Poetry Friday: Autumn 2014

The best time of year is back—I cannot speak for where you live, but here in Chicagoland it was a glorious day, sun and light breezes, warm in the light but never oppressive, a day that makes you feel like yourself and at ease in your own skin. Each autumn’s arrival leads me to dig for a poem that captures some aspect of this wonderfully changeable season, and there are so many sides to the fall, rain-drenched and sun-dappled, drearily stormy and boldly colorful, etc., that I will probably never run out of angles to take. For whatever reason, this afternoon I feel like revisiting Poetry Friday’s most frequent poet, a man who (judging from the reactions I got) I perhaps didn’t treat totally fairly last time out. That’s right, it’s time for the Irish bard, William Butler Yeats, to sing us into autumn with his famous poem from 1919, “The Wild Swans at Coole”:

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.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Yeats knows his way around a poetic phrase—there are better opening lines, I’ll admit, than “The trees are in their autumn beauty”, but man, there aren’t many, are there?  In those first four lines, collectively, he captures something of the cold evening air and the loveliness of a woodland path at this time of year that is almost magical—I see and feel so much more than he literally says if I just grab onto the literal meaning of each word.  He knows how to weave a spell, or least for me, he does.  The specificity of his counting—59 swans, 19 autumns—is a little jarring for me, though.  Maybe he’s playing with numerology, or perhaps just being really literal and observant.  Either way, I guess I could do without it.

But the agonizing beauty of the swans is real, as Yeats captures that tug that C. S. Lewis describes feeling when he read Norse myths as a boy.  It’s the call of something numinous: Lewis capitalizes it as Joy, but of course Yeats may have called it something else.  I love his attention to the senses—the clamor of their wings, the “broken rings” of their wheeling flight—and his simultaneous attention inwardly to the condition of his own heart, and his sense that everything changed with that first “bell-beat of their wings”.  Just what it is that changes him, we don’t know.  Yeats himself, I think, could hardly say.  He only knows that sometimes you see something so wondrous, so soul-stirring and spell-binding, that you never get over it.  And nature, in all its slime and strangeness, all its “red in tooth and claw”, has the capacity to dazzle and delight us more than almost anything that’s human.

Which of course leads to that powerful, moving fourth stanza in which the swans take on unearthly and marvelous qualities—they are “unwearied still” as though they were angels circling in Heaven, they move in concert by water and air like dancers, like lovers, ageless in heart and so self-assured that to Yeats they seem like the earth’s conquerors, above all this mortal striving.  He cannot imagine where they will next go, or what they will accomplish while his back is turned.  He is caught by their loveliness like a fly in amber, and the poem leaves with him still there, transfixed and adoring, his eyes on the swans as they move to and fro.

Autumn will not do this to us at every turn; for this, we can be thankful, since we could hardly get to the grocery store if every pinecone caught us in its spell.  But I am grateful for Yeats’s exuberance and his honesty—this kind of beauty is there for us if we will look, and Yeats helps us look by attending so carefully and in such detail to the simplicity of a gathering of birds in a forest pool.  I hope the fall’s arrival brings such moments with it for each of us, and that, sometime between now and the day when frost strips the trees of their last leaves, we can each find a moment that enthralls and haunts us with its beauty as much as W. B. Yeats was haunted, for the rest of his days, by the wild swans of Coole Park.

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