Yeats Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

William Butler Yeats, the major poetic voice of his age, consolidated the style and themes of his mature work in The Wild Swans at Coole, bridging the divide between nineteenth century sensibilities and twentieth century concerns.

Summary of Event

In The Wild Swans at Coole, William Butler Yeats produced the second in the series of volumes of poetry on which any serious evaluation of his reputation must be based. Critical opinions differ as to the extent and regularity of this series. It has its origins, however, in Responsibilities (1914), Responsibilities (Yeats) the book of Yeats’s poetry that immediately preceded The Wild Swans at Coole. The shift of emphasis in Responsibilities constituted a watershed in the development of Yeats’s comprehension and acceptance of his poetic and personal preoccupations. The Wild Swans at Coole consolidated and extended this new phase, which was characterized by increased candor, a more spare poetical style, a greater formal sophistication, and a more explicitly philosophical dimension. Wild Swans at Coole, The (Yeats) Poetry;The Wild Swans at Coole (Yeats)[Wild Swans at Coole] [kw]Yeats Publishes The Wild Swans at Coole (1917) [kw]Publishes The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats (1917) [kw]Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats Publishes The (1917) [kw]Yeats Publishes The Wild Swans at Coole (1917) Wild Swans at Coole, The (Yeats) Poetry;The Wild Swans at Coole (Yeats)[Wild Swans at Coole] [g]Ireland;1917: Yeats Publishes The Wild Swans at Coole[04140] [c]Literature;1917: Yeats Publishes The Wild Swans at Coole[04140] Yeats, William Butler Gregory, Lady Augusta Gonne, Maud

Yeats’s effective revaluation of his imaginative origins in late Romantic verse is confirmed by the sheer range of The Wild Swans at Coole and the poet’s command of this range. If Yeats’s career as a whole is characterized by his ability to remake continually his poetic presence while at the same time preserving that presence’s continuity, this ability is nowhere more in evidence than in the variety of work in The Wild Swans at Coole.

William Butler Yeats.

(Library of Congress)

A large number of the changes in tone and subject matter in Yeats’s verse from Responsibilities to the end of his career may be classified under the general heading of “realism.” In the context, this term attains a somewhat specialized meaning, given that Yeats did not by any means forgo the passionate, visionary energy that he derived from reading such English Romantic poets as William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. In addition to identifying sources of this energy in his own imagination, however, Yeats began to develop a critical sense of its power. This sense led him, on one hand, to develop an elaborate codification of this visionary power’s substance and usefulness, an ambition that receives expression in the complex and daunting poem “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes,” "Double Vision of Michael Robartes, The" (Yeats)[Double Vision of Michael Robartes] with which The Wild Swans at Coole concludes.

On the other hand, Yeats intensified the expression of his awareness that ideals are both necessary and virtually impossible to attain. It is in his increasingly painful awareness of the latter fact of life that a realistic quality may be said to enter the verse. This quality gives the verse a greater dialectical impetus and sets forth more clearly than ever the poet’s emotional and psychological engagement with the antithetical nature of human existence and his impassioned articulation of that engagement.

The effect of the realistic component on Yeats’s verse can readily be appreciated through an account of the title poem of The Wild Swans at Coole. It is clear from the poem’s title that the poet’s realistic tendencies are not merely confined to matters of theme and tone, even if their expression has its most significant impact in those two areas. The poem itself, however, has the real-life setting of the Coole Park estate of Yeats’s friend and patron Lady Augusta Gregory, a notable dramatist and author in her own right as well as the single most important material contributor to both Yeats’s career as a poet and his career as a public man of letters. Coole Park, then, is specifically at odds with the largely mythological landscapes, drawn largely from Irish mythological literature, in which Yeats initially attempted to secure his poetic identity. The scenic effects, including the swans, also faithfully reflect Coole Park, and the walk that is the poem’s ostensible occasion is based on Yeats’s familiarity with the park’s grounds.

In addition, the poet delves into his own past in order to address the poem’s subject, illustrating from his own experience the interest and urgency of the poem’s ultimately abstract considerations. As though to underwrite the documentary character of this material, the poem proceeds in a meditative tone, the principal inspiration of which is human speech. The reflective, confiding, deliberate tone brings the reader into intimate association with the poet’s thought, yet at the same time Yeats retains his sense of large questions. For all the poem’s occasional character and almost conversational tone, it finally addresses issues that, however intensely they preoccupy the poet, cannot be of concern only to him. Matters of youth and age, the effects of time, an awareness of transience in the presence of permanence, and the recollection of human emotional uncertainty in the light of the swans’ embodiment of fidelity both define the scope of Yeats’s personal experience and give a sense of the representative nature of experience.

