‘Wild Swans’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay is an eight-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. It follows an unusual rhyme scheme of ABBCCBAC. In regards to meter, the pattern is also unusual. Each line contains somewhere between ten and twelve beats. The fact that the lines do not conform to a specific metrical pattern gives the poem an unbalanced feeling. This is mirrored in the speaker’s own uncertainty about her situation in life and what the appropriate course of action is to free herself.
The most important image in this piece is that of the wild swans. They appear throughout the text, from the beginning to the end. It is the sight of the swans in the first line of the poem that inspires the speaker’s emotional confession. They represent the ultimate freedom. She desires the ability to migrate, move, or travel as she pleases.
The swans have an inherent freedom embodied in their movements that especially strikes the speaker on this day. Throughout the following lines, the birds are connected to living, dying, and air. By the end of the poem, she is calling to them, asking them to fly over town once more. But they are continuing on their way with no regard for the past. If she wants to join them, she is going to have to commit herself to change.
Summary of Wild Swans
The poem begins with the speaker feeling shocked at the sight of wild swans flying over her home. There is something about their shapes on this day that strikes her. She is suddenly determined to look into her heart and pick out the parts of herself that have confined her. The speaker sees her current life as “Tiresome.” She is metaphorically chained to her daily emotional pattern and would like to fly over the town, just like the swans.
By the end of the poem the speaker has decided that she is going to leave the suffocating home she’s been stuck in for so long. She is also desperate for the swans to come back and show her again how to fly over the town. When this happens her heart will be free, her old life will sit far below her, and all the possibilities the swans have access to will be hers as well.
Analysis of Wild Swans
I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
In the first set of lines, the speaker begins by addressing her emotional state. This is instigated by the sight of a group of wild swans flying over her house. Due to the fact that Millay ( as was her custom) chose to write from a first-person perspective, the poem is deeply personal. The speaker exposes her true inner self, part of her being that she, until this moment, had not fully addressed.
There was something special about the sight on this particular day that struck the speaker in her heart. She felt deeply emotional after seeing them and “look[ed] in [her] heart,” wondering what had changed. Normally, the swans appeared exactly as they are— lovely, but average birds, migrating for the season. This time though, there is something she “had not seen before.” The speaker is entirely unsure of what this “thing” is at first. In the final line of this section, the speaker explores the different ways she is understanding the situation. It is at once raising more and fewer questions within her.
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
After peering into her own heart, she comes to a decision. There is nothing within her that compares to the “flight of wild birds flying.” The sight of them in the sky passing over her house, caused her to pass judgment on herself. She sees in the birds everything that she wants to be. Rather than embodying freedom and flight, her own heart is “Tiresome.” This phrase can be taken in two different ways, first that her heart is tired of feeling as it does— trapped and under-stimulated. And/or she is sick of her emotional patterns, her own thoughts and feelings are growing tiresome in and of themselves. In the end, it doesn’t matter, both the home and the heart are integral to her current situation. It is going to take a lot of determination to make a significant change in her life.
The speaker continues on to address both her heart and her physical situation. She is in a cycle of “living and dying” where no happiness lasts for long, and death doesn’t even bring relief. This is another reference to the pattern of her life she cannot escape. The final line of this section can refer to both her old, “Tiresome” heart and her actual physical house. She tells one or both of these things that she is leaving. It is time to “lock [the] door” and rid herself of the chains she’s put up with for so long. The speaker is unable to breathe in her current life, it is as if the walls of her house, or the walls of her mind, are suffocating her.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!
In the final two lines, the speaker pleads with the swans. All she wants now is for them to pass over again. She repeats the phrase “come over” twice in line seven, emphasizing her desperation. The speaker needs to see them again, perhaps for one last burst of inspiration. This might allow her to break out of the box she is stuck in. The final line speaks to the close connection she feels between the swans and herself.
They are slightly personified, in that they are said to “cry.” They call out, as swans do, as if in passion or sorrow. They are able to express themselves perfectly (unlike the speaker) and at the same time, take themselves with their “legs” trailing behind, to a new life. Millay’s swans are without concern for the lives happening below them, or even for those at their destination.