Ready for a vacation? Well, here's a suggestion:
About 130 miles from Dublin is a place called Coole Park. It now belongs to the government (it's kind of like a national park), but it used to belong to a woman named Lady Gregory, who was a close friend of many important Irish writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Her group of friends and admirers included a number of authors associated with the Irish Literary Revival (you can read a small blurb about it here), such as George Bernard Shaw, Edward Martyn, and, you guessed it, one William Butler Yeats. Yeats used to visit Lady Gregory at Coole Park every year (just as he says in this poem). Coole Park made such an impression on Yeats that he wrote a poem called "The Wild Swans at Coole" and even gave the book in which it was published (in 1917) the same title.
Coole Park was, and is, a very beautiful place, the kind of place you wish you could visit everywhere or the place where you wish you could retire. There are a lot of turloughs in the area (so-called "disappearing," or seasonal, lakes that are found almost exclusively in Ireland) and, apparently, a bunch of swans. Yeats mentions all these things in this poem, and yet we can't help but feel he is ill at ease, that something is the matter.
The swans never change (Yeats uses the word "still" several times), but, sadly, Yeats cannot help but acknowledge that he himself has changed. His heart is more "sore" than it used to be. He's getting older (he was about 52 when he wrote the poem), and he's not as carefree as he used to be. (We're also guessing that he can't benchpress what he used to, either.) Lots of things can change over the course of twenty years, and it can be very hard to accept that fact that, as we get older, we become more conscious of pain, death, sadness, and change—it makes us "sore" and weary.
It is not just Yeats who has changed, however, but also the world around him. Yeats wrote the poem toward the end of World War I (often called The Great War), a conflict that claimed tens of millions of lives and forever altered the psyche of Europe. It is difficult for us, now, to imagine how horrible World War I was and how much it affected those who lived through it. To say it made people "sore," or weary, is putting it lightly.
Lady Gregory (Yeats' friend and the owner of Coole Park, who lost her son in World War I) claims that "The Wild Swans at Coole" is partly about Major Robert Gregory's (Lady Gregory's son) absence. Bummer. That might explain why there are only 59 swans at Coole Park, since it is easy to think that one is missing, that there should be 60. In fact, the very next poem in the book The Wild Swans at Coole is called "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory," a fact that alerts us to one of Yeats' primary concerns in the poem: the effects of war and change, not just on himself, but on others around him as well.
Even if you're only fifteen years old, you've probably had at least a few moments in your life where you wished you were eleven again, or eight, or any age but fifteen. Hey, don't sweat it. There are many reasons why we often wish we were younger. As we get older, we become more conscious of the fact that, someday, we're going to die. We're more conscious of the fact that the world can be a pretty horrible place (the Holocaust, war, bad break-ups all come to mind). Basically, we're more conscious of the fact that we will never be as carefree and happy-go-lucky as we were when we were children.
As we get older, it seems like this feeling only gets more intense. We just don't like the fact that our hair starts to go grey, or that our knees hurt just a little more when we get out of bed in the morning, or that we can't run as fast as we could when we were younger. The bottom line is that getting old is kind of a serious downer, as is our awareness of the fact that, as we are getting older, we're also growing more aware of all the pains and frustrations that are just a part of life.
This is exactly what W.B. Yeats's "The Wild Swans at Coole" is all about. It's about the painful process of realizing that things change as we grow older, and that they will never be the same. It's about how we feel "sore" both physically (as in "my knees hurt") and emotionally ("it breaks my heart that we have wars and death").
Still, dry those eyes. guys. If the poem seems a bit depressing, there is at least some hope. The speaker focuses on the swans because they, for him, are initially a sign of permanence, an emblem for something that appears to stay the same. Even though the swans end up just reminding him that he has changed a lot (he's older; World War I has trashed Europe; his friend Lady Gregory's son is dead; he's more "sore" than he used to be), for a brief moment the swans represent something beautiful that he can hold onto.
And sometimes, in life, that's all we need. We need to find things that we love, things that make us appreciate what the world has to offer, even if these things only remind us that along with lots of pain and heartbreak, there are things to be grateful for. In a way, that's exactly what this poem does for us—reminding us to find the beauty in life, however fleeting—and why you should dig it entirely.