Invective Against Swan(n)s

Swan P5073985_edited-1

And the soul, O ganders, being lonely, flies
Beyond your chilly chariots, to the skies.

—Wallace Stevens, from Invective against Swans

After a visit to the Morgan Library earlier this year, I set myself the task of re-reading Proust’s Swann’s Way. I have read Proust’s entire magnum opus once with a certain amount of satisfaction (though I’ll confess to having commented at one point that Proust could have used an editor), but it seemed time to start again. (No need to rush, as copyright laws in the U.S. mean the last three volumes of this edition will not be available here until 2019—“longer than Proust’s original public had” to wait—about which I have no comment.)

Turns out that Proust was actually something of a pruner of his prose. Alex Ross reported that “one of his typescripts . . . begins”

“At the time of that morning, whose memory I would like to fix, I was already ill; I would be up all night and went to bed only during the day. However, the time when I would go to bed early and, with a few short interruptions, would sleep until morning, was not that far in the past, and I was still hoping that it would return.” Proust . . . crosses out those sentences and writes, “For a long time, I went to bed early.”

The exhibit was full of delicious details like that. One of my favorites was the revelation that the famous madeleine started its life as toast dipped in tea. Another set to rest definitively, it seemed to me, any remaining doubts about the composer of “la petite phrase” given in the novel to Proust’s fictional composer, Vinteuil:

In 1910, Proust collected material from the Saint-Beuve exercise books to create a narration about Swann. At this stage, the “little phrase” that will become the “national anthem” of Swann and Odette’s love is still referred to as a theme from Saint-Saens’s Sonata for Piano and Violin. It is only in 1913 on the galleys of Swann’s Way that it is definitely attributed to Vinteuil. [quotation from an exhibit wall plaque]

The new translation of Swann’s Way, by Lydia Davis, reads like a dream, but I nonetheless managed to stall out, if only temporarily, at the “Mama’s kiss” passage. At the same time, I got caught up in swans of the single “n” sort. I have resolved (again) to pick up the thread of Swann’s Way, but meanwhile, about those swans . . .

Sometime back, one of my favorite ModPovians* popped up on the Wallace Stevens discussion forum (which had grown into a behemoth over the life of the course) to ask why Stevens loved doves but hated swans, citing, among other things, his poem Invective against SwansThe discussion ranged from the influence of Mallarmé on Stevens to bits of scatological wit interpreting a line from Invective that certainly asks for it, “The crows anoint the statues with their dirt.” I don’t know that we concluded anything definitive, but we had fun.

Swans swam into my vision once again in John Ashbery’s These Lacustrine Cities and in the Auden poem, Lakes, that was a possible inspiration. So I thought, what the hey, it’s way too hot to go outside, let’s see what I can dig up about swans in poetry, music, and art.

It wasn’t long before I, too, was ready to hurl invectives at the poor birds. Of references to swans, there’s a never-ending stream, a lake, a geyser, a flood. Leda and the Swan, as but one example, has spawned a veritable cottage industry of its own. Aside from Yeats’s foray into that peculiar region, artists who have found the subject irresistible include Bos, Cezanne, Correggio, da Vinci, Dali, Géricault, Rubens, Tintoretto, Veronese . . . well, you get the idea. In poetry, it’s much the same; while the attitude toward them may have changed over time, swans are always with us, or so it seems.

Swan P5073979_edited-1There’s Baudelaire, from whence comes The Swan, with these lines

And there I saw, one morning at the hour
When toil awakes beneath the cold, clear sky,
And the road roars upon the silent air,
A swan who had escaped his cage, and walked
On the dry pavement with his webby feet,
And trailed his spotless plumage on the ground.

Mallarmé was no kinder to the bird:

All his neck will shake off this white death-agony
Inflicted by space on the bird which denies space
But not the horror of the earth where his wings are caught.

Yeats could be counted on to give the swan full poetic treatment, but then who wouldn’t, when, “Upon the brimming water among the stones/Are nine-and-fifty swans”?  Robinson Jeffers, too, exhorted us to Love the Wild Swan:

Does it matter whether you hate your…self? At least
Love your eyes that can see, your mind that can
Hear the music, the thunder of the wings. Love the wild swan.

Not to mention Mary Oliver, who wrote:

And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

Ruth Schwartz had a slightly different take, I’d say: “Beauty isn’t the point here; of course/the swan is beautiful,/But . . .” , as did Ogden Nash, whose swan was “a narcissistic snob.” Well, really, what would you say about a swan who “claims to have never heard of Pavlova”?

