Vision of Birds: A Comparative Study of Yeats’s Swans and Hughes’s Hawk

Krishnendu Das Gupta, Asansol Chelidanga High School (H.S.), Asansol

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A close look into the poems “The Wild Swans at Coole” from the volume bearing the same name and “The Hawk in the Rain”, from The Hawk in the Rain reveals a similarity — the persona watching birds; in the case of Yeats a flock of swans swimming and in the case of Hughes a lonely hawk soaring in the sky. The poems reveal some sort of turmoil that both the personae encounter in their own way. The settings of the poems are strikingly different; Yeats’s persona, who is undoubtedly the poet himself, is in the placid surroundings of Coole Park, while the man in “The Hawk in the Rain” is out in the midst of wild Nature trying to fend off the torrential rain and storm.

The period between 1917 and 1919 when the title poem of the volume The Wild Swans at Coole was written and again reorganized, was a significant period in Yeats’s life. The political turmoil in the country owing to the 1916 uprising, the turning down of Yeats’s proposal by Iseult Gonne following his years of failed courtship with Iseult’s mother, Maud and his realisation that the autumns of his life were fast fleeting away had so shaped his mental state that the vision of the swans evoked strangely a state of despair and solace at the same time. The very opening stanza brings out the image of timelessness and eternity through the lines: “Mirrors a still sky; / Upon the brimming water . . . .” (Yeats 64). And within this timeless eternity are placed the “nine-and-fifty swans.” (Yeats 64). Yeats who had great knowledge about the Irish and Celtic myths deliberately preferred the antique Middle English way of counting in order to give a mythic shape to his vision of the swans. Anybody well acquainted with the Irish ballads and folk literature would be able to trace the link of the fifty-nine swans to the fifty-nine silver bells hanging on the side of the Queen of Elfland’s horse[1] in the popular Irish Ballad “Thomas Rymer and the Queen of Elfland”. Through this deliberate attempt the poet possibly equated the persona with Rymer and the swans with the Queen of Elfland. It is an attempt to reach a mental solace on the part of the poet, very much like the escapist traits of the Romantics to remain oblivious of the present state, an aging poet torn by personal and social problems. Like Thomas Rymer’s flight to the immortal world of the Queen of Elfland, it is the wishful thinking of the persona to be carried off to the ever immutable world of the world of the happy swans. But like Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale”, who could not forget his forlorn state inspite of his sojourn into the fanciful world of the nightingale, the persona here as he mentions the fifty-nine swans is immediately reminded: “The nineteenth autumn has come upon me / Since I first made my count;” (Yeats 64). He is aging, his “Decrepit age” is being tied to him “As to a dog’s tail” (Yeats 105). He knows that there is no escape from the flux of time and that is why before the count is “well finished / All suddenly mount / And scatter wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clamorous wings.” (Yeats 64). The three words with negative connotations “scatter”, “broken”, “clamorous” have fore grounded the state of suffering in his life. This state is not only due to his awareness of the axe of time, but is more intensely due to his state of loneliness resulting from his failed relationship. Stéphanie Noirard comparing the poet’s state with the loneliness and isolation of the Lady in Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot points out that “it is no coincidence that the persona should see “nine-and-fifty” — as opposed to fifty-eight — swans and that the reality he experiences after they have scatter[red] wheeling in great broken rings” should make his heart feel “sore.””[2] The hint is clear enough, the fifty-ninth swan is lonely, and therefore is never a party to the other swans in pair and be “Unwearied still, lover by lover”. (Yeats 64).

The stanzaic ordering of the 1917 version was different from the present one. The third stanza was the last stanza in the 1917 version and through that he presented a defeated image of himself. The expression “Unwearied” state of the swans betrays the subjective condition of the persona revealing his wearied broken down state. The swans paddle in the “cold” water with ease. The word “cold” again carries a negative connotation and it rings in the reader’s ears reminding him of the cold, loveless, aging state of the poet. “Their hearts have not grown old”, obviously tunes the readers’ mind to that recurrent image in Yeatsean poetry — the image of the poet aging poet. In this poem through the line “The nineteenth autumn has come upon me”, and in others, as in “Sailing to Byzantium”, “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal” (Yeats 105), or perhaps the most forceful of such images, “Decrepit age that has been tied to me / As to a dog’s tail” (“The Tower”), the poet is time and again surfacing his same aversion for his growing age and in contrast his passion for eternity of which he cannot be a part. The image of the golden nightingale that the poet created much later in “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927) is a step towards that eternity. The swans however in this poem serve a better option than his latter creation. By reordering the stanzas, the poet had accepted one thing that it is not important whether he remains immortal or not as he tried to do later, through the tour-de-force of the clockwork golden nightingale singing forever to the Byzantine people, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come” (Yeats 105), what is important is that love becomes immortal, love becomes universal. The flesh and blood life of the poet or that of a particular swan is immaterial. The swans in the last stanza become beautiful with the mysticism of love. So these love birds would forever continue to “Delight men’s eyes” (Yeats 64) wherever and however they may be. The broadening of the poet’s mental spectrum, the personal becoming transpersonal overcoming his personal sorrow is a new realisation, a transcendence which has taken the poem to a higher level.

