Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
- The poem opens by describing a scene. It is autumn, and the trees look beautiful.
- The paths in the woods are dry. Hmm. Does this just mean they aren't wet? Or does "dry" indicate something else? We wonder if this idea of dryness, a condition in which things don't grow, will continue in the poem. But how will we ever find out? Oh yeah, keep reading…
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
- The speaker describes the scene in more detail. It is not just autumn in general, it is October, and it is "twilight." As hard as it might be to believe, twilight, guys, is not just some romantic vampire movie. It also happens to be that time of day right after the sun goes down, but before it gets totally dark. We wonder if there's anything significant to this time of day, just before the sun goes away and darkness falls.
- The phrase "mirrors a still sky" can mean two different things. On the one hand, it could mean the water reflects the sky, like a mirror (on really clear nights, when the moon is shining, you can see the sky reflected off a lake).
- It could also mean the lake "mirrors" the sky in the sense of "does the same thing as" or "resembles." In this reading, the water "mirrors" the sky because it, too, is still.
- Near Coole Parke (a place in Ireland where Yeats spent a lot of time (see "In a Nutshell" for more), there are lots of turloughs—seasonal or "disappearing" lakes that are almost exclusively found in Ireland. It is likely that our speaker has one of these in mind.
- To sum up here: we have a very still setting, close to the end of the day. Significant? Let's read on!
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.
- Count 'em! We've got fifty-nine swans out on that lake.
- Man, that's a specific, and big, number. Most folks would have stopped counting at around 12. This speaker sure is focused on those swans.
- "Brimming" means nearly overflowing. The water appears to be higher than usual, which seems to contradict those "dry" paths we read about back in line 2.
- What gives? We wonder if more contradictions are coming.
- Finally: fifty-nine swans. Huh. That's kind of a random number, isn't it? Wouldn't sixty be better? The unevenness of the number makes us think that, perhaps, one of the swans is missing.