Not only English speakers and the French are at it. Apparently, Enrique Gonzáles Martínez got so fed up with Ruben Dario’s “snow-white Olympic swan” that he proposed to Wring the Swan’s Neck (translated by Samuel Beckett, no less). I could go on and on and on . . . but I’ll stop, with just one more. I mean, after all, what’s a person to do when the best sort of blogging friend goes and quotes Olim lacus colueram in a comment? Of course, I had to look that up.

Olim lacus colueram (Once in Lakes I Made My Home)

Once in lakes I made my home,
once I dwelt in beauty;
that was when I was a swan.
Alas, poor me!
Now I am black
and roasted to a turn!

On the spit I turn and turn;
the fire roasts me through.
Now I am presented at the feast;
alas, poor me!
Now I am black
and roasted to a turn!

Now in a serving dish I lie,
and can no longer fly.
Gnashing teeth confront me.
Alas, poor me!
Now I am black
and roasted to a turn!

Now, those medieval Goliards really knew how to skewer a swan!

Buttercup Swan P5073973_edited-1<<<>>>

Listening List  

For a listening list on Spotify, click here.

On Youtube:

Arcadelt, Il bianco e dolce cigno

Saint-Saëns, Le Cygne

Nathan Chan isn’t 11 anymore, but he spoke so touchingly about Le Cygne, I wanted to post a link to the video. For a current, and lovely, performance by him, click here.)

Here is Pavlova dancing to the choreography of Mikhail Fokine:

Tchaikovsky, Danse des Cygnes, Coda, from Swan Lake

Sibelius, The Swan of Tuonela, from the Lemminkäinen Suite 

Orff, olim lacus colueram, from Carmina Burana


Postscript: For the rest of the summer, I’ll be offline more than on. As I write, the weather is projected to be less onerous for a while—let us hope—and real live guests will be joining us here in August. Not to mention my promise to myself to get back to Swann. Though it’s possible I could get derailed once again . . .

BooksI look forward to reconnecting with you all in September, if not before.


Credits: The quotations may be found at the links indicated in the text. The photographs are my own.

*“ModPovians” is my term for participants in the Modern and Contemporary Poetry MOOC, which will be offered again this September.

23 thoughts on “Invective Against Swan(n)s

  1. T.

    I have stayed away from reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time because I felt I wasn’t ready. Good to know about the work of Lydia Davis–I like her prose, and have finally bought Flaubert’s Madame Bovary last year because of her translation. Now it looks like I will finally have the courage to read Swann’s Way. Do you know if she will be working on the two volumes as well?


    Re: Mary Oliver and swans, I know of at least three different poems by her with swans in the title. One is the poem you included in your post.

    Another is found in Winter Hours. Also called “The Swan,” you can read it here. The same one appeared in Wild Geese: Selected Poems (part of the Bloodaxe World Poets series), where she talked about her process of writing it:

    “…I was watching geese not swans when I began the poem – that is, thought of the poem, felt it in concept, and wrote down a few lines. Since I had only recently written a poem about geese, I thought I would intensify the poem’s display, and make something even fancier than wild geese out of the beautiful bird shapes I was watching…

    …The form was no problem – long sentences on short lines, a little enjambment to keep things going (the swan is in motion) but not too much, so that the lines, like the swan’s movements, are decisive, and keep their dignity. Take out some commas, for smoothness and because almost every poem in the universe moves too slowly. Then, once the “actual” is in place (in words), begin to address the reason for taking the reader’s good and valuable time – invite the reader to want to do something beyond merely receiving beauty, and to configure in his or her own mind what that might be.” (pg. 63-64)

    Another appears in one of my favourite books that she has written – Evidence. It is called “Swans.” You can read it here (it is on page 2).

    Oh, but Mary Oliver does love these beautiful creatures. It might not come as a surprise to know that she has a book called Swan: Poems and Prose Poems. She begins it with: “What can I say that I have not said before?”


    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      T.: So nice to see you here again. As for the Proust, the new translation is in 7 volumes, each by a different translator, though with an overall editor to make it all cohere. I suspect where you are, you can get all 7 without this ridiculous wait. Try at least Swann’s Way translated by Davis, then see what you think. as for Oliver, yes, I noticed she even had a book entitled Swan. Guess she missed out on the modernist/post-modernist rejection of them, eh?

