by John Boland

Nineteen hundred and nineteen marked the end of an eventful and turbulent decade for William Butler Yeats, both personally and artistically, and the volume of poems he published that year, The Wild Swans at Coole, was its poetic summing-up.

His previous collection, Responsibilities, which was published in 1914, had revealed a poet whose range of subject matter – both public and private – had broadened considerably from the Celtic twilightery of The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) and even the developing realism of The Green Helmet (1910), and in addressing these new concerns he developed a hardened style that banished forever the swooning romanticism of his early verse.

Romantic unrest, however, continued to bedevil him into middle age. Shortly after the execution of John McBride for his part in the Easter Rising – and perhaps too shortly for seemliness – the poet, who was now in his fifties, proposed to, and was spurned by, McBride’s widow, Maud Gonne and then was rejected by her 22-year-old daughter, Iseult, before finally being accepted by Georgie Hyde-Lees, who shared his fascination with the occult.

All of this personal turmoil occurred within fifteen months. “I am worn out with dreams,” he begins an ironically titled poem of the time, Men Improve with the Years, which addresses his infatuation with the young Iseult. “O would that we had met/When I had my burning youth!” Instead, he was thirty years older than her and risking ridicule with his intemperate declaration of passion.

But he was also becoming increasingly conscious of his place in the social, political and artistic world – not yet the “sixty-year-old smiling public man” of 1927’s Among School Children, but ever more mindful of fashioning a distinctive persona as pundit and proclaimer, observer and elegist, while positioning himself as first among equals on the Mount Parnassus he was fashioning for his chosen heroes. Yet the magisterially-expressed confidence of The Tower (1928) is still a long way off.

The Wild Swans at Coole, then, is Yeats in mid-career. Thirty years on from his first volume, Crossways, and with twenty years to go before the Last Poems, this is a collection that shows the poet seeking to develop and dramatise a new philosophy of lunar influence on human affairs (this fascination with the phases of the moon encouraged by his wife’s occult dabblings), while at the same time attempting to write verse “as cold and passionate as the dawn” – though still held in thrall by the vicissitudes of romantic love and acutely aware of the dismaying  transitoriness of life.

This recognition of transience was seldom better expressed by him than in the volume’s title poem, which also finds his customary adherence to traditional rhyme and rhythm at its loosest (though not as loose as in the same volume’s Broken Dreams, which in its seemingly casual use of rhyme and of varying line lengths almost qualifies as free verse – or at least as free as you’ll find in this most formally strict of poets.)

Yeats commonly used swans as emblems of romantic and elegiac feelings. In Baile and Ailinn (1902) the lovers are changed into swans; in Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, a swan symbolises the human soul; in the third section of The Tower (1926), the poet sings a swan song; in Coole and Ballylee, 1931,  he actually declares “Another emblem there!” on seeing a swan.

In The Wild Swans at Coole, the swans are both emblems and actual creatures – so actual that the poet is able to provide a specific number – fifty-nine – for those he sees, while also recalling that he’s been making this count for exactly nineteen years. So the poem, before it evokes other resonances,  is firstly very specific – indeed, the initial two stanzas are so rigorously intent on describing the scene that they eschew any emotive words.

These are left to the final three stanzas, where the poet ruefully contemplates the inevitable passing of time and the equally inevitable absences that this passing will bring – not just of the swans themselves but of the passions and conquests that the poet associates both with them and with the life he’s been leading.

It’s a deceptively simple poem – or perhaps just a simple one, though fashioned with consummate artfulness. Clearly, however, the feelings it evokes meant much to Yeats – he doesn’t just place the poem first in the volume, he gives its title to the volume itself. Such placings and namings are significant in such a self-conscious artist, and it’s no accident, either, that the two poems that immediately follow it in the volume concern Robert Gregory, firstly as subject of an elegy and then as inspiration for a reverie.

The only son of Yeats’s great friend and associate, Lady Gregory, Robert was born in 1881 and died  while a fighter pilot in Italy in 1918. An artist who had trained at the Slade school in London, he was not merely “my dear friend’s dear son” but someone who for Yeats personified the ideal of youthful ardour, aspiration and achievement. “I have known so many accomplished in so many ways,” Yeats wrote afterwards, “[but] his very accomplishment hid from many his genius. To me he will always remain a great painter in the immaturity of his youth, he himself the personification of handsome youth.”

Paying tribute to him in In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, Yeats puts him in the same company as  other Olympians whose passing he mourns – Lionel Johnson, John Millington Synge and George Pollexfen – and he also eulogises him in Shepherd and Goatherd from the same volume. But Gregory is most recalled by readers as the inspiration for one of Yeats’s most anthologised poems, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, where he represents a  heroic ideal.

Later in his life, Yeats controversially rejected Wilfred Owen and other World War One poets from his anthology, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), on the grounds that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.” In An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, this poet who had never experienced the horrors of war himself exalts the opposite of passive suffering – the “lonely impulse of delight” that’s free of political or patriotic feelings (“Those that I fight I do not hate,/Those that I guard I do not love”) and against which:

The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Elegy and reverie combine in these mid-life poems and in others from a volume notable otherwise for its range of private and public themes. There are love poems concerning Iseult Gonne (The Living Beauty, To a Young Beauty, To a Young Girl), Maud Gonne (Her Praise, The People, His Phoenix, Broken Dreams, A Deep-Sworn Vow) and his wife Georgie (Solomon to Sheba, On Woman).

There are other elegies, too (In Memory of Alfred Pollexfen, Upon a Dying Lady). There’s mordant comment on second-rate academicism (The Scholars) and on the Dublin of his day (“The daily spite of this unmannerly town,/Where who has served the most is most defamed”) and there are grapplings with new ideas and philosophies (Ego Dominus Tuus, The Phases of the Moon).
Here, then, is Yeats still searching for answers to conundrums about how life and art can be balanced – though nowhere as dogmatic as in 1932’s The Choice, where he declares: “The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work.” The love poems find him unresolved, too, while there’s the unmistakeable sense that he’s feeling his way through philosophic ideas that aren’t easily understood.

Yet to call The Wild Swans at Coole a transitional volume would be wrong if “transitional” suggests a lesser, less consequential book than the one Yeats wrote. “Pivotal” might be a better word for a collection that may lack any single poem with the magnanimous understanding of Easter, 1916, the apocalyptic chill of The Second Coming or the profound grace of Among School Children, but that  finds the author exploring and questioning both himself and the world around him with a new-found poetic mastery.

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