When Apollo entered the world, sacred swans circled the island seven times for it was the seventh day of the month. At once Zeus lavished many gifts upon his son including a golden miter, a chariot drawn by swans, and a lyre since legend has it at birth Apollo said, “Dear to me shall be the lyre and bow, and in oracles I shall reveal to men the inexorable will of Zeus.”
Apollo is the Greek God of music and poetry, arts and archery amongst other things. Swans were held to be sacred to him. The most common swan in Europe was the mute swan, not quite mute, but not a renowned singer. But legend held it that at the moment of death the Swan, finding itself moving closer to an afterlife with Apollo, would erupt into a beautiful funeral song.
So it is that we give the term swan song to a final performance. One last great moment before retiring to anonymity.
The wild swan’s death-hymn took the soul
Of that waste place with joy
Hidden in sorrow: at first to the ear
The warble was low, and full and clear; …
But anon her awful jubilant voice,
With a music strange and manifold,
Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold;
The words of the Poet Laureate of Britain and Ireland, Alfed Lord Tennyson above inspired the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns to write Le cygne which is the central theme to the ballet, The Dying Swan which was performed by Anna Pavlova from 1905. The Russian ballerina toured Australia and New Zealand in the 1920’s and sparked off a 90 year row between the two nations. The argument was over which country invented the eponymous Pavlova dessert. Oxford English Dictionary ruled in 2010 that based on analysis of cookbooks the dish originated in New Zealand.
And so to Gernald Stern, who celebrates his birthday today, sharing it with another great American poet; Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Swan Song; by Gerald Stern
A bunch of old snakeheads down by the pond
carrying on the swan tradition — hissing
inside their white bodies, raising and lowering their heads
like ostriches, regretting only the sad ritual
that forced them to waddle back into the water
after their life under the rocks, wishing they could lie again
in the sun
and dream of spreading their terrifying wings;
wishing, this time, they could sail through the sky like
their tails rigid, their white manes fluttering,
their mouths open, their sharp teeth flashing,
drops of mercy pouring from their eyes,
bolts of wisdom from their foreheads.