One of the most beautiful passages in world literature is Socrates’s death scene in Plato’s Phaedo. But the first instance of a “swan song” as a mournful lamentation is in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. According to the myth, the swan is a quiet, calm swimmer in placid waters until it prophesies its own impending death, then the swan’s soul sings a final beautiful music before departing from earth unto heaven.
Socrates refers to this myth in his last hours:
I seem to you more common than the swans regarding prophecy, which when they sense that it’s necessary to die, they sing before death; indeed, at that time, most beautifully do they sing, rejoicing that they are about to go to the divine, the very thing they serve [Apollo]. And men, because of their own fear of death, they both slander the swans and say that they lament their death, singing because of pain; they do not consider that no bird sings when in hunger or cold or during any other pain it undergoes, nor does the nightingale, the swallow, nor the hoopoe, which they say laments singing because of its pain. But these do not appear to me to sing because they are pained, nor do the swans, but I think, since they are prophetic, being from Apollo, and foreknowing the good things in Hades they sing and rejoice during that day more than in the time before. I myself think I am a partner of the swans and a follower of the same god, and I have the gift of prophecy from my master not worse than theirs, nor do I think I am free of a life more melancholy than theirs. (84e-85b)
For Socrates, death is not to be feared. And so his swan song is not a lamentation but a joyful melody of things to come. Furthermore, the myth of the swan’s lamentation recurs in Tennyson’s “The Dying Swan”:
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.
With an inner voice the river ran,
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.
Some blue peaks in the distance rose,
And white against the cold-white sky,
Shone out their crowning snows.
One willow over the river wept,
And shook the wave as the wind did sigh;
Above in the wind was the swallow,
Chasing itself at its own wild will,
And far thro’ the marish green and still
The tangled water-courses slept,
Shot over with purple, and green, and yellow.
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;
And floating about the under-sky,
Prevailing in weakness, the coronach stole
Sometimes afar, and sometimes anear;
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.
Of course, W.B. Yeats is known for his swan symbols. For him, the swan symbolizes permanence and constancy in a cosmos of whirling change and impermanence. The swan mates for life, and so its love is divine and pure. But the swan can also represent violent beauty, the brutal knowledge of the gods, a symbol of divine prophecy in the cycles of history. Here, we think of Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “Leda and the Swan”:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating stillAbove the staggering girl, her thighs caressedBy the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.How can those terrified vague fingers pushThe feathered glory from her loosening thighs?And how can body, laid in that white rush,But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?A shudder in the loins engenders thereThe broken wall, the burning roof and towerAnd Agamemnon dead.Being so caught up,So mastered by the brute blood of the air,Did she put on his knowledge with his powerBefore the indifferent beak could let her drop?
III dream of a Ledaean body, bentAbove a sinking fire, a tale that sheTold of a harsh reproof, or trivial eventThat changed some childish day to tragedy—Told, and it seemed that our two natures blentInto a sphere from youthful sympathy,Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,Into the yolk and white of the one shell.IIIAnd thinking of that fit of grief or rageI look upon one child or t’other thereAnd wonder if she stood so at that age—For even daughters of the swan can shareSomething of every paddler’s heritage—And had that color upon cheek or hair,And thereupon my heart is driven wild:She stands before me as a living child.IVHer present image floats into the mind—Did Quattrocento finger fashion itHollow of cheek as though it drank the windAnd took a mess of shadows for its meat?And I though never of Ledaean kindHad pretty plumage once—enough of that,Better to smile on all that smile, and showThere is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
For Yeats, Gonne’s beauty is fashioned by genetic determinism–she has no choice or voluntary will over her image, beauty’s power of influencing poetic utterance. Hers is a fatalistic terrible beauty of dreamy imagining. Like Helen’s beauty, and like Leda’s, it leads to unknown and unexpected political consequences in the social realm.
Yeats’s Ledaean dream is an epiphany of secular transcendence over the base vulgarity of everyday being. The swan symbolizes brute knowledge, an awakening to forms beyond human will and imagination. These forms sustain us as we succumb to the travails of mortality, losing our “pretty plumage” in old age.
In “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Yeats returns to the swan symbol:
Some moralist or mythological poet
Compares the solitary soul to a swan;
I am satisfied with that,
Satisfied if a troubled mirror show it,
Before that brief gleam of its life be gone,
An image of its state;
The wings half spread for flight,
The breast thrust out in pride
Whether to play, or to ride
Those winds that clamor of approaching night.
Critics haven’t satisfactorily addressed these lines. A. Norman Jeffares claims that the “moralist or mythological poet” is Percy Bysshe Shelley. But with the preponderance of allusions to Plato in The Tower, as well as in this poem, it seems more likely that Yeats’s allusion of the moralizing poet is Socrates. Socrates a poet? Let’s not forget that the famous death scene in the Phaedo begins with a conversation about Socrates penning sacred poetry in prison. In his last hours, Socrates turns to writing poetry in honor of the god Apollo.
To me, it’s obvious that Yeats recasts his swan symbol to accord with Socrates’s rhetoric of last things. The swan song is not a lamentation on “a troubled mirror,” the solitary soul reflecting on images of violence, loss, and depravity, but is rather a glorious elegy, an encomium to a beautiful death, a life lived well, eudaimonia, and stoic resignation in the face of necessity. The swan’s song is a headlong engagement with fate–and Yeats’s point seems to be that we can freely choose satisfaction in preparation for our flight.
What a beautiful, beautiful thought… what Yeats would call a blessing…