Yeats – The Wild Swans at Coole (1919)

The title poem from Yeats’ 1919 volume. It’s empirical reference is Lady Gregory’s Estate in Galway near Sligo. The following poem “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” is direct allusion to the absence around which “Wild Swans” seems to revolve. Opens with description of autumnal lake scene whose “romanticism” is problematized first by the fact that the water is mirroring a “still sky” and not “still water” mirroring a sky (Under the October twilight the water / mirrors a still sky), cf. Dekoven; but also by the odd number of swans (the missing one is Robert).

Second stanza opens with nineteenth autumn, making the first iteration 1900, which solidifies the dialogue with Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush.” Before the speaker finishes counting them, they all mount in “great broken rings,” an iteration of the gyre that will become paramount in Yeats. Third stanza “All’s changed,” invokes the Tintern effect. Yet the poem insists that the poetry has not been drain of the swans themselves (poetry still has an object, but there is an apophatic intimation of the agin poetic capacity. The swans recede into adjectives more appropriate to early Yeats (beautiful, mysterious), but that is not to celebrated as much as mourned in frustration. The image of the poet’s belated waking recall Keats’ Belle Dame Sans Merci, and also the cold dawns that being to crop up throughout Yeats (Fisherman, The Dawn, etc.)

The collection as a whole is more overtly militaristic (in its content) than anything published previously, with poems dedicated to dead soldiers and the poem “An Irish Airman foresees his Death”). The poems cary widely in their structure, ranging from the four line “The Balloon of the Mind” “Memory”–

One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare as lain

To the sprawling dialogue “The Phases of the Moon.” There is a heightened self-consciousness about the resources and limits of poetry, especially in relation to history, death and beauty. This makes Keats (with Hardy as a mediator) a crucial historical figure in this collection.

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