Let’s return again to Edna St. Vincent Millay as I start a short series of pieces using words by more famous poets, each of whom considers the book of nature as played out by birds.
Millay’s “Wild Swans” may be somewhat overshadowed in the Cygnet Committee by William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole,” published only a few years earlier than Millay’s poem. The birds of these poems’ central image, the largest waterfowl, is known for white and graceful beauty while at rest or swimming on the water, which contrasts with their somewhat overburdened flight and strangled hinge-in-need-of-oil song.
Other than their pure color and size, it may be the swan in flight that makes them something of the ornithological model for angels, as for such a large bird to have enough strength and wingspan to fly is practically miraculous.
In “Wild Swans” Millay presents that miracle in flight, but by misdirection or misapprehension. The swans are flying as the poem opens, but Millay is instead looking inward—and furthermore, the poet thinks this introspection is bringing no insight.
But in this short poem’s second part, the images and insights come anyway. In an apostrophe to her heart, Millay addresses it as a “house without air”—an acute metaphor there for despair—and she now asks for the swans to fly over us again, trailing their ungainly legs, crying unselfconsciously their sad and awkward calls.
Wildness, movement, flight beyond bounds, the miraculous after grace, the next day flying over the weeks, then the months and the years.
This is a surprising poem, it’s titular image, those wild swans, are missing, until they are called for in the last five words; not to be beautiful, but straining to be possible.