Saturday, 15 April 2017

An Armful of White Blossoms - The Poetry of Swans

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river? asks American poet Mary Oliver in her celebrated poem Swan:
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen;
a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?

One of the most iconic and evocative images of an English riverside, swans are actually found all over the world, and are the largest group within the Anatidae avian family, which also includes ducks and geese.  In the Northern Hemisphere, the birds we principally know as swans form the Cygnus genus, with the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) the most frequent: in Britain there are between five and eight thousand breeding pairs - and about twenty thousand mute swans altogether. Believed to have evolved around six thousand years ago, these svelte, imperious birds are powerful, adaptable, and have played fascinating roles in poetry. 

Did you hear it, fluting and whistling, continues Mary Oliver's poem:

A shrill dark music – like the rain pelting the trees – like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?

The poem is one of several I want to look at, in paying tribute to the majestic swan and its
relationship with poetry.  Swans seemed to glide and drift through my childhood, an almost constant
presence.  My introduction to bird watching came at the country park and bird reserve
Newmillerdam, Wakefield, where we would watch the great white beauties rise out of the water and
steal across the grass like silken supernovas; years later I would feed the swans at Roundhay, the park
close to where I lived in the leafy environs of North Leeds; on moving to the Calder Valley I would
follow the progress of proud parents as they herded fluffy, wobbly cygnets along the stony banks of
the Rochdale Canal, or watch the snow-winged swans of Shibden melt into the winter air in a milky
mirage of icy white.  As a child I loved again and again to hear Hans Christian Andersen's tale The
Ugly Duckling, where the unpopular duckling undergoes a transformation into a beautiful swan, and
was enchanted by the music of Swan Lake, to which I was introduced by a Headmistress who regaled
the school with re-tellings of the Russian folktale that inspired Tchaikovsky's ballet.   Later, on first
hearing the French composer Camille Saint-Saens' piece for cello and piano, Les cygne, from
his suite The Carnival of the Animals, I knew instinctively that its soft resplendence and slow,
sweeping grace could only represent the swan.  And yet, surprisingly, my own poetry has focused on
these gorgeous, glacial creatures only twice.  Half magnetized to their beauty, half afraid of their
reputed bone-breaking abilities, I have tended to admire them from afar, or to watch them with a
combination of attraction and uncertainty.  Research leads me to discover that other poets have felt
the same, like Marc Doty, who in his 1987 poem Turtle, Swan, explains:

the word doesn't convey the shock
of the thing, white architecture
rippling like a pond's rain-pocked skin,
beak lifting to hiss at my approach.
Magisterial, set down in elegant authority,
he let us know exactly how close we might come.

As I considered their presence in the poetry of Mary Oliver and the other examples I shall quote, I
began to reflect on the impressions they have made on  me, and to work on a short swan poem I had
recently begun.  Before that, though, I would like to share my earlier tribute to swans, which was
eventually published in my 2014 pamphlet Random Journeys: 


A frozen hulk of silver
occupies the water
like a continent.

Sliced husk of frosted glass
flecked with diamond dust,
crystal cave, pierced fruit,
water seethes within.

This thick slab of ice
encloses melded elements.

Edges fray,
thawing from inside
melting the veins and rivulets.

Here come the swans,
white coats drizzled
with the residue of rain,
backs like roadsides dulled with sludge.
They emerge from mists
phantom children
of the ice-floes.

Looking back at this nearly ten years after it was written, I'm struck at how unselfconsciously I
allowed myself to wax lyrical about the lake overall - dwelling on the diamond-like ice and
comparing its interior to veins and rivulets, and only introducing the titular swans until the fifth and
final stanza.  Its the sort of thing I'd be warier of nowadays and, I'm glad I wasn't at the  time.  For
me, there is always something quietly surprising about swans, the way they silently glide into view
without warning, the way their pace rarely seems to quicken as they float lazily along, a little like cats
in their unhurried nonchalance.  When the swans arrive, I find I have described them as wearing
"white coats," a description that fits eerily into the psychiatric territory of "the men in white coats,"
and again I sense a certain intimidation and unspoken, dangerous magic, and - considered alongside
the frozen but thawing continent, the seething water within, and the "frayed edges" of the ice - an
overtone of ecological dread, underwritten by the death-white emergence of the phantom swans,
whose rain-drizzled coats and backs like roadsides dulled with sludge might almost describe horses. 
Indeed, the poem, I realize now, is highly influenced by Edwin Muir's The Horses, one of the first
poems I studied for O Level, and which begins with the broodingly post-apocalyptic arrival of four
horses Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world:

Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence
    But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.