Unlike Yeats, the poetic background of Ted Hughes was not marked with social, political or personal problems, at least when he wrote his first volume The Hawk in the Rain. Hughes from a very early stage in his life was greatly influenced by Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, a book believed to have shaped his understanding regarding the pervading presence of a Mother element, manifested as Nature. However it would be better to see Graves’s book just as an inspiration because Hughes was spiritually inclined to feel the presence of the Goddess even before reading Graves’s book. Hughes’s “Song” written two years before his reading of Graves’s book was a hymn to Muse Goddess. In fact while reading The White Goddess for the first time he felt, as he wrote in a letter to Nick Gammage, “slight resentment to find [Graves] taking possession of what I considered to be my secret patch.”[3]

It is of important to know what shape the realisation of Nature had taken in Hughes’s mind. This would help in understanding the relationship of the soaring hawk and the persona referred to as “I” in “The Hawk in the Rain”. In “The Wild Swans at Coole” the “paddling” swans and the persona in accordance with the romantic tradition share a personal relationship. The swans become the spur for all the feelings of the poet. But the hawk flying and the man in the field at no level share any personal relationship with the poet. As in Yeats, the man here too watches the hawk. The hawk is the epitome of perfection, “Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye. / His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet, / Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.” (Hughes 11). The man on the other hand flounders as one drowning in the sea, “completely overwhelmed by the elements.”[4] The earth where the persona is standing is like a “dogged grave” (Hughes 11) and he is nothing more than a “Morsel in the earth’s mouth” (Hughes 11), counting his last. In comparison to the helpless state of existence of the persona, the hawk whose “diamond point of will” (Hughes 11) is as steady as the polestar and who can hang still at “the master- / Fulcrum of violence” (Hughes 11) is symbolically at a level much higher than the struggling weather beaten man. Keith Sagar remarks as he opens his discussion of the poem: ““The Hawk in the Rain” stands appropriately at the threshold of the book, for it announces the major themes — man in relation to animals, the weather, time and mortality.”[5] This is true not only for this volume but for the volume that follows, that is, Lupercal which also includes similar themes. The animal poems “The Hawk in the Rain”, “The Jaguar”, “The Horses”, “Pike”, “Thrushes” and the non-animal poems like “Wind”, “October Dawn”, “Snowdrop” all express man’s relation to Nature. Hughes felt that the human civilization particularly the western world was fast moving away from Nature. In his “Environmental Revolution” Hughes wrote that “the story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man.”[6] The animals, the hawk, the macaw, the jaguar, the bull, the pike are true representatives of Nature. Regarding the majestic hawk in “Hawk Roosting” Hughes said in his famous interview to Ekbert Faas:

That bird is accused of being a fascist . . . the symbol of some horrible totalitarian genocidal dictator. Actually what I had in mind was that in this hawk Nature is thinking. Simply Nature. It’s not so simple may be because Nature is no longer so simple. I intended some Creator like the Jehovah in Job but more feminine. When Christianity kicked the devil out of Job what they actually kicked out was Nature . . . and Nature became the devil. He doesn’t sound like Isis, mother of the gods, which he is. He sounds like Hitler’s familiar spirit.[7]

The hawk soaring high is actually this true face of Nature and therefore can remain still at the “master- / Fulcrum of violence” (Hughes 11). On the other hand it seems to the persona that the earth which created mankind (Genesis 3:19) is like a “dogged grave” (Hughes 11). This is because modern man has so much distanced himself from Nature that he no longer remains a part of Her. Again, the persona feels that the elements of Nature, in this case the hawk, can exist not only with quietude even at the core of violence, but chooses his hour of death willingly.

That maybe in his own time meets the weather

Coming the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside down,

Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him,

The horizon trap him; the round angelic eye

Smashed, mix his heart’s blood with the mire of the land. (Hughes 11).

This mixing of the hawk’s blood with the earth gains greater significance when various mythological aspects are considered. Many North Indian and Jewish legends believed that blood contained the life and spirit of the beast.[8] So spilling of blood enhanced greater crop production. The hawk then is not only an aspect of Nature, but one whose life force can enrich the earth. And what is important, in contrast to the man who shirks from earth, the hawk willingly performs self sacrifice for the enrichment of the earth.

The swans of Yeats symbolise universal love, youth and an emblem of peace and saturation in life. The sight of the swans and their fancied disappearance affect the mental state of the persona and at the same time instil a realisation, a greater understanding of the meaning of life. But the hawk in Hughes’s poem is the symbol of Nature. The persona unlike Yeats’s feels no personal attachment towards the bird. This is because the hawk is not just a bird but a representative of Nature from whom modern man has moved away. It is for this reason the reader cannot feel any connection between the hawk and the man. They are two separate entities who have distanced themselves.

Poems Cited

Hughes, Ted. The Hawk in the Rain. London: Faber, 1968.

Yeats, W.B. W.B. Yeats Selected Poetry. Ed. A. Norman Jeffares. London: Pan Books, 1974.


[1] Puhvel, Martin. “Yeats’s ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’” Explicator, (45:1), 1986 Fall, 29-30.

[2] Noirard, Stéphanie. ““The Wild Swans at Coole”: Poem Analysis”. Cercles: Occasional Papers Series (2009).    Web. 24 June 2015.

[3] Hughes,Ted. Letters of Ted Hughes. Ed. Christopher Reid. London: Faber, 2007. 679

[4] Sagar, Keith. The Art of Ted Hughes. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976. 15

[5] Sagar, Keith. The Art of Ted Hughes. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1976. 15

[6] Faas, Ekbert. Ted Hughes The Unaccomodated Universe. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow, 1980. 186

[7] Hughes, Ted. “Ted Hughes and Crow”. By Ekbert Faas. London Magazine. January 1971.

  1. Rpt. Faas, Ekbert. Ted Hughes The Unaccomodated Universe. Santa Barbara: Black

   Sparrow, 1980. 199.

[8] Frazer, James. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Hertfordshire:

   Wordsworth, 1993. 228.

Krishnendu Das Gupta is Ph.D. scholar who has submitted his Ph.D. thesis on Ted Hughes. He is a senior Teacher of English (Assistant Teacher) at Asansol Chelidanga High School (H.S.), Asansol.

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