This strategy of drawing on the emblematic potential of his own and others’ experience underlies many of the most important poems in The Wild Swans at Coole. The collection’s notable elegies—and the fact that it is in this collection that Yeats adds the important new form of the elegy to his artistic repertoire—are perhaps the most obvious demonstration of the strategy in operation. In addition, however, Yeats continues to address with increasing candor the complexities of his emotional life.

It might be thought that the poet is, in effect, elegizing his emotional life in the title poem. If he is, other poems reveal some of the reasons this may be the case. The collection registers the emotional impact of the loss of such beloved friends as Robert Gregory Gregory, Robert (Lady Gregory’s only son, whose death in action during World War I informs the background of three poems in the volume, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory" (Yeats)[In Memory of Major Robert Gregory] “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” "Irish Airman Foresees His Death, An" (Yeats)[Irish Airman Foresees His Death] and “Shepherd and Goatherd”) and Mabel Beardsley (sister of the English artist Aubrey Beardsley), whose passing is the subject of the sequence “Upon a Dying Lady.” Yeats also confronts once more what was arguably his greatest source of emotional conflict, his relationship with Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne.

The presence of Maud Gonne in Yeats’s poetry continues to be paradoxically inspirational. Out of his personal distress at her rejection of his love comes poetry that, in a typical Yeatsian maneuver, hymns the unattainable. The poet’s sense of his beloved’s vital personality and his complicated attitude toward the thoughts and causes that animate her are debated again in such poems as “The People” and “His Phoenix,” to mention the most notable instances. Yeats’s attitude toward Gonne is further complicated by the brief, although prominent, presence in his life of her daughter, Iseult, to whom he confides in “The Living Beauty,” “To a Young Beauty,” and “To a Young Girl.”

It would be facile and simplistic to suggest that the personal turbulence that underlies much of The Wild Swans at Coole is the reason the volume closes with complex poems such as “The Phases of the Moon” and “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes,” which attempt to map in verse the poet’s private philosophical system of reconciliation and stability. The presence of these poems at the conclusion of the volume, however, offers an additional, and significantly impersonal, lens through which the human issues and the idealizing mind that addresses them may be retrospectively assessed and appreciated.


The impact of The Wild Swans at Coole can be assessed from a number of different standpoints, including that of contemporary Irish culture, in the formation and direction of which Yeats continued to play an active and increasingly critical role. The volume’s impact can also be evaluated from the standpoint of the development of poetry that would articulate the tensions of the modern age. In addition, the volume announced in clear form the interest in intellectual and philosophical synthesis that the poet would continue to address urgently, in poetry and prose, until his death in 1939.

Fresh technical considerations of language and form also arise from The Wild Swans at Coole and constitute the area where the reader of Yeats will most vividly encounter both the volume’s continuity with Yeats’s earlier work and new developments within the prosodic continuum of Yeats’s poetic achievement as a whole. These considerations find a focus in the flexibility and range of voice that the volume possesses and in the increasing confidence with which the poet deploys the discursive person of his mature verse. Noteworthy examples of the resourcefulness, ease, and control of the vocal component of Yeats’s compositional technique may be found in the volume’s title poem and in the long opening sentence of “The Fisherman.” "Fisherman, The" (Yeats)[Fisherman]

It is to “The Fisherman,” also, that the reader initially must turn to acquire a sense of Yeats’s developing conception of Irish culture in The Wild Swans at Coole. The poem draws on some staple elements in the poet’s imaginative repertory: the western Ireland location of Coole Park, the peasant cloth from which the clothes of the fisherman are made, and the figure’s solitariness and his association with nature. Yet the poet’s deliberately iconographic intention with regard to the figure, the elevation of the fisherman above the concerns of the mean-spirited and opportunistic vulgarity of cultural politics in “the town,” and the frank avowal of the figure’s visionary character give the poem an ideological weight that is much more covert in Yeats’s earlier work.

Similarly, the poems about Robert Gregory do not merely articulate the burden of their unhappy occasion but also use that occasion as a pretext to strike a triumphal note. The qualities of Gregory’s life and character are preserved by the poems, so that the subject is turned into a repository of enduring values. According to “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” the most important of the three Gregory elegies, these values are best appreciated in a cultural context. For that reason, Yeats devotes the poem’s opening verses to the creation of a pantheon of artistic friends in whose company Gregory properly belongs—despite the meager record of Gregory’s actual artistic achievements.

