Mystery and beauty: Swans celebrated in art and poetry

by | Jan 18, 2023 | Maritime Art, Culture and History, Poetry and Music

Since time immemorial, humankind has been fascinated no end by swans. These aquatic birds are not only beautiful and elegant. They have an air of mystery about them. Encyclopedia Britannica describes them thus:

Swans are gracefully long-necked, heavy-bodied, big-footed birds that glide majestically when swimming and fly with slow wingbeats and with necks outstretched. They migrate in diagonal formation or V-formation at great heights, and no other waterfowl moves as fast on the water or in the air.

Small wonder that swans have enthralled artists for ages. The following are five notable paintings:

A summer morning, 1897
Rupert Bunny (Australian, 1864–1947)
Courtesy of the Google Art Project 

Swans, 1927
P. Krumel (American, 20th century)
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Swans, 1918
Bruno Liljefors (Swedish, 1860-1939)
Courtesy of Bukowskis auction house

Swans in reeds, no later than 1832
Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774–1840)
Courtesy of the State Hernitage Museum, Russia

Stretching swans, 1915
Bruno Liljefors (Swedish, 1860–1939)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Swans and the poet

Perhaps the best poem in the English langauge about swans was written by William Butler Yeats, Irish poet, prose writer and winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize for Literature. Yeats describes a bevy of swans at twilight. He is captivated by their mystery and beauty. At one point he envies their spirit and freedom: “Their hearts have not grown old; / Passion or conquest, wander where they will, / Attend upon them still.” Reading between the lines, one gets the sense that the poet is thinking of his own limitations and his mortality.

Here’s the complete text of the poem:

The Wild Swans at Coole

by William Butler Yeats

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

~ Barista Uno

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