Winter Swans by Owen Sheers

Nature is a common theme seen throughout poetry. It feels like the majority of poets, at some point or the other, will use the natural world as a metaphoric means of expression. Perhaps it’s because the natural world is something many poets aspire to harmonize with, or perhaps it’s the fact that a significant range of human emotions can be expressed through natural phenomena. Take, for instance, the title concept of Owen Sheers’s Winter Swans. On its own, this is a striking image, pairing white with white and beautiful with beautiful (unless you associate winter with dark nights, bitter cold, and way too much wind, in which case it’s a stunning contrast). In nature, Owen finds a means of expressing an idea using unique, fresh words that give his work a sense of originality and a sense of the author’s own perspective, which is needed in any art form that wants to stand out and truly say something.

 

Winter Swans Analysis

Stanza 1

The poem, which can be read in full here, begins in the style that persists throughout — verses are three lines long and neither rhyme, nor adhere to particular syllable counts. This first verse introduces two narrators for the poem, speaking with the pronoun “we” as a means of suggesting that the two individuals are of one mind, and are both speaking through this poem.

Without using particularly difficult language to decipher, the speakers explain that they have been spending their time walking in the rain. There is a clever use of personification of the clouds in the first line; a cloud, of course, cannot put effort into anything, but by suggesting the clouds are giving the process of rain “their all,” the narrator uses familiar language to suggest that it has been raining very heavily.

Also of interest is the structure of the poem that does not distinguish verses from sentences. Were the line breaks throughout the poem to be deleted, the poem would read as grammatically correct were it simply a collection of three sentences. They would, however, be run-on sentences, and it is the breaking up of their contents into this format that makes the poem readable and far more interesting than simply being a few sentences.


Stanza 2

The personification continues into the next verse; the earth beneath the feet of the walking couple is “gulping for breath,” suggesting that it is opened, soft, and sinks beneath the steps of the couple. We are also given a bit of scenery — there is a lake the couple is walking around, and they are neither talking nor are they together, suggesting perhaps they are lost in their own thoughts or feel separate from one another emotionally.


Stanza 3

Again continuing from the last sentence, this verse is able to start with the word “until,” an effective way to begin a verse. This verse describes the appearance of two swans who temporarily halt the movement of the couple, who stop to watch them dive beneath the lake in unison. Using a simile, the speaker suggests the motion is as though the swans are trying to roll something down their backs, so smooth is the motion of the diving.


Stanza 4

The next verse begins with an interesting use of metaphor — the swans “halved” themselves, which is a strong phrase with two meanings. On a literal level, the two swans were presumably swimming side by side, and when they dove, it became easier to tell that there were two swans swimming together, because it appeared as though the shape had been split in half. With regards to the theme of togetherness so far presented by this poem, it suggests that the two swans are akin to soulmates; that they were the image of one single entity because they belonged together, and that diving necessitated splitting themselves in half to be individual creatures once more. The rest of the verse is dedicated to the imagery of peace; describing the birds as being icebergs of white feather in rough waters is portraying them as being the image of peace, of stability (or why else does one use a boat?) in a wintry, rough, challenging world.


Stanzas 5-7

The remainder of the poem brings the theme of togetherness to the forefront of its attention. Earlier, the couple was described as being both silent and apart; in the third-to-last verse, the other person, who is not the narrator, speaks for the first time, telling the other person that swans, unlike many natural creatures, mate for life, taking only one partner. She says this as the swans leave. They are like porcelain; beautiful and valuable, and the water is now calm and still. At this point, the couple’s hands meet. The use of the metaphor of the hands “swimming the distance” is a strong reference to the swans from before, and is almost a reverse of the personifying of natural elements from earlier. This time it is the humans who are becoming a little more like the natural world, and coming closer together in appreciation of its beauty.

Throughout Winter Swans, Sheers makes very little distinction between the natural world and the world of humans. The human couple is inspired by two swans swimming across a lake; at the same time, the clouds in the sky are putting in effort to rain down as hard as they can. Personification is one of the principle devices used in this poem, but it works both ways, as though the author is trying to say that humans and nature are alike in more than one way.

The idea of “winter” is never really brought into the poem, except through the weather; the constant rain, and the metaphor of the swans as boats in a stormy sea. Whether or not it is literally winter in the setting of the poem is difficult to say; what is easier to determine is that the idea of “winter swans” is unusual, because swans are migratory creatures, preferring mild climates to cold ones. The title image is similar to the in-poem metaphor of the swans as boats, as signs of stability and peace in rough times. Perhaps this is also an apt description for the couple in the poem, who needed a sign of stability to be able to drift closer to one another, in the midst of stormy weather, and perhaps rough times as well.

The abstract nature of the poem makes it difficult to say for sure, but thematically, it hits its mark, striking the ideas of togetherness and of nature in a strong, imagist way that really renders the ideas in Sheers’s mind well.

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Related poetry:   Farther by Owen Sheers

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