With the trees “in their autumn beauty,” the speaker walks down the dry woodland paths to the water, which mirrors the still October twilight of the sky. Upon the water float “nine-and-fifty swans.” The speaker says that nineteen years have passed since he first came to the water and counted the swans; that first time, before he had “well finished,” he saw the swans mount up into the sky and scatter, “whelling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings.” The speaker says that his heart is sore, for after nineteen autumns of watching and being cheered by the swans, he finds that everything in his life has changed. The swans, though, are still unwearied, and they paddle by in the water or fly by in the air in pairs, “lover by lover.” Their hearts, the speaker says, “have not grown cold,” and wherever they go they are attended by “passion or conquest.” But now, as they drift over the still water, they are “Mysterious, beautiful,” and the speaker wonders where they will build their nests, and by what lake’s edge or pool they will “delight men’s eyes,” when he awakes one morning to find that they have flown away.
“The Wild Swans at Coole” is written in a very regular stanza form: five six-line stanzas, each written in a roughly iambic meter, with the first and third lines in tetrameter, the second, fourth, and sixth lines in trimeter, and the fifth line in pentameter, so that the pattern of stressed syllables in each stanza is 434353. The rhyme scheme in each stanza is ABCBDD.
One of the most unusual features of Yeats’s poetic career is the fact that the poet came into his greatest powers only as he neared old age; whereas many poets fade after the first burst of youth, Yeats continued to grow more confident and more innovative with his writing until almost the day he died. Though he was a famous and successful writer in his youth, his poetic reputation today is founded almost solely on poems written after he was fifty. He is thus the great poet of old age, writing honestly and with astonishing force about the pain of time’s passage and feeling that the ageless heart was “fastened to a dying animal,” as he wrote in “Sailing to Byzantium.” The great struggle that enlivens many of Yeats’s best poems is the struggle to uphold the integrity of the soul, and to preserve the mind’s connection to the “deep heart’s core,” despite physical decay and the pain of memory.
“The Wild Swans at Coole,” part of the 1919 collection of the same name, is one of Yeats’s earliest and most moving testaments to the heart-ache of living in a time when “all’s changed.” (And when Yeats says “All’s changed, changed utterly” in the fifteen years since he first saw the swans, he means it—the First World War and the Irish civil war both occurred during these years.) The simple narrative of the poem, recounting the poet’s trips to the lake at Augusta Gregory’s Coole Park residence to count the swans on the water, is given its solemn serenity by the beautiful nature imagery of the early stanzas, the plaintive tone of the poet, and the carefully constructed poetic stanza—the two trimeter lines, which give the poet an opportunity to utter short, heartfelt statements before a long silence ensured by the short line (“Their hearts have not grown old...”). The speaker, caught up in the gentle pain of personal memory, contrasts sharply with the swans, which are treated as symbols of the essential: their hearts have not grown old; they are still attended by passion and conquest.