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Wild Swans

Have you ever just wanted to fly away? It would be a pretty great ability to have - at least Edna St. Vincent Millay thinks so. In her poem, 'Wild Swans', Edna St. Vincent Millay explores the theme of freedom, as the poem's speaker observes a flock of birds passing over their town. 

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Wild Swans


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Have you ever just wanted to fly away? It would be a pretty great ability to have - at least Edna St. Vincent Millay thinks so. In her poem, 'Wild Swans', Edna St. Vincent Millay explores the theme of freedom, as the poem's speaker observes a flock of birds passing over their town.

Wild Swans Summary

Before we analyse 'Wild Swans', let's take a look at a brief summary of the poem and its contents.

Written In


Written by

Edna St. Vincent Millay




No set meter

Rhyme scheme


Poetic devices

Extended MetaphorRepetition End-stopped Lines

Frequently noted imagery



Desperate and longing

Key theme



To obtain freedom, you have to be willing to leave the past / some aspects of your life behind.

Wild Swans Context

Edna St. Vincent Millay was an American poet and playwright who lived from 1892 to 1950. Born in Rockland, Maine, in 1892, she was raised mainly by her mother, Cora Lounella Buzelle, who divorced her father, Henry Tolman Millay, in 1904. Millay had a challenging childhood, travelling from town to town with her mother and two sisters, Norma and Kathleen. Eventually, they settled in Camden, Maine.

In her youth, Edna Millay asked to go by the name Vincent, and when she became a writer, she went by the pen name Nancy Boyd. At fourteen, Millay won her first poetry prize, the St Nicholas Gold Badge for poetry and a year later, she published her poems in St Nicholas, a children's magazine, alongside Current Literature.

At 21, in 1913, Millay began her tertiary education, studying at Vassar College. Upon graduation in 1917, Millay moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where she became a notable social figure.

Millay always stood out from the crowd. She was a feminist figure and openly bisexual, as encapsulated by her poetry collection A Few Figs From Thistles (1920). Despite her ideas being regarded as controversial at the time, in 1923, Millay won a Pulitzer Prize for her poem 'The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver' (1922), making her the third woman to win a Pulitzer Poetry Prize.

Pulitzer Prize: A prize set up in 1917 by provisions in the will of Joseph Pulitzer for literary achievements in newspaper/magazine writing, literature, and musical composition.

In 1923 Millay married Eugen Jan Boissevain, with whom she was with for 26 years. The two had an open relationship and supported each other throughout their careers. Millay had a highly successful literary career, winning the Frost Medal for her contribution to American Poetry in 1943.

Frost Medal: The Frost Medal was initially called the Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement, however, came to be named the Frost Medal in honour of poet Robert Frost. The medal is an annual poetry award from the Poetry Society of America.

However, towards the end of her life, she fell into financial debt, partially due to medical bills for her sister Kathleen. In 1950, Millay died at her home following a heart attack.

Wild Swans Analysis

Read through the poem and consider how the theme of freedom is portrayed. Who do you think is free in this poem?

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.

And what did I see I had not seen before?

Only a question less or a question more;

Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.

Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,

House without air, I leave you and lock your door.

Wild swans, come over the town, come over

The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

The title

The poem's title doesn't provide direct insight into the 'storyline' of the poem. However, it strongly relates to the poem's key theme, freedom. The adjective 'wild' is associated with growing and existing outside of the control of humans. It connotes the natural world, animals and plant life - liberation from the man-made world. Furthermore, the noun 'swans' adds to the title's associations with freedom, as swans are birds with the ability to fly and travel far away. Therefore, even though the poem's title doesn't directly provide an insight into the poem's 'storyline', it supports the ongoing theme of freedom.

Form and structure

'Wild Swans' is written in free verse, consisting of one stanza made up of eight lines. The poem has an irregular rhyme scheme, following the structure of ABBCCBAC. This irregular rhyme scheme creates an inconsistent lyrical rhythm, which is broken by the rhyme's irregularity. This rhythm is contributed to by the poem's lack of a set meter; each line consists of ten to twelve beats. The unpredictable nature of the poem's rhythm causes it to feel unbalanced, underpinning how the narrator wants to escape from their current situation.

Free verse: a poem written without a set meter or rhyme scheme.

Poetic devices

Millay employs a number of poetic devices throughout the poem to convey its meaning to the reader, including; an extended metaphor, enjambment and a rhetorical question.

Rhetorical question

The second line of the poem is a rhetorical question;

And what did I see I had not seen before?

The use of a rhetorical question indicates to the reader that the narrator is reflecting on their own life as they look up at the swans. They consider what they hadn't seen about their position before. Additionally, this poetic device creates a sense of ambiguity, as the reader does not know exactly what the narrator is introspecting on, just that their reflection was triggered by the swans flying overhead.

A rhetorical question is a question asked with the intention of creating a dramatic effect rather than obtaining an answer.

End-stopped lines vs enjambment

Five of the poem's eight lines consist of a single sentence. This creates a confined feel to the poem, underpinning how the narrator feels trapped in their life. The use of end-stopped lines and a controlled sentence structure is contrasted by the poem's final two lines;

Wild swans, come over the town, come over

The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

Here, Millay utilises enjambment to break the confined sentence structure which dominates the majority of the poem, underpinning the narrator's urge to break free from the constraints of their life. These lines are emphasised as they disrupt the poem's rhythm. The enjambment creates an unnatural pause between 'over' and 'the town', perhaps indicating a hesitancy in the narrator's voice: they want to break free but are also uncertain.