      1. T.

        Thanks for the recommendation. I will check it out.

        The poem you posted was from the Swan book, which is apt. Here is another that I want to share. I think it complements your plans to go offline and enjoy the rest of the summer.

        I forgot to say that I loved that you posted the video of Anna Pavlova, because that’s what came to mind when I started reading this. I learned about her many years ago because of my love for Saint-Saëns’s Le Cygne.


  2. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    Ithank you for this very interesting post! I’ve read Proust too, long time ago, all of it – but feel not ill enough at the moment to start it again :-) I mean: I liked it, but once is enough when life gets shorter (that’s what I think at the moment, a bit cast down by my swan-throat).
    The reason why swans are not that much liked may be in their a) cool perfection – nothing cuddly about them , and b) their very hateful stare (interpretation, of course) and c) hissing at people and being seemingly aggressive. Big beauty is harder to swallow, maybe.
    You gave me an idea – look at my blog: only some photographs from London, but you may like them.

    PS from Prufrock’s: Here is a link to Britta’s post with photographs of Old Swan House:

  3. Mark Kerstetter

    I saw black swans when I passed through Gainsesville earlier this summer…. and I’ll always remember Oksana Baiul’s beauty skating as the swan…. The unedited version of Proust’s opener is astonishing; can you imagine the whole book written that way!…. This is the year of Lydia Davis, with universal praise for both her short fiction and her translations. I’ve added her collected stories to the very top of my wish list…. And by the way, all of the lyrics of Carmina Burana are remarkable.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I’d forgotten about Baiul, and agreed! Re the Proust edits, yes, can you imagine? A book at least twice as long, it would have been, don’t you think? Right, too, re Davis. I listened to a Poem Talk on a short piece by her this AM. Friko was right to point her out, I’d say. I’ve only read the first two pieces in the volume so far, but I liked the sensibility in each. I’m not surprised to learn that all the lyrics of Carmina Burana are remarkable–that Orff’s piece was based on these medieval texts is yet another thing about which I had no idea. So much to learn, so little time.

  4. David N

    I too am liable to inveigh against Swann and swans.

    Marcel for nearly killing me and inclining me to give up well on my way to the end with his endless disquisitions on what Albertine may or may not have got up to with her little girlfriends – the Sapphic dimension doesn’t make it any more interesting. I may have bored you with this before, but I propose that the tedious swathes of Proust should be livened up with Colette, an author I’d prefer over Marcel any day for her more human view of humanity.

    And swans for their savagery. Glad I wasn’t there in Regent’s Park where one drowned a dog for coming too close. They are beautiful as they glide down rivers, though, and the cries of the whooper and Bewick, as you know, dazzle (cf finale of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony and Rautavaara’s Cantus arcticus.

    You can’t go away completely! We are too dependent…even though there will be breaks aplenty in August.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Ah, a man after my own heart when it comes to Albertine. I thought all of that the least believable part of the book. And even with Mama’s Kiss, I found myself longing for another Leopard. In any event, I’ve now been totally derailed on continuing on with Swann’s Way, though I suspect I’ll come to it at some point. In my defense, I did stay among the French, Poulenc, to be precise, and of his letters, I’ve enjoyed every minute.

      Now, as for the cries of the whooper and the Bewick, no, I don’t know them, and clearly more’s the pity. Also, until I read about Sibelius’ Fifth quite recently, I didn’t know swan-calls featured there as well. (See how much I don’t know? It’s really appalling.) I’m delighted, though, to report that we have just this week bought tickets to hear the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, under Neeme Järvi, play the Fifth this November If you come for Die Frau, perhaps you can come for this as well, who knows?

      1. David N

        This must have been before your time, because it gives the sound of the swancries: Swan Songs at Twilight. I thought I vaguely remembered you writing about Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, which also uses a recording of the swancries. I think I posted the movement in question from YouTube, maybe in the swan entry among the Sibelius entries.

        Our common but equally lovely swans are silent cry-wise, of course, but make incredible communicative noises by the swishing of their wings (THAT I have yet to hear).

        Oh, my hero conducting one of the greatest symphonies: that’s further enticement (the sticking-point is that J doesn’t ever want to see Die Frau ohne Schatten again, but he doesn’t have to come with us. Maybe the Met would be an enticement in itself).

