‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931,’ which is reminiscent of other Yeats poems, such as ‘September 1913’ explores themes of change, loss, and time. Within the text, he addresses the changes he saw happening in Ireland and the transition away from the beauty, meaning, and purpose of a former age. The diction is elevated, and more often than not the syntax confused, making this work one of Yeats’ more challenging.
The poem takes the reader through the scenery of Coole Park and Ballylee, connecting the natural landscapes to the changing face of Ireland as a whole. Yeats, who is very likely the speaker in the poem, expresses his sadness over the changes he sees happening and the loss of better times, more romantic (and Romantic), times. The details in this poem are vague and specific. He references rooms, experiences, and sights that are very clear in his own mind but combine together to form a landscape of emotion for the reader to interpret.
‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’ by William Butler Yeats is a six stanza poem that’s divided into sets of eight lines, known as octets. These octets follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABABCC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Yeats also chose to utilize a specific metrical pattern. Each of the lines contains five sets of two beats or syllables.
Yeats also makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’. These include alliteration, enjambment, caesura, personification, and simile. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “morning’s” and “man” in line four of the third stanza and “folly” and “founders” in line eight of the third stanza and line one of the fourth.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For example, the break in the first line of the third stanza. The line reads: “Another emblem there! That stormy white”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples in ‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’ including the transitions between lines three and four of the third stanza and five and six of the fifth stanza.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, In the fourth line of the second stanza, Yeats refers to “Nature” as a sentient force that is capable of pulling on “her tragic buskin”. By utilizing this technique here he is better able to depict the liveliness of the forest and the depth of his interaction with, and understanding of, it.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There are a few examples in ‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’ such as in the last lines of stanza five. They read: “We shift about – all that great glory spent – / Like some poor Arab tribesman and his tent.”
Under my window-ledge the waters race,
Otters below and moor-hens on the top,
Run for a mile undimmed in Heaven’s face
Then darkening through ‘dark’ Raftery’s ‘cellar’ drop,
Run underground, rise in a rocky place
In Coole demesne, and there to finish up
Spread to a lake and drop into a hole.
What’s water but the generated soul?
In the first stanza of ‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’ the speaker begins with a lively, peaceful image. He describes for the reader how the waters race under his “window-ledge”. Among them, there are living creatures, “Otters” below and “moor-hens” above.
Over the next five lines, he tracks the path of the water. Like a river, it runs strong and powerful for a “mile”. It is majestic, appearing “undimmed” when compared to the face of Heaven. Then, the river travels “through ‘dark’ Raftery’s ‘cellar’ drop”. This is a reference to Yeats’ tower, also known as Thoor Ballylee Castle, where the poet once lived. The name “Raftery” is meant to connect to the man who helped Yeats restore his once home. (With some research it becomes clear that the person Yeats was actually referring to was a man named Michael Rafferty.)
Next, the river rises in “Coole demesne” or the land that was attached to Coole Park. Another major feature in Yeats’ life, and one that pops up more than once in his poetry (See: ‘Coole Park, 1929’), this property was owned by Lady Gregory, one of his most famous patrons.
It is there, in the park, that the river finishes and spreads out into a lake. The first stanza concludes with a striking question. The poet asks the reader “What’s water but the generated soul?” It is clear that the poet feels a connection to these natural spaces and forces around his home. Here, he is comparing the flow of the river, the power it builds, and the way it then pools into a lake to the human soul.
Upon the border of that lake’s a wood
Now all dry sticks under a wintry sun,
And in a copse of beeches there I stood,
For Nature’s pulled her tragic buskin on
And all the rant’s a mirror of my mood:
At sudden thunder of the mounting swan
I turned about and looked where branches break
The glittering reaches of the flooded lake.
In the next stanza of ‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’, he continues to describe the surroundings of Coole Park. He speaks on a forest that borders the lake and how under the winter sun the wood has dried out. Yeats takes the poem into the woods and depicts himself standing there amongst a group of beech trees. The environment is entirely alive and Yeats uses personification to push that feeling of “aliveness” even further. A sudden thunder of sound or presence shakes him and he turns to look “where the branches break”.
Another emblem there! That stormy white
But seems a concentration of the sky;
And, like the soul, it sails into the sight
And in the morning’s gone, no man knows why;
An is so lovely that it sets to right
What knowledge or its lack had set awry,
So arrogantly pure, a child might think
It can be murdered with a spot of ink.
In the third stanza of ‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’, Yeats’ speaker’s attention is drawn to an “emblem there!” He is very likely still speaking about the swan mentioned in the second stanza of the poem. It is out on the lake, “mounting” perhaps as though about to take flight. The sights across the lake feel to him like a concentration of all the open beauty and purity of the sky and the rest of the natural landscape itself.
These lines are vague, but the overall meaning is connected to the purity of the moment and the speaker’s open perception of what is real. He uses white as an important symbol in these lines, representing an arrogant purity that feels so intense and true that if soiled, would die. This act would be akin to murder.
Sound of a stick upon the floor, a sound
From somebody that toils from chair to chair;
Beloved books that famous hands have bound,
Old marble heads, old pictures everywhere;
Great rooms where travelled men and children found
Content or joy; a last inheritor
Where none has reigned that lacked a name and fame
Or out of folly into folly came.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’, Yeats widens his mind to encompass a variety of sights, sounds, and memories. He thinks back to the “Sound of a stick upon the floor” and that o someone toiling from “chair to chair”. Both of these depictions evoke images of age and decrepitude, someone struggling with a cane from place to place. There is a history in these images as well. Bound books and “Old marble heads” speak of a time past in which these things were valued, and capable of being purchased.
There are also pictures and “Great rooms” where people spent time and joy together. All these lines connect back to Coole Park, the residence of Lady Gregory. Yeats very obviously has fond memories of the place. But, there is also a sadness to these lines, as though these experiences don’t exist anymore.
A spot whereon the founders lived and died
Seemed once more dear than life; ancestral trees,
Or gardens rich in memory glorified
Marriages, alliances and families,
And every bride’s ambition satisfied.
Where fashion or mere fantasy decrees
We shift about – all that great glory spent –
Like some poor Arab tribesman and his tent.
The “spot” that Yeats refers to in the fifth line of ‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’ is Coole Park and its surroundings. It was somewhere that “Seemed once more dear than life”. The themes of age and heritage come up once more and the poet describes “ancestral trees” and “gardens rich in memory”. There, one can find the history of all those who “reigned”. In contrast to all the beauty that used to reside in this place, there are the current inhabitants. “We,” the speaker says, “shift about… / Like some poor Arab tribesman and his tent”. This alludes to a feeling of dislocation, as if the speaker is not doing justice to the land he’s on or that before long he’s going to have to move on for good.
We were the last romantics – chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness;
Whatever’s written in what poets name
The book of the people; whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.
In the final stanza of ‘Coole Park And Ballylee, 1931’ the speaker refers to “us” as “the last romantics”. The time of the Romantics is gone. The themes of “Traditional sanctity and loveliness” are no longer valued.
The last lines summarize the speaker’s feelings very clearly. He knows that “all is changed” and that the high, once valued and powerful horse, is “riderless”. The image of the swan returns in the last line, alluding to a better time and imagining “Homer” mounted, riding in that now-empty saddle.