Welcome back to Beyond’s AQA Love and Relationships Poems revision for GCSE English! This week, we’re exploring Winter Swans by Owen Sheers, focusing on:
- Winter Swans context
- Winter Swans themes
- Winter Swans structure
- Winter Swans analysis
Everything you need to swan your way to exam success can be found right here.
Winter Swans context
Winter Swans is a poem by Welsh poet Owen Sheers. Sheers is not just a poet, he is a playwright, journalist, novelist and TV presenter as well. His work is characterised by being written in easy to understand English but used in a way that makes it heavy with meaning.
Sheers was born in Fiji in 1974 but lived in London until he was nine. Then his parents moved to Abergavenny in Wales to live on a 13-acre small holding.
As a consequence, Sheers spent a lot of time outdoors and is used to the everyday work of farming. He says that the landscape of Wales is a ‘touchstone’ for him and his work.
Sheers used to be a regular rugby player and was the Welsh Rugby Union artist in residence in 2011 – the first one they had ever had. He has won many awards, including the Wales Book of the Year twice and the Hay Medal for Poetry.
Winter Swans is a poem rooted in nature and explores the renewal of love between two people. Nature plays a role in this renewal which is a link back to the poets of the Romantic era.
- Owen Sheers is in tune with nature, which reflects in his work
- Winter Swans explores the love between two people
- Sheers’ work links back to Romantic poetry
Winter Swans themes
There are several themes in the poem:
- Love and relationships
- Nature and the seasons
- Cold weather
We are going to look at just one in detail: Nature.
The personification of clouds and earth in stanzas one and two make nature seem alive and something that interacts with the two people in the poem. However, the entrance of the swans signals a change in focus as the poet then concentrates on them – also part of nature of course.
The reference to ‘icebergs’ and ‘rough weather’ gives a sense of nature as dangerous in some respects and possibly suggests that the relationship between the couple has been on dangerous ground. In stanza five, the swans are compared to ‘porcelain’ – the first time a man-made substance is included in all the natural imagery. This links to the later reference to the hands becoming wings in stanza seven – human and swan become one and the same thing showing that the human world is as much a part of nature as an animal is. This image also shows the restorative power of nature – the two people renew their love after spending time in nature and that links to the poetry of the Romantic era.
- The natural world is a main theme of Winter Swans
- The ‘rough weather’ imagery could reflect a tumultuous aspect of the relationship in the poem
Winter Swans structure
The poem has no regular or controlled structure – there is no rhyme and no regular rhythm. In fact, you could argue that it is written more like prose than a poem and the sentences would work perfectly well as prose in some respects. However, it is the arrangement of the lines in threes and finally a couplet that give the poem its poetic structure and controls the sense of it.
Stanza two begins with ‘until’ and this signals that the status quo of the first two is coming to an end – this is the start of the turning point where the couple see the swans and seem to reaffirm their relationship. If this were prose, ‘until’ would be hidden in the middle of a sentence but because this is poetry, the poet is able to make ‘until’ the beginning of a line and draw attention to it.
The break in structure with the final two lines gives the poem a sense of closure and a sense that the whole poem led to this point.
- The poem has no regular rhyme scheme or structure
- Winter Swans is written more as prose, than poetry
- The arrangement of the lines contributes to Winter Swans’ structure
- The break in structure on the final lines provides a sense of closure
Winter Swans analysis
Stanzas one & two
The personification of the clouds and earth first of all link the sky and the ground, as if they are both characters in the scene. It could also suggest that nature and people are all part of the same sphere and are also linked.
Stanzas three & four
The poet uses an effective description of movement when he talks about the swans ‘rolling weights’ – this shows the smooth and elegant movement of the swans and also suggests an element of skill. The word ‘unison’ shows that the swans move as one and this is reinforced later with the metaphorical ‘halving’ of the swans.
The iceberg image, as well as obviously referring to the colour of the swans, adds to the environmental coldness, as this is winter and these are ‘winter swans’.
The final simile comparing the swans to boats in stormy conditions has connotations of the swans being steady and able to withstand any disruption – perhaps because they are together and that keeps them strong.
Stanzas four & five
The word ‘porcelain’ gives the impression that the swans’ bodies are now very still even though they are moving away – possibly because the water hides their paddling feet – this is a common image that swans look serene but all the while are paddling madly beneath the surface. ‘Stilling’ is a deliberate choice of a verb we don’t use very often. The ‘ing’ ending gives a feeling of movement on the water even as it settles after the swans have finished diving. ‘Slow-stepping’ lends rhythm to this part of the poem as if echoing the footsteps of the two people in the scene. The ‘shingle and sand’ nouns continue this rhythm and almost the sound of shoes on the soft surface. The hands that ‘swim’ is significant – it links the people in the poem to the swans directly as it is as if both are in water. Water is also sometimes symbolic of love, so the hands could ‘swim’ through the love that is between the couple. It symbolises the closing of the distance that was between them earlier in the poem ‘silent and apart’.
The word ‘folded’ suggests that the hands are almost entwined in each other and are close together.
The hands being compared to a ‘pair of wings’ helps the reader to see that the two people have now come together and like the swans, seem like two halves of one whole. The fact that the ‘wings’ have been flying, but have now settled suggests that there may have been a problem in the relationship (alluded to earlier when the distance between them is mentioned) which is now over and the couple are truly together again.
It is a neat conclusion to the poem and gives it a sense of completeness, which maybe the couple also feel now that they have come back together.
- The personification in the first stanza links nature and people together
- Sheers uses descriptions of movement to explore the elegance of the swans
- ‘Stilling’ is a deliberate choice of a verb we don’t use very often – the ‘ing’ ending gives a feeling of movement on the water even as it settles after the swans have finished diving
- The word ‘folded’ suggests that the hands are almost entwined in each other and are close together
- The fact that the ‘wings’ have been flying, but have now settled suggests that there may have been a problem in the relationship (alluded to earlier when the distance between them is mentioned) which is now over and the couple are truly together again
Winter Swans Lesson Pack from Beyond
Even more information on Winter Swans by Owen Sheers can be found in our dedicated lesson pack on the poem, found below!
Explore even more set texts from the AQA GCSE English syllabus here.