Swan Song

Though we did not visit any locations in Ireland for this week’s diary, our imaginations were given free range to wander through many of the different poems written by William Butler Yeats. One of the ways in which Yeats has explained the imagery and thinking in his poetry is the concept of the double gyre, two cones that overlap and face opposite directions with the apex of one cone facing towards the base of the other cone. In addition to facing opposite directions the two cones are made up of spirals that revolve in opposite directions. Yeats saw this image as central to the workings of life and it may have represented his own version of the yin and yang symbol as he was also heavily interested in many different religions.

Two poems that may represent the opposing gyres are “The Wild Swans at Coole” (1919) and “Leda and the Swan” (1924). Both these poems revolve around the swan and each have opposing elements that the swan represents. In “The Wild Swans at Coole” Yeats is writing from his own perspective in reality at Coole Park, home to Lady Gregory who cofounded the Abbey Theater with Yeats. Here Yeats is observing the beauty of a bevy of swans as they glide across the water or begin to take flight. The pace of the poem feels slowed as Yeats takes a moment to describe the lake, sky, and trees all around him. The swan represents nature, reality, and the beauty of peace. In “Leda and the Swan” Yeats is writing from the perspective of Greek mythology in which Zeus has disguised himself as a swan to lay with Leda. Yeats describes the scene as Zeus flaps his powerful wings over the helpless Leda and all around them there is death, war, and destruction. The pace of the poem feels rushed as if the narrator wishes not to be at the scene. Here the swan represents humanity, myth, and the ugliness of war.

In these two poems Yeats places the swan at the center of his double gyre figure and uses the two poems to contrast opposite ends of the spectrum. Nature and humanity. Myth and reality. Ugliness and beauty. Peace and war.

1 Comment

  1. I think it’s really interesting how you connected both poems via the swan imagery! That you would choose to compare two poems while discussing duality is also very apt, and I really enjoyed the two ways you interpreted how the swans functioned in each poem. I think it’s additionally important to note that the double gyre is technically a single figure. Similarly, even though we get two contrasting attitudes from the swans, they still occupy the same poetic universe–Yeats’s body of work.

    I was reminded of an image from Yeats’s online exhibit in the online National Library of Ireland–the tarot card for the two of pentacles. The art used to represent this card was two separate but identical pentacles held within the curves of an S. Though it lacks the clear overlap of the double gyre, the image could be another way of observing the doubled swans cradled within the same spread of literature.

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