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: Your memory serves you perfectly about Rautavaara, but did I know that at any point I was hearing swan cries? The answer, as you may expect, is no! It is much the same as when I say to the Edu-Mate, what bird is that, hearing a call we should both know well. Her answer? “The feathered kind.”

          What? Can there be too many of Die Frau? (Of course, I write as one who has seen it only once, so not any credibility there.) I hope upon hope that this can be overcome, but, if not, rest assured, we are planning to come to England next summer, as nearly without doubt as life allows.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: Now, this is priceless, Ogden Nash taking the p**s out of the entire Carnival! I’d only found the one little bit, but thanks to you, I’ve now got hold of the whole thing,, and from the introduction, it’s a romp:

      Camille Saint-Saëns
      Was wracked with pains,
      When people addressed him,
      As Saint Sanes.
      He held the human race to blame,
      Because it could not pronounce his name.

      This particularly appeals to me because I have a terrible time pronouncing his name. A friend constantly corrects me, because I leave off the final “s.” Of course, if I’d listen to Thomas D, here,, I wouldn’t go so wrong so often . . . maybe.

  5. wanderer

    We learnt it at school for the ‘Verse Speaking’ competition (does anyone still do ‘Verse
    Speaking’ – that is a choir of spoken word) and to this day I remember it word for witty word. Needless to say, we eclipsed the other more predictable entrants and stole the gold. That our piano teacher had her piano wheeled onto the concert platform (to gasps of surprise) and played the musical intro to each stanza was not an insignificant part of the victory.

  6. shoreacres

    What? There’s anti-swan prejudice about in the world? Silly people. In my world, there’s nothing so elegant, so desirable, so utterly out-of-reach and yet compelling as a Swan. A word of explanation: that would be the Nautor Swan, the boat I would have if I (a) won the lottery, (b) received A Really Big Inheritance from a previously unknown relative, or (c) found a few unclaimed millions in the middle of the street and was given half for my honesty in turning it in.

    You can see my Swans here. I’m not greedy. I’ll take the small one. Click on the Swan 53, and then you can click a link for a virtual tour. Not only is the boat elegant and well designed, they sail like a dream. The 53 would be large enough for me to take part of the windfall and hire a lovely, congenial couple as crew and cook. That way, I could take the helm or do navigating as I pleased, and spend the rest of the time reading and writing, while we make our way down island.

    Or, I may just go back to work…. ;)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I know less than nothing about boats, but I took a look, and this is definitely a swan I can endorse! What you envision sounds divine. Hey, we can dream, can’t we?

  7. friko

    Would Flanders and Swann be too far below your cultural horizons to merit a mention on my part? Hilarious and very English, but not up to your usual standards.

    There is, of course, the story of Lohengrin, which was hijacked by Wagner but first turned up, via swan-powered conveyance, in the 13th century, courtesy of Konrad von Wuerzburg, who named his hero Schwanritter.

    Have a lovely time, with or without the seasons of Swann. I laboured under the belief that The Decameron merited a reread over the dog days but gave up in favour of Jane Gardam’s latest.
    I shall get back to the time of pestilence tale by tale. Eventually.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: You may be amused to know that you are not the first to mention Flanders & Swann to me. I knew nothing about them, but J certainly did. More to come on this . . . . Meanwhile, I am most relieved to learn of your aborted re-read of The Decameron, particularly as I have not read it even once! Gardam seems a more liveable choice . . . and, as you may to The Decameron, so perhaps may I return to Swann’s Way. Eventually.

  8. angela

    Lovely swan pictures…thou, frankly, cannot stand water birds in general except for the stately snowy egret. You are to be admired, Proust is on my list, but rather daunted by all I have read regarding the tome. I found a used copy of Davis’s translation…perhaps if you blog about your reread in the Fall, I shall crack open the spine. Enjoy your weather and friends.. ~ a

      1. angela

        You read my mind, Sue! I was grasping for the heron’s name…so beautiful…as is your picture and post. Tonight our weather is a bit like CO, and I sit with my windows open wishing I had matches to light an oil lamp — the heron post helps me to picture Fall, a time for contemplation, beauty, and to await the drawing of mother’s blanket upon all of us who reside in a State with seasons. ~

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          angela: Lovely words about the fall–though I’m glad it’s a little ways off as yet. In the next post’s slideshow, you’ll see another heron (though from further away–as often happens, even when I think I’m well out of sight, the heron sees me before I get close enough and flies away).

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