In WB Yeats poem The Wild Swans at Coole, we again find the introduction of the birds upon a rural

The trees are in their autumn beauty, 
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its melancholy calmness, there is something rather more
suggestive of change, and old age, than anything Biblical or Edenic in Yeats' autumnal scene.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

Typically, The Wild Swans at Coole has been regarded as a reflection of its author's sense of Ireland's
political problems, and personal decline, juxtaposed with the enduring constancy of fundamental
beauty.  As Yale University's Andrew Gates writes on the Yale Modernism Lab website:

“The Wild Swans at Coole” appeared during a significant moment in the poet’s life and stands therein as a crucial turning point. Daniel Tobin comments on the unhappiness of the poet during its 1916 composition; Yeats faced a rejection by Iseult Gonne after years of equally fruitless courtship of her mother, his beloved Ireland was in the midst of turmoil and rebellion, and, at the age of fifty-one, Yeats saw his autumn years rapidly descending upon him (Tobin, 57). Yet, although this melancholy looms throughout the poem, Yeats succeeds in establishing ... a response to it, transcending his individual despair through the creation of the poetic object itself. The first stanza, in its impersonal reflection on an idyllic natural scene, is reminiscent of Yeats’ earlier poetry and quest for the eternal and immutable. This is contrasted with the introduction of the poet’s voice in the second stanza,

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

...offering a forceful juxtaposition of his own experience of fleeting time with the permanence he
seeks... How can a mortal, defined by temporality, make beauty eternal a part of himself?

Gates comments on the folklorish "nine and fifty," and quotes Estonian academic Martin
Puhvel, who remarked in a 1986 paper that any reader who has ever paid even fleeting
attention to a flock of wild waterfowl can hardly avoid reflecting that the counting of such a large
number of wild swans would be no mean feat, and surmised that this numerical literalism serves
further to distance the poem from human reality.
Gates explains that Puhvel sees the poem as expressing a static contrast between the “fairy
immortality and immutability” of the swans and the strictly linear nature of the aging poet’s life, but
then goes on to contest this categorical bifurcation as one which:

fails to recognize that change is endemic to the poem as a whole. Even in the first stanza, we witness
the pall of mutability hanging over the bucolic scene; the water, at first mirroring a still sky, returns
with the epithet “brimming,” indicating that nothing on earth can wholly reflect that celestial
stillness of eternalized beauty that the poet seeks. Moreover, the beauty of the trees is their
“autumn beauty” glimpsed “under the October twilight”; Yeats has left behind the carefree days of
summer, illusorily endless, and now sees himself standing upon an unmistakable temporal limen. He
is in the autumn of his life.

Australian Literature Professor Raymond Younis has suggested that The Wild Swans at Coole
implies a certain empirical dualism, whereby the poet is able to contextualise his struggles by virtue
of his own insertion in the scene, and that Without interjecting himself—the aging poet—into the
contemplation of the eternal glimpsed through the swans, an infrangible gulf remains between his
reality and his ideal.

As such, we would have to conclude that the poem is far more of a philosophical than a nature poem,
and Andrew Gates comments that to view the piece through the prism of Younis' analysis is to
gauge  that the highly personal and local nature of the poet’s encounter with these swans—who
remain beautiful nevertheless—offers the possibility of reconciliation. Norma Hahn comments on the
nature of this encounter, asserting that

Yeats places himself here as representative of man caught in the flux of time, and of artist torn by the
exigencies of that ever-present theme of his poetry, the opposing values of being and becoming. From
the anguish of his experience, the poet turns, not for escape but for confirmation of the worth of such
suffering, to the opening image of the poem. He sees that the swans still ‘paddle in the
cold/Companionable streams or climb the air’…The swans—art images—retain beauty…Suffering is
a part of the experience of beauty.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air; 
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will, 
Attend upon them still.

For Gates, the poem's concluding stanza represents an appeal to the transpersonal nature of beauty,
whereby an eternal beauty of the human condition is extrapolated from the very vicissitudes of the
individual’s life.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away? 

Nearly a century earlier, Alfred Tennyson was to turn to it in a very different manner, but one in which this commingling of suffering and beauty would also be distilled into something symbolic.

