The Wild Swans at Coole by Yeats: Summary, Poem Analysis & Theme

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  • 0:00 Background: Poem & Author
  • 0:40 The Form of the Poem
  • 1:07 Analysis & Theme
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
In the Yeats poem 'The Wild Swans at Coole,' we see a portrait of a placid lake where 59 wild swans are swimming peacefully. Yeats not only takes us to this lake, but also to an aching place inside the heart where we regret that time passes too quickly.

Background on the Poem and the Author

William Butler Yeats is probably Ireland's most famous poet. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Throughout his poems, we see his longing for the quiet life that nature can bring. He wrote 'The Wild Swans at Coole' and published it in 1917 in a whole book of poems under that same title. Yeats was inspired to write the poem after seeing 59 wild swans at Coole Park, which was an estate owned by Lady Augusta Gregory in Ireland.

The Form of the Poem

The poem has five stanzas, and the rhyme scheme is a-b-c-b-d-d in every stanza. There is a mixture of iambic pentameter, iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter in the poem. The style of this poem is very simple, and the language, accessible. Yeats was a master of wrapping depth of ideas into simple terms.

Analysis and Theme of the Poem

Take a look at each stanza and interpret the literal meanings and the themes that emerge as we go.

Stanza One

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.

In stanza one, we are introduced to the setting of the poem. The speaker in the poem is observing a lake in the autumn twilight. It is so still that it 'mirrors' the sky. There are stones in the water, and upon the lake 59 wild swans are swimming.

Stanza Two

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.

In stanza two, the speaker realizes that it has been 19 years since he first visited Coole Park and saw the swans. The swans fly up into the air all at once and fly away, circling as they go. It must have been a breathtaking sight.

Stanza Three

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.

After observing the swans, the poet's heart aches with regret. So much has changed in these 19 years since he first observed the swans so long ago. He muses that in those days he 'trod with a lighter tread.' Life did not weigh him down as it does now. He no longer feels carefree, and maybe he has put on a pound or two in those 19 years. That is certainly possible!

Stanza Four

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.

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