Swan song

Swan song

The phrase "swan song" is a reference to an ancient belief that the Mute Swan ("Cygnus olor") is completely mute during its lifetime until the moment just before it dies, when it sings one beautiful song.Tennyson, "The Dying Swan," [http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext05/8eptn10.txt The Early poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson] (Project Gutenberg text), search on "shawm." This and other sources assert not merely that the swan sings, but that the song is beautiful.]

It has been thought since antiquity that this belief is false. "Mute" swans are not actually mute during life – they produce snorts, shrill noises, grunts, and hisses – and they do not sing as they die. However, it is also contested by many that the swan in which this legend refers to is in fact, an extinct species that did exist in classical times. The "Mute" swan of today could be unrelated.
In A.D. 77. Pliny the Elder refuted it in "Natural History" (book 10, chapter xxxii: "olorum morte narratur flebilis cantus, falso, ut arbitror, aliquot experimentis", "observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false"). Peterson et al. note that "Cygnus olor" is "Not mute but lacks bugling call, honking, grunting, and hissing on occasion." [cite book|title=A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe|author=Peterson, Roger Tory, Guy Mountfort, P. A. D. Hollum, P. A. D. Hollom|year=2001|publisher=Houghton Mifflin Field Guides|id=ISBN 0618166750, p. 49] The legend has remained so appealing that over the centuries it has continued to appear in various artistic works. Aesop's fable of "The Swan Mistaken for a Goose" alludes to it. [cite book|title=The Complete Fables|last=Aesop|publisher=Penguin The black metal band Cradle of Filth also makes references to a swan song in many of their songs.Classics|year=1998|id=ISBN 0-14-044649-4 p. 127: "The swan, who had been caught by mistake instead of the goose, began to sing as a prelude to its own demise. His voice was recognized and the song saved his life." Annotation by Robert and Olivia Temple: "The premise of this fable is the odd tradition of 'the swan song.'" [http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0140446494&id=ZB-rVxPvtPEC&pg=PA127&lpg=PA127&dq=%22swan+song%22&sig=ujFR5au8JTbtvwGpAWhvvS7G59Q] ] Ovid mentions it in "The Story of Picus and Canens." [cite web|author=Ovid|publisher=University of Virginia|url=http://etext.virginia.edu/latin/ovid/trans/Metamorph14.htm#_Toc487618609|title=Metamorphoses (Kline) 14, the Ovid Collection, Univ. of Virginia E-Text Center; Bk XIV:320-396: The transformation of Picus "There, she poured out her words of grief, tearfully, in faint tones, in harmony with sadness, just as the swan sings once, in dying, its own funeral song."]

The well-known Orlando Gibbons madrigal (The Silver Swan) states the legend thus:

:The silver Swan, who living had no Note,:when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.:Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,:thus sang her first and last, and sang no more::"Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!:"More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise."

Chaucer wrote of "The Ialous swan, ayens his deth that singeth". [cite book | last = Skeat
first = Walter W.
authorlink =
coauthors =
year = 1896
title = Chaucer: the Minor Poems
publisher = Clarendon Press
location =
id =
, p. 86 [http://books.google.com/books?ie=UTF-8&vid=0hliCKE7HwiH6WTLl3I&id=je99Q5sUBwEC&as_brr=1&pg=PA86&lpg=PA86&dq=chaucer+%22ayens+his+deth+that+singeth%22]
] In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Portia declaims "Let music sound while he doth make his choice;/Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,/Fading in music." ["The Merchant of Venice," Act 3 Scene 2 [http://www-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare/merchant/merchant.3.2.html] ]

Tennyson's poem "The Dying Swan" is a poetic evocation of the beauty of the supposed song and so full of detail as to imply that he had actually heard it:

: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;:As when a mighty people rejoice:With shawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold...


By extension, "swan song" has become an idiom referring to a final theatrical or dramatic appearance, or any final work or accomplishment. For example, Franz Schubert's collection of songs, published in his year of death, 1828, is known as the Schwanengesang (German for "swan song"). It generally carries the connotation that the performer is aware that this is the last performance of his or her lifetime, and is expending everything in one magnificent final effort. Anton Chekhov's one-act play, "The Swan Song" (1887), describes an aging actor who, while sitting alone in a darkened theatre, ruminates on his past. Agatha Christie's famous mystery novel "And Then There Were None" includes, as a plot device, a gramophone record entitled "Swan Song." When played, it accuses the houseguests and servants of murders that, for various reasons, they were not punished for. The killer intends to punish the wicked as a final act.

Robert R. McCammon's book entitled Swan Song tells the haunting story of a young girl in a post apocalyptic world who will be the savior of the human race.

Swan Song is also a Led Zeppelin tribute band.


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