I’m teaching the new AQA GCSE anthology at the moment, and it has Winter Swans in, which is one of my favourite poems from Sheers’ collection. So I figured I’d set down some thoughts on it.
On initial reading, the poem isn’t overly complex – the story of a couple whose relationship is undergoing some turbulent times but, but the end of the poem, they experience a brief interlude of calm.
Sheer’s imagery of the swan has been criticised as being slightly heavy handed in some reviews of the collection – the dialogue in particular, of the lover turning and saying “They mate for life, you know”, is hardly subtle. But I think there’s far more to the imagery of the poem as a whole to be looked at.
The patbetic fallacy of the poem is again not subtle – then again, neither is the storm at the opening of Porphyia’s Lover in the collection – but Sheers uses it to create what I think is quite a beautiful image of a drizzly day, the couple venturing out and the sense of freshness that can appear in the break during a storm. The tempestuous nature of the couple is evidence – the clouds have “given their all”, echoed in the “rough weather” later in the poem. That they step our during a break in the weather has connotations of a new beginning, or at least a pause in their difficulties. The earth remains “waterlogged”, suggesting that the rain is far from forgotten (echoes there too of Hardy’s Neutral Tones in the anthology, memories of tedious riddles of long ago).
That swans mate for life can either be a glaringly-obvious metaphor that the couple will eventually get over their difficulties, or an ironic statement of contrast but, given the wings/hand-holding at the end, more likely the former. The other images surrounding the swans are just as promising – they might “halve themselves” but then “right themselves” as the boats do, the reference to icebergs perhaps indicating just how much their emotions are being kept under the surface hidden from one another.
There’s a lot of heaviness in this poem – the “waterlogged earth/gulping for breath”, the “weights” or the swans, and the “dark water” which contrast strangely with the light and delicate “porcelain” of the swans just past the midway point, where the relationship is fragile, but holding together. Some of the language sounds heavy too – the sibilance of “slow-stepping in the lake’s shingle and sand”, every ‘s’ picked over carefully and deliberately. There’s also heaviness of the movement “rolling weights down their bodies to their heads” stepping down towards the water as they tip up.
As a modern poet – this part of a collection published in 2006 – Sheers, a Welshman presumably used to drizzly days, uses free verse but the regularity of three-line-stanzas until the final shift to a two-line verse. When my superb class discussed it, there was a conversation over whether it implied a coming together or, as one student suggested, the final stanza felt unfinished – that the poet left the couple on the lakeshore, with their relationship unresolved. Given the rest of the collection, with its musings on endings of relationships, divorce and separation, it was an astute comment, especially as in the title “Skirrid Hill”, Skirrid derives from the Welsh Ysgariad meaning divorce or separation. The free verse also has a slight uncertainty to it, a lack of definition that tells us something of the modern attitude to many relationships. The line breaks and caesura emphasise key words: “silent and apart”, separated by commas and a line break from the rest of the poem -are the lovers walking separated from themselves or from everything around them? It’s certainly a lonely image, that lake, in many ways -although my class again brilliantly pointed out that a lake has more movement in the water than the stillness of the pond in Neutral Tones, perhaps suggesting a more hopeful sense of moving on towards the end.
There is a sense of movement throughout the poem, which might give some hope to the relationship. The movement of the swans, righting themselves, the walking of the couple, “moved on through the afternoon light” and the hands joining at the end – perhaps the most blindingly-obvious suggestion in the poem although when the lover says “they mate for life”, with that awkward silence following as the speaker doesn’t reply, they have “noticed” the hands now “somehow” together – not a symbol of conscious choice and what relationship doesn’t take effort?
The clouds had given their all –
two days of rain and then a break
in which we walked,
the waterlogged earth
gulping for breath at our feet
as we skirted the lake, silent and apart,
until the swans came and stopped us
with a show of tipping in unison.
As if rolling weights down their bodies to their heads
they halved themselves in the dark water,
icebergs of white feather, paused before returning again
like boats righting in rough weather.
‘They mate for life’ you said as they left,
porcelain over the stilling water. I didn’t reply
but as we moved on through the afternoon light,
slow-stepping in the lake’s shingle and sand,
I noticed our hands, that had, somehow,
swum the distance between us
and folded, one over the other,
like a pair of wings settling after flight
Like this? I’ve created a set of revision flashcards for the GCSE poetry anthology. Each one has
- language, structure and form explained
- context of the poem and why it matters
- key quotes, with analysis of language techniques
- key relevant literary terminology
- explanation of key quotations
- which poems to compare together