The poem’s emphasis on the force of personality, an emphasis underlined in the conception of the heroic embodied by Gregory in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” is additionally noteworthy for occurring in a volume of poems in which the development of Yeats’s own poetic personality is a striking feature. Moreover, as though to confirm that his concern is for the exemplary power of the individual value rather than for the context that throws that power into tragic relief, Yeats includes the brief, occasional, but telling “On Being Asked for a War Poem.” "On Being Asked for a War Poem" (Yeats)[On Being Asked for a War Poem] Rather than offer Robert Gregory as a martyr for any of the causes for which the conflict that took his life was being fought (and which were dear to many Irishmen of Gregory’s class), Yeats re-creates Gregory in the name of a different dispensation. Yeats installs his hero in cultural, rather than military, history, rendering him representative of a specifically aristocratic tradition, a tradition that Yeats long admired and sought to persuade the Irish people to retain.

The response to the unprecedented conditions and consequences of World War I in terms of projecting codes and emblems of physical mastery and spiritual passion is not unique to Yeats, but his rehearsal of such a projection by his recuperation of the hero type, and by his formally locating that type in a volume of poems that is otherwise rather disquieted by life’s painful transitions and imperfections, sounds a distinctly modern—and modernist—note. Younger poets, particularly Ezra Pound (who was Yeats’s secretary during the period when some of the poems in The Wild Swans at Coole were written), had their sense of the dislocation of historical continuity and cultural tradition endorsed by Yeats’s evolving vision.

The philosophical idiolect that Yeats produced as the underpinning of this vision, and that is invoked in the poems that conclude The Wild Swans at Coole, may have proved too idiosyncratic to have any permanent influence on the younger generation of poets. Nevertheless, the reformulations of tradition and the revaluations of the European literary heritage that became a persistent preoccupation of Pound and of T. S. Eliot may be seen to have been encouraged by Yeats’s example. From both an international and an Irish perspective, therefore, as well as from the standpoint of Yeats’s own poetic development, The Wild Swans at Coole is a landmark publication. Wild Swans at Coole, The (Yeats) Poetry;The Wild Swans at Coole (Yeats)[Wild Swans at Coole]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradford, Curtis. Yeats at Work. Abridged. New York: Ecco Press, 1978. Study bases its account of Yeats’s methods of composition on comparisons of various manuscript versions of a selection of his poems. “The Wild Swans at Coole” is one of the poems selected for discussion, and various drafts of it are reprinted.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donoghue, Denis. Yeats. London: Fontana, 1971. One of the best single brief surveys of the subject. The author is the leading Irish literary critic of his generation. Clearly presents Yeats’s life, work, and thought in their many complex interrelations. The study’s unifying argument is based on an interpretation of Yeats’s conception of power. Contains a useful chronology and succinct bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. 1948. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1999. The first biography to make use of unrestricted access to Yeats’s posthumous papers. Adopts the poet’s doctrine of the mask as a biographical trope, so that the dialectic between Yeats’s life and work is fully recounted. One of the most satisfactory biographical treatments of Yeats available.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jeffares, A. Norman. A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats. London: Macmillan, 1984. Comprehensive annotations of each of Yeats’s poems and other very helpful scholarly material. An indispensable student’s guide.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. W. B. Yeats. London: Hutchinson, 1988. A reworking of this noted Yeats scholar’s earlier biographical studies of the poet. Makes extensive use of Yeats’s unpublished papers to provide some new information in a work that combines scholarship with general reader accessibility.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. W. B. Yeats: A New Biography. Rev. ed. New York: Continuum, 2001. Rewrite of the author’s 1949 book W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet makes use of material that has become available in the intervening years. Provides an introduction to Yeats’s life for the general reader. Includes photographs and drawings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longenbach, James. Stone Cottage: Yeats, Pound, and Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. A detailed study of the artistic and personal relationship between two of modernism’s major figures. Covers the period when a number of the poems in The Wild Swans at Coole were composed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitaker, Thomas. Swan and Shadow: Yeats’s Dialogue with History. 1964. Reprint. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989. A sophisticated and comprehensive analysis of one of the key areas of Yeats’s imagination. Addresses the poet’s visionary sense of history in particular.

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