This was one of the three poems that changed the course of my life. That sounds rather dramatic, but it’s true. We “Did” Yeats for A-level and I was blessed with one of those teachers whose capacity to inspire you feel at the time without really realising what’s going on. Without Stevie I don’t know if I would have “got” literature and followed it as student, teacher, writer, throughout my life. So this is a very important poem for me. Here it is: ‘The Wild Swans at Coole‘ by Yeats.*
So it must have been in 1984 when first I read this poem. Its opening lines have rung in my head every autumn since. As you will imagine, I don’t remember having any conscious understanding of the melancholy in this poem—hardly surprising, given that I was 16 and had no felt awareness yet of the workings of time and the strange and painful ways in which “all can change” over the course of a life. All was still ahead for me; not the case for for the speaker in the poem. What I do remember is that I felt something, and powerfully; and that it was a magical thing to experience for the first time the way poetry can wake pictures in your head—speak to your heart without you necessarily knowing how, or what is being said.
And it’s the perfection of image and rhythm which blow me away still: Yeats’ unobtrusive mastery of pace and punctuation, endstopping and enjambement; the way the simple abcbdd rhyme scheme allows the tiny jolts of new sounds to alternative with the soft chime of the rhymes; this perfect unity of form and content… I cannot but rhapsodise over this poem. ‘Brimming water’; ‘scatter wheeling in great broken rings/ Upon their clamorous wings’; ‘bell-beat of their wings’; ‘climb the air’: I start trying to pick out bits to talk about and end up with the whole poem pasted on my clipboard. I just get drunk on its beauty.
And in fact I’m not going to try to say anything at all. Instead I invite you to be intoxicated by it, too. To help with that, I’ve picked out this this reading. Having trawled through quite a few of them, I chose this one because it feels like it’s done by someone else who simply loves the poem. I love the light in her face as she reads, and the way she reads slowly, giving the poem the “room” it needs to seed in you. To grow.
… and I leave you with a question: was there a single poem, or poet, who “did it for you” as ‘Wild Swans’ did for me? I’d love to know.
*The other two were ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘No Second Troy’.