Auditory Imagination in Yeats’ ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ (stanza 1).

‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ begins

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.

I’ve loved it since school days, when I used to carry Norman Jeffares’ Selected Poetry by Yeats around with me and read it repeatedly. I can’t remember just what I liked about this particular poem then but my feeling for it now crystallises around the beauty of its sound, especially in this first stanza, and around the strange way some of its words and phrases seem to be penetrated by the actual being of the things they refer to. I take it that that impression too somehow arises out of its metrical, phonetic and shaping.

The basic pattern of the poem involves the not uncommon device of alternating between longer and shorter lines but I think we get closer to its peculiar magic by seeing how there’s also a constant shifting between clear-cut, definite rhythmic or auditory effects and hazier, more imprecise ones, and between rising and falling metres. The poem starts in a bold, clear-cut, assertive way with a regular iambic pulsation that suddenly dissolves at the end of the first line. In terms of traditional metrics, you could read it as an incomplete iambic pentameter ending in a silent stress – which is how it strikes me – or as a tetrameter ending in an amphibrach. Line two returns to a regular iambic pulsation but in line three there’s an abrupt shift from a rising iambic to a falling trochaic metrical base, sustained for four feet before it reverses itself again. And what happens next seems different according to how much or little attention you give to the line ending between line three and line four. If you just look at line three, it ends on an amphibrach, echoing or metrically rhyming with the end of line one.  If you look at line four on its own, it’s a line of trochees, repeating the pattern of the first four feet of line three but omitting the final unstressed syllable. However, if you take lines three and four together, line four continues the iambic pulsation that started with ‘the water’. My own head swims when I imagine reading that analysis and trying to hold the line numbers in my mind, but what I’m trying to bring into focus is the wonder of the way Yeats creates effects that combine the impression of an underlying continuity with one of superficial instability and fluctuation.

This matters because it is so brilliantly and delicately expressive in different ways. On one level, such effects give a kind of synaesthetic body to our imagining of the water in the lake. That broad underlying impression is suddenly and very specifically sharpened at the end of line four, where we’re made to feel the stillness of the sky and its image in the lake in several ways. Metrically, the spondee ‘still sky’ holds us up, creating a pause between the stresses, so that we take the sense of the lake’s and the sky’s stillness into our own bodies. ‘Still’ and ‘sky’ also mirror each other, both metrically (they’re both stressed) and phonetically (they alliterate with each other). The embodying of stillness is continued in the way the immediately following line end pause is strengthened by its coincidence with a syntactical change of direction and therefore the syntactical pause indicated by the semicolon. More elusively, it seems to me that the shifting between more and less definite effects, both metrically and in terms of rhyme, is a faint auditory echo of the way the imagined scene itself combines solid and fluid elements. The firmness of some effects emphasises the fluidity of others. I think it’s partly this embodying of fluidity that gives its peculiar force to the word ‘brimming’ when it arrives in line 5 (the sudden shift from finite verbs to a present participle seems to have something to do with it too). But of course I don’t want to turn everything into mere representation. I think there’s a sheer intrinsic delight in the way the poem dances between regularity and irregularity, fulfilled expectation and surprise – for example, in the swerve from the full rhyming of ‘dry’ and ‘sky’ to the approximation of ‘stones’ and ‘swans’.

All this just scratches the surface, of course. A hugely important but by me inexpressible effect of the poem’s rhythms, its strong affirmations and hesitations and sudden touches of haziness, is the way it suggests the shifting pulsations of the speaker’s feelings as he surveys the scene, and even, I would say, seems in touch with the palimpsest of semiconscious emotions underlying what he is able to give definition to at any particular point.



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