Not mine, the swan’s. I have been seeing and photographing a lot of these critters lately and the phrase ‘swan song’ came to mind. What’s that all about?
So I dove into the internet to find out what I don’t know. It was lots. For one thing, the name ‘swan’ fits the phrase. It comes from the Indo-European root swen (to sound, to sing).
We all know the term swan song means a final performance, or act, or gesture, upon dying or retirement or otherwise withdrawing from whatever it was we were doing. It is used mostly for performers of all stripes, and public figures, but not exclusively.
So where does it come from: It comes from the sound of a dying swan, according to legend and lore, and even a small bit of science.
The legend’s so old that the debunking came way back in AD 77 (way before Snopes, by the way). In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote in Natural History: “Observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false.”
But why ruin a good story with facts, right? Playrights, poets and other authors continued to use the swan song imagery long after the Pliny pronouncement, right up to today.
Chaucer wrote: ‘The Ialous swan, ayens his deth that singeth’ [The jealous swan, sings before his death]. And Shakespeare tossed this into Merchant of Venice in 1596: ‘Portia: Let music sound while he doth make his choice; then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, fading in music.’
The actual term ‘swan song’, with its current figurative meaning, doesn’t crop up in print until the 18th century. The Scottish cleric Jon Willison used the expression in 1767 when he referred to “King David’s swan-song.”
Having a bit of fun with it, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote:
Swans sing before they die; ’twere no bad thing
Did certain persons die before they sing.
Farewell tours can aptly be called swan songs. And one must of course mention the apparent longest of those, that of Nellie Melba, whose swan song consisted of an eight year long string of ‘final concerts’ between 1920 and 1928. This led to the popular Australian phrase – ‘more farewells than Nellie Melba’.
She has some competition. Cher started her farewell tour in 2002. It went on for more than two years and I am still not sure she’s done. Then there’s Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of Kiss, who changed their minds during their farewell tour and decided they liked the money and applause too much to quit.
But I digress. There is some biological backing for the swan song legend. North America’s trumpeter, the eastern Mediterranean whooper and the Arctic tundra swans have an additional tracheal loop within the sternum, which causes a drawn-out series of notes as the lungs collapse upon death. German zoologist and naturalist Peter Pallas proposed this in the late 1700s as the basis of the legend.
And, finally, there is this vivid anecdote: Zoologist D. G. Elliot reported in 1898 that a tundra swan he had shot and wounded in flight began a long glide down whilst issuing a series of “plaintive and musical” notes that “sounded at times like the soft running of the notes of an octave.”
Just try getting that image out of your brain.
All photos by Ron Haines.