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Themes

While "The Wild Swans at Coole" doesn't seem to be about death in any obvious way, there are plenty of words and references that make us think of death and endings. The speaker imagines the swans leaving at the end of the poem (an act of abandonment that can be seen as a form of death) and he also speaks of a certain period of his life that is over—dead and gone, buh-bye now. On the biographical and historical tips, it is difficult not to think of World War I while reading this poem, a war that claimed tens of millions of lives (including Yeats' friend Major Robert Gregory) and destroyed Europe's innocence.

Questions About Death

  1. Is the speaker of the poem afraid of losing his energy in old age, or is he more afraid of death? Why do you think so?
  2. Will the swans' leaving mean that the speaker will soon die? Why or why not?
  3. How do the swans distract the speaker from the reality of death?
  4. If the speaker thought of himself as more a part of the natural world of the swans (as opposed to an observer of it), might he be as afraid of death? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The swans are merely a distraction, nothing more. They're just something for the speaker to look at so that he doesn't have to think about the inevitability of death. Good luck with that, buddy.

The speaker emphasizes things associated with endings—like twilight (end of the day) and autumn (end of the year)—so he can avoid talking about his own death and the death of others (like Major Robert Gregory).

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