Explainer Contest – “Vacillation” and “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”


Hey so I did a podcast and explained Yeats’s  “Vacillation” and “A Dialogue and Self and Soul”. For 35 minutes. Understandable if you don’t want to watch all of it, but some of it is cool, I think.

Here’s the rough script for it, though I also had some written notes that I was looking at, so if you don’t watch it you’re going to miss out on some totally cool stuff!

The 60th Swan at Coole

In the poem “The Wild Swans at Coole”, Yeats is staring at and meditating on the nature of swans, which we judged in-class to  symbolize a combination of eternal love and the representation of the anti-self. I believe that the number fifty-nine has significance, beyond the idea that Yeats himself is represented by the 59th swan that doesn’t have a paired lover; instead of this reading, which contextualizes the swans in fundamental absence, Yeats himself is visualizing himself as the other part of that  59th swan’s love.  In this reading, the swans, with Yeats added into their number, come to sixty entities within the text. This number draws obvious connections to seconds and minutes, playing on the idea of time which I believe to be the main theme of this text.

The swans are objects that Yeats looks at, hears, and senses – but he enjoys them perhaps most when he can externalize his own feelings of desire for companionship, which in the 4th stanza, he judges to be the antithesis of weariness and old age. Additionally, Yeats admires the swans’ power of choice, between “passion or conquest” and the ability to “wander where they will,” impassioned by their agency over the world and their Selves. These traits are the antithesis of what Yeats has been feeling recently in his old age, adding to his construction of the shadow-self as the 60th swan.

However, in the final stanza, Yeats asks where the swans will be, and whom they will delight, when he awakes one day to see that they are gone. This implicit sadness is not necessarily from remarking upon Yeats’s own death and removal as the 59th swan, but upon the lack of control that he has over these creatures that he wishes to identify with. They will continue on, outside of time, and Yeats knows that they will bring the same degree of happiness to other men – later, in other settings – as they do to him, as they are a symbol of the externalization of his desires. This final realization distances Yeats even further from uniting with his anti-self, as he knows that his desire to externalize is commonplace in humans – adding to his connection to the human race and thereby undercutting any potential to join the natural world.

Spoken versus Written Words in “Adam’s Curse”

In class we talked about “Adam’s Curse” within the context of poetry being a labor for Yeats that is unable to be understood by the middle class, due to its intangible and unquantifiable value to the self and to society.  During this discussion, I noticed that in the third to sixth lines: “And you and I, and talked of poetry./ I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. ” that Yeats details his work with a certain level of irony, immediately drawing attention to the many hours that he must have put into the construction of this poem itself. Yet Yeats says this in a quoted section, implying that he said this and the following stanzas. This simple “I said” thereby highlights the fictive element even further. These quotations, if Yeats has indeed labored for hours on making them fit exactly as he needed them to, so that they may “seem a moment’s thought,” intentionally undercuts himself so-as to make his own hours of “stitching and unstitching” naught and pointless.


This cynicism in regarding his own poetry works on a similar theme as the feelings of loss of love he has for Maud. After Maud’s sister replies in the 2nd stanza that women know they must labor at being beautiful – a noticeably short segmented quote that has no rhythm or rhyme, and distinctly lacks preparation and the labor of poetry – Yeats replies in another quote, working on the nature of beauty and love, which takes a full 3rd stanza. He thinks out loud that lovers usually “…would sigh and quote with learned looks/ Precedents out of beautiful old books”. However, this time, when he notes the natural tendency for lovers to quote things that are not their true thoughts, a tonal and thematic shift occurs in the poem. The rhyme scheme, which in this stanza was rhyming couplets, abruptly breaks into the final line “Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”

This final line causes the group to go quiet. Time and the beauty in the scenery  both pass in the next stanza, which Yeats contemplates. There are no more quotes or mentions of spoken words. The final stanza has the line “I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:” , which again, deals with the disjunction between the spoken and written word, while calling also upon the original emotion and thoughts that precede their expression. With the emphasis on his subject’s ears, Yeats implies that he would be telling her what follows. Yet we as the readers never know if he actually did, or would, tell her of these thoughts on her beauty – which leaves us to question whether Yeats’s written word is more or less authentic than his speech or thoughts.