It is interesting that Tennyson's 1830 poem The Dying Swan also, as if setting the mould for all swan poetry which followed, also commences upon a peaceful, if "doleful", rural scene:

The plain was grassy, wild and bare,
Wide, wild, and open to the air,
Which had built up everywhere
An under-roof of doleful gray.

Almost like a mirror image of the swan's muteness, Tennyson's river runs with an inner voice, as

Adown it floated a dying swan,
And loudly did lament.
It was the middle of the day.
Ever the weary wind went on,
And took the reed-tops as it went.

As if to freeze the image in our minds, the poet omits the swan from his next stanza. Like an author skilfully leaving the protagonist at some cliff-edge moment in a story, Tennyson turns his attention instead to some deceptively idyllic descriptions of blue peaks rising against cold-white sky, weeping willows, sighing wind and tangled water courses ... shot over with purple, and green, and yellow.

It is then that the focus is returned to the dying swan, whose silence is broken with a death-hymn, which, far from being presented tragically, took the soul / Of that waste place with joy.

Tennyson is making post-Classical poetry's first well-known use of the Ancient belief that an expiring swan will deliver a beautiful burst of song in its final moments of life - the so-called "Swan Song."  The joyfulness the swan pours forth is Hidden in sorrow:

The warble was low, and full and clear;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear

Such musical ends are the lots of swans in the poetry of Ovid and Virgil, in the natural philosophy of Socrates and Aristotle, in Aesop's Fables and multitudinously in the annals of Greek mythology, as well as being referenced many times in  Shakespeare:

I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan,
Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death,
And from the organ-pipe of frailty sings
His soul and body to their lasting rest

(King John)

Let music sound while he doth make his choice;
Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music: that the comparison
May stand more proper, my eye shall be the stream
And watery death-bed for him.

(The Merchant of Venice)

I will play the swan.
And die in music.


Tennyson's swan, in acknowledging its death, soon sweeps into a magnificent celebration of life:

But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow'd forth on a carol free and bold;
As when a mighty people rejoice
With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold,
And the tumult of their acclaim is roll'd
Thro' the open gates of the city afar,
To the shepherd who watcheth the evening star.
And the creeping mosses and clambering weeds,
And the willow-branches hoar and dank,
And the wavy swell of the soughing reeds,
And the wave-worn horns of the echoing bank,
And the silvery marish-flowers that throng
The desolate creeks and pools among,
Were flooded over with eddying song.

I am reminded, in this elegiac images, of Mary Oliver's closing lines, where she envisages the swan in the context of another kind of departure, this time not mortal but migratory:

And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross
Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings
Like the stretching light of the river?

Yet also, in the way that Tennyson's unexpectedly life-affirming swan-song draws our attention to the beauty of the world as captured by its association with the swan, of Rilke's swan, which

infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide

...and of Owen Sheers' icebergs of white feather, of Heinrich Heine's supposition that

The swan, like the soul of the poet,
By the dull world is ill understood

and of Milton's magisterial pronouncement:

The swan, with arched neck
Between her white wings mantling proudly, rows
Her state with oary feet.

Byron was to typically romanticize the swan's demise, and wish himself into its place:

Place me on Sunium's marbled steep,
Where nothing save the waves and I
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die

While Coleridge, in a somewhat lighter moment, offered this observation on the swan's music of mortality:

Swans sing before they die -
't were no bad thing
Should certain persons die
before they sing

While Coleridge composed this whimsical jibe, his friend William Wordsworth was apt to see the swan in more poetic terms:

Let beeves and home-bred kine partake
The sweets of Burn-mill meadow,
The swan on still St. Mary's lake
Float double, swan and shadow!

an image mirrored by Wordsworth's contemporary Thomas Hood:

There's a double beauty whenever a swan
Swims on a lake with her double thereon

and which runs to the heart of the very territory I seemed instinctively to want to reach in my attention to the swan earlier this year, when I stood on frosty banks, watching how the glacial, silent swans, like Arctic mermaids sculpted out of quartz, swept over water in rippling reflections, and seemed also to bleed ice-spiked, pearly blood into the lakes and rivers, their dreamy downs melting and merging into snow-silvered waters.  My poem came in moments, the swan floating over the page as I sat within the comforting confines of a warm Manchester café, windows slashed by the sleet of a bitter winter's day, the shimmering swan blending into my memory like a soft white blossom on a field of snow, sinking into the mind in silent beauty.


Floating beside weeping willow
where sea-green tresses spill
like rain into the lake,
you drift in silky silence,
slit the water
with a sword of snow.

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