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William Butler Yeats

Wild swans at Coole

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Keith Tankard
Updated: 4 March 2014
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The poet has passed his prime and so the chances of his marrying and having children are now slim. He therefore envies the virility of the swans, as well as their beauty and fidelity.

Every year for 19 years, the poet has counted the swans on the nearby lake at Coole Park. He describes the setting -- a quiet lake just after sunset -- then tells us how the birds lift off into the air, or how they swim around in pairs on the still water.

There is an air of beauty and mystery about these birds. They bring a sense of majesty to the lake, and yet the poet is well aware that the flock is getting smaller each year and that one day they might leave altogether, never to return.


William Butler Yeats was born in County Dublin (Ireland) in 1865, although the family soon relocated to Sligo which the young poet came to think of as his spiritual home.

The family moved to England in 1876 so that their father could further his own career as an artist. At first the young William was home-schooled and entered formal schooling only at the age of 12, where his performance was described as mediocre.

When the poet was 15, however, the family returned to Dublin and it was here that he began writing poetry, with his first works being published when he was about 17.

Yeats had a deep interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism and astrology, something that is reflected in many of his poems. Indeed, his "Second Coming" cannot be understood unless this astrological background is realised.

He was also involved in Irish nationalism, something that is reflected in much of his writing.

In 1883 -- when the poet was but 18 -- he met Maud Gonne, then a 23 year old heiress. Their friendship would last some 33 years.

By 1916, when Yeats was already 51 years old, he probably realised that chance of marriage with children was passing him by. He suddenly became intent on having both and decided to propose to Maud Gonne but she turned him down.

Two rumours arose out of this: first, that his poem "Wild Swans at Coole" was written after the "shock" of his being turned down and, second, that Maud Gonne suggested he rather marry her daughter, Iseult.

Probably neither story is true although marriage to the daughter had a greater chance of bearing offspring than did the poet's marrying the mother.

It seems also likely that the proposal to Gonne herself was more a point of etiquette and that the poet couched it with such conditions that refusal was the intention.

Yeats did then propose to the daughter but she likewise turned him down. Within months, however, the poet married the 24 year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees with whom he had two children.

Yeats won several awards for his work, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. He died in France in January 1939 at the age of 74.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

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.
  • Do you think it is important for the greater meaning of the poem that it is autumn? (4)

[Need help?]

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.
  • Is there a link between the counting of the swans and the fact that it is the nineteenth autumn? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the imagery in the words "scatter wheeling in great broken rings". (4)

[Need help?]

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.
  • Contrast the way in which the poet sees the swans and the sadness of his own existence. (4)

[Need help?]

  • What does the poet mean when he speaks of "the bell-beat of their wings above [his] head"? (2)

[Need help?]

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.
  • What do the words "lover by lover", "companionable", "passion" and "conquest" reflect about the poet's mood? (4)

[Need help?]

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?
  • Why is the poet afraid that the swans will one day fly away? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Comment on the effectiveness of the final stanza as a fitting conclusion to the poem. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Which word would BEST sum up the tone of this poem? Explain your choice. (4)

[Need help?]

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