Wednesday 13 November 2013

The Full Yeats

I was in Kensington Gardens just now, admiring the autumn beauty of the tulip trees, when a small flock of swans flew over, low and loud... How often does that happen - the full Yeats: Autumn beauty and clamorous bell-beat?

The Wild Swans at Coole

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?


  1. John Williams, whose novel Stoner has experienced quite a vogue over the last several years, once told me that this poem meant more to him as the years went on.

    Williams was a professor of English at the University of Denver. I never took his class, but one day he looked in at the Friday Stammtisch two or three of the younger philosophy professors held at the Stadium Inn, and I talked with him for half an hour or so. I wish I could remember more of what he had to say, but beyond the praise for Yeats I remember only that the thought poorly of Wyndham Lewis as writer and painter.

    When it comes to Yeatsian swans, I prefer the one in "1919", but still there are stretches of lines here that stick in the memory.

  2. Fascinating, that's good to know - clearly Williams was a man of sound taste too... Thanks George