An analysis of Winter Swans by Owen Sheers

Owen Sheers is perhaps my favourite modern poet. Following the death of Seamus Heaney, it seemed like one of the great lights of modern poetry had been extinguished, and Owen Sheers began to fill the void that Heaney left. I fell in love with Y Gaer which seems almost Heaney-esque in its simplicity and emotional power. He’s a man who seems often to find man in touch with nature, just as Heaney did. Sheers is not just a poet: he is a playwright and a novelist. I think the story of the moment is what he finds important.

Like Follower, it is not a complex poem, but one that depends on a central metaphor or point of comparison – the lovers and the swans.

The poem is set out in six stanzas of three lines, finished by a final couplet – some twenty lines in total. The couplet, to me, is the interesting bit. Couplets (well, rhyming ones) can be used to present a single, distinct thought, and this is used here to present the final idea – the description of the lovers’ hands. In its completeness, it brings a finality to the poem and restores the relationship to one of peace. In Shakespearean drama and sonnets, a couplet marked an ending of something, an exit, a conclusion. The same could be said for this final stanza, which brings harmony back to the couple with its two-line simplicity and brevity. It is a finishing point, a relief from tension. Other than the couplet and the way enjambement and caesura are used to emphasise words and ideas, the form of the poem isn’t doing anything remarkable, other than carrying the narrative. The lines are roughly following breath-breaks, pausing where it would be natural to pause. Sometimes the lines read more easily and more rhythmically than others, which emphasises the content and ideas. Again, like Follower, it uses the enjambement to create an easy rhythm in some places.

The title isn’t just “Swans”, it’s “Winter Swans”, which begs the question, ‘Why Winter?’ In fact, there are a couple of ideas in the poem that link to the idea of winter, the “clouds”, the “days of rain”. The first reason is a biographical reason: it really was winter when the event happened, and Sheers is recounting a real event. The second reason is perhaps the symbolism of the winter and what it represents: a time when the world is still and dead, when it seems like nothing is growing. When we think of this though, we understand that winter is a precursor to spring, to renewed life and hope, which we see with the “afternoon light” which marks the change in mood. Winter is a period of necessity, a time of coldness and darkness. This dormant time is necessary for regeneration. Swans and winter are regularly explored by writers, such as Swans at Coole by WB Yeats and The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy. Swans are often used as a metaphor for love. Their grace and beauty coupled with the fact that ” ‘They mate for life’ ” makes them a popular image of dedication and devotion.

The title, then, sets the mood of sobriety and coldness, at the same time presenting us with an image of the swans. From the title, we are left to wonder if the winter swans are just a nifty title and the poem is about something more than two swans seen in winter. If the poem is about more, then it’s possible the title refers to the couple as the ‘winter swans’ too. The swans become an emblem of a relationship, but one that is in decline or a period of inertia.

We notice immediately the personification, the pathetic fallacy of the weather in the first line: “the clouds had given their all – ” evoking the notion of a battle and clouds who had finally been beaten. They have given their all and still not succeeded. In that first stanza, there’s a sense of pathetic fallacy – the weather having human emotions that seem perhaps to be a mirror for an emotional onslaught in the relationship we read about later on. Of course, we can read it fairly literally – there was no rain left to fall. The simplicity of the language here is noteworthy: one single polysyllabic word in the whole stanza, “given”. I think this simplicity gives it a stark and bare feeling, not unlike winter. Definitely not flowery language!

The imagery becomes more defined in the second verse, as the language also becomes more complex with “waterlogged” and the “gulping for breath”; the pathetic fallacy extends here in a different direction and seems almost mythological – an earth that wants to swallow people up. The diction is more poetic with “skirted” the lake and the stanza finishes with the “silent and apart” description, which works like many of the other details in the poem on both a physical, literal level and a metaphorical level. We notice the division in their relationship, the gap between them.

It is the swans in stanza three that stop the couple and reunite them with a show. What they’re doing is hunting for grubs, feeding, their heads going beneath the surface and their bodies tipping and then righting theselves as they feed. This is why they look like “icebergs” and why Sheers describes them as “like boats righting in rough weather”.

In stanza four, we get much of the imagery in the poem, the idea of the swans “halving” themselves and the way he calls them “icebergs of white feather” which reminds us of the notion that there is much that lies beneath the surface. Often, only a small proportion of an iceberg can be seen on the surface and for this reason, we are led to think that there is a lot going on that we can’t see and can’t fathom, not just for the swans but also for the couple. Icebergs are, by their very nature, cold, too. It’s very much in keeping with the wintery mood. The setting, the theme, the tone and the choice of images all help create this atmosphere. What the swans do in this stanza is important: their worlds are literally upside down and then they right themselves. This stanza is the second to introduce the notion of equilibrium, that the relationship will “right” itself, even though it is off-kilter at the moment.

In stanza five, we have a moment of story-telling, a line of dialogue. ” ‘They mate for life’ you said” and we realise that the poem is addressed to someone – the person he is with. We only have a more clear sense of a couple later, when they hold hands, but for the first time we understand that this poem is written to someone – we are a third-party audience. We have to ask ourselves why we are reading this poem. Are we accidental voyeurs, seeing into this relationship, a glimpse through the window onto a domestic scene? Are these words the poet wishes he could say to his partner but never does? Instead of including us, as the second-person address may do in some writing, this makes me feel a little like an intruder, seeing aspects of their relationship in black and white that I am not privy to. It is not like Follower where Heaney writes in the third-person about his father, and the dialogue about his relationship with his father is very much with the reader as his confederate, someone he is trying to explain his relationship to. This is a very deliberate second-person address and we wonder why we are here, reading this. Are these words he said to her, or words that he couldn’t bring himself to say?

We also have the turning point in this stanza, the metaphorical break in the clouds. “I didn’t reply/but” and then a reminder of “the afternoon light”.

As the poem moves forwards into stanza six, the vocabulary becomes more poetic, picking up on the soft ‘s’ in “slow-stepping… shingle… sand” – a slow and satisfying sound that is perhaps evocative of the changing mood and moves us onwards to the final image of the poem: the hands that move towards each other, unconsciously as if driven themselves to do so, bridging the physical gap that there had been between the couple at the beginning of the poem to bring them together by the end. We notice too that the ground itself has become more firm, going from “gulping mud” to “shingle” and “sand” which is perhaps suggesting that the relationship itself has moved to ‘firmer ground’ just as the couple do themselves in the scene. The commas in the final two lines of stanza six really slow down the pace and make us focus on the words. We have the enjambement in the final line here as it moves us effortlessly into stanza seven, the final couplet. The pace and rhythm is very controlled here, very slow and purposeful.

“I noticed our hands,          that had,          somehow,/                       swum the distance between us                                             and folded,/”

This all builds up to the final image in the last line, “like a pair of wings settling after flight” which is a beautiful image, much less clichéd and obvious than most of the poem (with the exception of stanza four) as the hands form one part again, and “settle” after the disruption. It brings back calm to the poem and to the relationship. I do wonder about the two line couplet. Is it emphatic of the “two-ness” of them again? Is it unfinished?

In its essence, not a complicated poem. It describes a relationship with some unexplained distance between them that is emphasised by the wintery setting and then brought back together by seeing a symbol of love which appears in front of them. It’s not my favourite Sheers poem – it’s a bit cheesy and obvious in parts. The partner saying “They mate for life you know” is a bit heavy-handed, although I like the images in stanza four and the final line. I wonder at the second-person address and the final two-line stanza, and the image of the lake that they “skirt” around – these are the aspects that give us the most room for interpretation.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about AQA GCSE English Literature poetryplease send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.







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