Essay by Matthew Denvir
It is not uncommon for a poet’s work to be thematically concerned with death, and this is certainly the case with William Butler Yeats. “The Wild Swans at Coole,” for example, is a melancholic poem that ponders the inevitable, unchangeable passage of time. The speaker tells of the beauty of seeing the swans each autumn but laments the time when he will “awake some day / To find they have flown away” (132). The poem establishes early on that the speaker is growing older, and therefore the idea that the seemingly eternal swans will someday be gone speaks to the fact that his soul will also have to fly away. He will someday have to die.
Though this poem is a typical example of a poet’s depiction of death (elegantly sorrowful and with a sense of loss), it doesn’t represent Yeats’ final word on the subject. His argument about death, about what it means to die, becomes more complex when his war poems are taken into account. And it is with these poems that the reader sees an attitude about death that is strikingly different from that represented by his other work. Simply put, in the universe created by Yeats’ poetry, death in war is a far different philosophical and existential experience than death by any other means.