The Wild Swans at Coole

I sometimes think schools should be banned from teaching poetry, since there is nothing like being forced to ‘do’ a poem in class to put you off not only the poem but the poet, for life. On the whole, it is not a good idea to analyse a poem at all, à la English Lit.: that’s because you will never want to read that poem again. You’ll have killed it. A poem hits home, in part, because of resonances – that unexamined, unconscious chain of associations we – as the human race and as a particular social group, and you – as an individual – have with a particular word or phrase. Resonances tap into your past, into your emotions, into your childhood, into the deepest parts of your subconscious, but they only work in the dark. Hunt them down and… dead unicorns litter the path through the woods. Haul them up into the harsh, noisy daylight of a school classroom: all you have is a line of words and another twenty minutes before the bell goes for history.

 

My year were forced to ‘do’ Yeats’ Collected Works at school, and it’s taken me all this time to rediscover him, properly.

Looking back, I was lucky that the first Yeats poem I ever heard was not Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, which is a lovely poem but tends to appeal to the indiscriminate sentimentality of lovelorn teenage girls. I had a bit of a crush on it myself, at fourteen:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Aedh, by the way, is the Gaelic name of several Irish saints. It is probably pronounced ‘Ede’, although some say ‘Ed’ and in some versions of the poem changed to ‘He’ to avoid banjaxing English readers.

I was lucky in that my English teacher, who was young and actually loved her subject, chose instead The Wild Swans at Coole and somehow or other managed not to ruin it for me. I think it was the first uncompromisingly ‘grown up’ poem I had ever come across. I recognised something in its spare-ness; that cool sorrow:

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

Those lines where ‘unwearied still, lover by lover’ they paddle the cold companionable streams or climb the air – set bells ringing in my mind. I remember her reminding us, in that loud classroom with chalk-dust dancing in the sunlight, that swans are thought to mate for life. As she read it aloud to us I remember momentarily being in the body of a swan, as Yeats himself must have been, momentarily, when he wrote the poem – knowing what it was like to be in another element, a heavy body but winged, and how to rise in the air must require all one’s strength, the air feeling hard, a force to be overcome, a stairway to be climbed.

I remember a few others that I liked – the one about the yellow hair, for instance:

Never shall a young man,

Thrown into despair

By those great honey-coloured

Ramparts at your ear,

Love you for yourself alone

And not your yellow hair.’

But on the whole I wasn’t ready for Yeats and his Irish-ness. I lived in a small corner of the south-east of England – not even the more cosmopolitan London. I had never heard real Irish or Welsh people speak or come across that musicality, that naturally effortless, fluid, creative use of words. It sounded – he sounded – weird. Over the top. Silly. Normal [English] people just didn’t talk like that.

Rhythm and rhyme are easy to understand, which is why junior schools tend to go for stuff like:

Five and twenty ponies,

Trotting through the dark –

Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.

This clever, jiggly versifying is hugely entertaining for children. It’s a big step up, skill-wise, from the execrable verses bereaved relatives select from albums to go in the In Memoriam column; the harmless sugary nastiness of birthday-card rhymes or the drivel people use to sell anything from yoghurt to double-glazing.

But Yeats, and all real, grown-up poets go far beyond that. They push language to an edge, almost doing violence to it – and rely on those elusive unicorns in the wood, resonances, to make it work. What they are trying to get to is the sublime – which is beyond me – possibly beyond anyone, to explain. It’s a point where pain and pleasure mix, where awe seesaws on the edge of wonder; nothing to do with Fifty Shades of Grey, which I still haven’t got round to reading – but maybe there’s a spiritual parallel. They push words and risk all, trusting their readers. They approach what is beyond words, knowing they will fail to reach it; and sometimes a spark leaps across the gap where words are not designed to go; Strange Meeting happens again in no-man’s land.

And that’s what it’s about.

One thought on “The Wild Swans at Coole

  1. Great points (and selections). You just made me go back to a Longfellow poem (The Village Blacksmith) to see if it reads more decently these days than in those when we read it aloud as a class before and after dissecting it for a week. For me it doesn’t, perhaps because there remained everyone but a smithy and an iceman in my ’50s life — coal man, milk man, cobbler, tailor, butcher, fishermen and lobstermen, farmers, sailors and infantry, navy yard and city yard generations. The poem reminds me of my lifelong early-widowed uncle, now — it all but names him. If one could change only the career in the poem, I might have known him instantly, except that I was a child. It was fun and interesting to go back and look — thank you for that nudge!

    Liked by 1 person

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