William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole” depicts an evening stroll by a lake filled with swans. The speaker is familiar with the swans, as he has been coming to the lake for 19 years. He is fascinated by them and reminisces on earlier trips he has taken to the lake. Throughout the poem, Yeats develops a tone of awe for the swans, as well as melancholy for the past.
The speaker in the poem is clearly fascinated by the swans. He admires the beautiful animals, referring to them as “brilliant creatures” (Yeats 13). The speaker even seems to be jealous of the swans: “Their hearts have not grown old” (Yeats 22). By commenting on the “unwearied” swans, the speaker is comparing the longevity and liveliness of the swans to his own life, with which he seems disappointed (Yeats 22). The speaker admires the swans and wishes that his life could be unchanged and simple, similar to the swans. In the past, the swans even seemed to “trod with a lighter tread,” indicating that the speaker’s life had been easier and his heart lighter (Yeats 18). He knows that the swans bring happiness to whoever’s life they touch, and he wishes that they would always be in his. The swans seem to be the sole source of beauty and joy in the speaker’s life, and he dreads the day that he awakes “to find they have flown away” (Yeats 30).
The contrast of the speaker and the swans, along with references to the past, gives the poem a melancholy tone. He reminisces on the previous years, remembering the first time he had seen the swans in the water, the awe he felt when watching them take flight, and the sound of their wings beating above him. The speaker describes his heart as “sore”, claiming that “all’s changed” since he first saw the swans (Yeats 14-15). With the swans symbolizing happiness, he comments on the fleeting nature of joy: “By what lake’s edge or pool / Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day / To find they have flown away?” (Yeats 28-30). He seems to dread the future and the disappointment he assumes that it will bring. The reader can infer that the speaker is generally unhappy and wishing he could relive the past.
I think it is natural for all humans to reminisce and wish for the past. A favorite topic for people everywhere is the “good old days”, in which one compares characteristics from earlier times to how easy or hard their life is today. I even find myself doing so sometimes – wishing for the simple, carefree days of my childhood or missing my high school friends. It is easy to get caught up in the past, because that is the only standard to which we can compare the present. However, if we are still living in the past and dreading the future, we can forget to enjoy the treasures of the present.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Wild Swans at Coole.” 1917.
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