Feature of the Month: W.B. Yeats's 'The Wild Swans at Coole'

The Wild Swans at Coole, Other Verses and a Play in Verse
W.B. Yeats
Churchtown, Dundrum: Cuala Press, 1917
[S.L.] II [Yeats, W.B. – 1917]

The Wild Swans at Coole, Other Verses and a Play in Verse.

The importance of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) for twentieth-century literature can hardly be overstated. In the words of R.F. Foster, summarising Yeats’s influence at the end of his ODNB entry:

He had always been supreme among modern Irish poets and his international standing has equally been recognised as one of the great innovators of modern poetry, who developed a voice so unique as to inhibit as well as to inspire those who came after him. Early on, defending his constant poetic revisions, he had declared that he must ‘re-make’ himself: in the process he helped re-make both his own country and world literature.

Featured here is the first edition of The Wild Swans at Coole, Other Verses and a Play in Verse, published in November, 1917, one month after Yeats’s happy marriage to Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lees (‘George’). The volume contains twenty-three poems in addition to the one-act play At the Hawk’s Well, which was one of five plays by Yeats loosely based on stories of the ancient Ulster mythological hero Cuchulain. First performed in London in 1916, it was the first English-language play to adopt many features of Japanese stylised classic Noh theatre. In turn it influenced other plays. Of the poems in the volume, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ had made its first appearance in print a few months earlier, in the June 1917 issue of the Little Review. Yeats had written it while staying with his friend and sponsor, the writer Augusta, Lady Gregory, at her home in Coole Park, County Galway, and counting the swans on the water there. Before marrying George, Yeats had proposed unsuccessfully both to the Irish nationalist Maude Gonne and to her daughter Iseult, and the poem, reflecting on time and the changes in his life and the world since he had first counted the swans nineteen years earlier, revisits themes of personal alienation and emotional deprivation which had appeared in the 1890s. ‘In Memory of Robert Gregory’ is the most substantial of Yeats’s elegies for Lady Gregory’s son, killed in the war.

The Wild Swans of Coole.

The publisher was the Cuala Press, a private press with which Yeats was intimately associated. It was established in 1904 as the Dun Emer Press by Yeats’s sisters, Elizabeth and Lily, in order to stimulate local crafts and employment; changing its name in 1908, it continued to flourish until 1946. As well as producing high-quality work in terms of design, it published the work of various Irish intellectuals, including Yeats’s friend Lady Gregory, and brought many Irish writers to the forefront of the literary world. From its inception, Yeats published limited editions with the Cuala Press before passing his work on to commercial publishers. This is what he did with The Wild Swans at Coole, publishing a second edition with Macmillan in 1919 (also held at Senate House Library). The Macmillan edition omits At the Hawk’s Well and adds seventeen new poems. Three of these new poems—‘Solomon and Sheba’, ‘The Phases of the Moon’, and ‘The Double Vision of Michael Robartes’—reflect the insights brought by George’s mediumship, and the 1919 volume as a whole is seen as a coded autobiographical record of the 1910s for Yeats with all their emotional turbulence.

Within the context of Senate House Library, The Wild Swans at Coole book is important for two reasons. One is literary. Yeats features within the modern firsts in Louis Sterling’s literary collection, and archival material complements the books: a letter from Yeats to the author and mystic Florence Farr; a little correspondence within the Harry Price Archives relating to his interest after his marriage in mediums; and most strongly and importantly, material in the archive of his friend and correspondent Thomas Sturge Moore (MS978). The Sturge Moore papers include Moore’s design for the cover of the 1919 edition of The Wild Swans at Coole. The second reason for significance is its place within the output of a private press which operated during the heyday of the private press movement: Senate House Library has an almost complete collection of Cuala Press books, in the section of the Sterling Library devoted to private press printing more widely.

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