewhat mimic the sound of verbal speech. Each odd-numbered line has four stressed syllables while each even-numbered line has three stressed syllables. These mechanics of the poem deliver a very sad, melancholy tone that remains in keeping with Yeats’ main theme of discouraged dreams.
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This theme is introduced in the opening stanza as the poet describes the local scenery. “The trees are in their autumn beauty / The woodland paths are dry / Under the October twilight the water / Mirrors a still sky” (1-4). Within these four lines, Yeats has quickly informed his reader of the time of year (autumn), the climate (it has been dry), the time of day (twilight), and the weather (still). The lack of movement, the month of death, the dying leaves, and the dry weather preventing any growth all combine to convey the sense of desolation and discouragement that is the theme of the work.
There is a sharp contrast within the first stanza between the first four lines and the last two lines that keeps the poem’s theme about discouragement rather than death. After introducing the dying season of autumn and the motionless scenery, he adds the lines “Upon the brimming water among the stones / Are nine and fifty swans” (5-6), which contain small movement in the brimming water and life in the presence of the still unmoving swans. This is what keeps the poem from being about death in that there is still beauty and hope, but it is subdued, quiet, and rest.
The following stanzas make a connection between the poet and the swans that seem never-changing. He mentions in the second stanza that “The nineteenth autumn has come upon me / Since I first made my count” (7-8). Although so much time has passed between the time of his first visit and the time of the poem, nothing has really changed. The swans are still vital in that they are still wild, still, fly and, it is hinted, still copulate, but their numbers have not increased. Even though he feels nothing has changed in his life to this point, he also recognizes that all has changed, “And now my heart is sore” (24). He has grown older and he has not been able to accomplish all that he has wanted to accomplish. His heart is sore, he has been wearied by lover after lover without having found a nest of his own and he worries that these timeless birds will finally find what he seeks before he does.
Through his musical use of language and his construction of the poem, Yeats is able to invoke an emotional response in his reader of discouragement or melancholy frustration. This theme is established in his first stanza as he first sets the subdued mood and then tempers it with the presence of some movement and life. However, while the swans of the pond seem unchangeable, Yeats realizes his life is slipping by with as little to show for it as the swans. His discouragement continues to the end when he acknowledges that someday he expects even this beauty to have flown away.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Wild Swans at Coole.” The Longman Anthology of World Literature: Vol. F, The Twentieth Century. (2nd Ed.). New York: Pearson Longman, 2008: 309.