Enjambment: When a sentence continues from one line of verse onto another.


Repetition is used to great effect towards the poem's close. The narrator repeats the phrase 'come over the town' twice;

Wild swans, come over the town, come over

The town again

The repetition of this phrase creates a desperate tone as if the narrator is pleading with the swans to come back and stay. It implies that while the narrator is now considering their freedom, they are not yet like the swans, able to leave the town and their life behind. The reader is left to wonder whether the narrator will follow the swans or wait until they 'come over the town again'.

Repetition: the action of repeating a certain word or phrase across a section of text.

Extended metaphor

An extended metaphor of 'wild swans' as a representation of freedom is present throughout the poem. This is highlighted by the use of language associated with flight; 'swans', 'flight', 'birds', 'flying', 'air'. The narrator observes the swans and wishes they could also fly away, choosing to 'leave' the 'house without air'. The lack of air in the house contrasts with the swans' ability to fly 'over the town'. As the narrator chooses to leave the house, the reader wonders whether the narrator will also be able to fly like the 'wild swans' and be free.

Extended metaphor: A metaphor that extends across a section of text or poetry.


Alongside her use of poetic devices, Millay creates imagery of flight and exhaustion in her poem, underpinning the poem's narrative of a speaker who wishes to escape the confines of their life.

Imagery: Figurative language that is visually descriptive


The extended metaphor of 'wild swans' produces imagery associated with flight and freedom. The repetition of 'wild' three times throughout the poem concerning 'swans' and 'birds' holds clear associations with flight and freedom, indicating to the reader that this is the poem's main focus. The verbs 'flight' and 'flying' are utilised in the poem's fourth line, emphasising this imagery.

Wild Swans (1921), swan flying, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Swan taking flight


A semantic field of exhaustion is present throughout the poem, as demonstrated by the adjective 'tiresome' and verbs 'dying' and 'trailing'. These linguistic choices create images associated with exhaustion and tiredness. This semantic field is juxtaposed by the use of imagery associated with flight and freedom in the poem, emphasising the exhaustion felt by the narrator. For instance, in line five of the poem Millay writes;

Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,

The verbs 'living and dying' juxtapose each other, emphasising the 'tiresome' nature of the narrator. This juxtaposition also suggests a cycle, as every person lives and dies. The image that the heart is 'forever' going through this cycle highlights how the narrator feels trapped and exhausted, unable to escape.

Semantic field: A set of words with similar meanings and/or associations.

Tone of 'Wild Swans'

The poem has a tone of desperation and longing.

Desperation is created through the poem's inconsistent rhyme scheme and meter, which cause the narrator to seem unstable. They try to create regularity through rhyming the second & third and fourth & fifth lines ('before' / 'more' and 'flying' / 'dying'), however this rhyme then returns sporadically on line six with 'door' and line eight with 'crying'. The irregularity in the rhyme causes it to appear as though the poet is desperately trying to take control over their life, yet feels unable to.

The tone of longing in the poem is created through the extended metaphor of the 'wild swans'. At the poems opening the narrator watches as the 'wild swans went over' and longs to 'match the flight of wild birds flying'. The freedom of the swans is juxtaposed by the narrator's 'tiresome heart', and the plea at the poem's close for the wild swans to once again 'come over the town'. The swans have flown on, and the narrator is left longing to follow, yet unable to do so due to their own struggles and life.

Wild Swans Themes

Now that we know about the language and structure of 'Wild Swans' lets take a look at the poem's central theme of freedom.


The dominant theme in 'Wild Swans' is freedom. The narrator desperately longs to follow the swans that she sees fly over the town, and to be free like they are. This is encapsulated by how as 'the wild swans went over' the town the narrator 'looked in' her own 'heart', indicating to the reader that the swans have inspired the narrator to consider her own line. However, later in the poem, the narrator repeats the noun heart;

Tiresome heart

Here it is clear that while the narrator admires the freedom of the swans, 'the flight of wild birds flying', she is unable to be free herself. The narrator leaves the 'house without air' and locks the door, but when she calls for the swans to 'come over / the town again' they have already left. Therefore, while the swans are presented as free, the narrator is presented as trapped, underpinning how their goal is to be free like the swans.

Wild Swans - Key takeaways

  • 'Wild Swans' is a poem by Edna Vincent Millay which centres on the theme of freedom.
  • The poem has no regular rhyme scheme or set meter and is written in free-verse.
  • The poem consists of a single stanza made up of eight lines.
  • Millay utilises the extended metaphor of wild swans as a representation of freedom throughout the poem.
  • Enjambment is used toward the poem's close to represent the narrator escaping from her life which she feels trapped within.


  1. Fig. 1: Swan Bird Flying Swan Water Water Bird Nature ( by 12138562 ( licensed by Pixabay License (

Frequently Asked Questions about Wild Swans

'Wild Swans' is a poem written in free verse, consisting of a single stanza and eight lines.

'Wild Swans' explores the theme of freedom from the perspective of a narrator who watches a flock of wild swans fly away.

'Wild Swans' was published in 1921.

In 'Wild Swans' Millay uses contrasting imagery of flight and exhaustion to represent the narrator's struggle as they consider what it would be like to be free like the swans.

Although this article is about Edna Millay's 1921 poem 'Wild Swans' there is a 1991 book of the same name written by Jung Chang which recounts the stories of three generations of women in China.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Who wrote 'Wild Swans' (1921)?

True or false: 'Wild Swans' does not have a set metre.

What rhyme scheme is used in 'Wild Swans'?


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