21 February 2012
Poetic Swans: Five Days of the Cygnus
Today will be a single representation of swans in literature, a poem by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, swans had a place in Irish folklore, so it's interesting to see how Yeats (1865-1939) played with a traditional motif in a modern era.
A couple of features to consider in here: Yeats mentions "nine-and-fifty swans." It's entirely conceivable that Yeats actually witnessed this -- and that he counted out these swans -- and it's also possible that the group of swans reflects back on the traditional folk tales that see symbolism in a large group of swans hovering over a lake as evening arrives. In the story of Swan Lake, the swans descend in a flock on a lake at twilight. (Depending on the size of the ballet company, this may be 24, 32, or even more dancers.)
Here I've added two different versions of this scene:
(I actually hate the costuming of the Royal Ballet's production, but I like the way the dancers actually appear to be flying when they arrive on stage.)
Paris Opera Ballet
Also, I should note that there is a slight connection between the Irish folk story and what is going on in Swan Lake. In the ballet, Odette and her ladies are turned into swans by a cruel magician. In Irish folklore, there is a story in "The Children of Lir" about a stepmother who turns her stepchildren into swans for 900 years. I think the suggestion within the poem is that the swans seem to be rather mystical creatures. They could, of course, just be swans that descended upon the same lake at twilight; they could also something else -- something mysterious, something magical. Something more than swans.
"The Wild Swans at Coole"
William Butler Yeats
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,
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?
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1989