In a deliberate act of performing my own swan song, I wrote one last letter this week. Not my last letter ever, gracious no, where would that leave me? Just one last particular letter in, what I’ll call, a series. A letter marking an end, or a new beginning, depending upon how you view these things. There cannot be one without the other, I suppose. And I feel all the better for it. As I wrote, I began to think of it as a swan song. That thought, and its connotations of demise and conclusion, could have made me sad, but instead I focussed on the soaring flight I would take after I had made this figurative song. After all, isn’t intention half the battle?
The definition of a swan song – as used metaphorically – is (I’m sure you know) that of a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. In my case, I’m using it more broadly – and I think more positively – applying it to a change in direction, a shuffling off of old patterns. Originally the phrase was drawn from an ancient belief that swans sang a beautiful song just before they were to die, having been silent during most of their lifetime. It is true that the mute swan (cygnus olor), common in Ireland and the UK, is less vocal than other swan species, but it is not entirely mute. It is one of those phrases that has come into common parlance, but has very little basis in truth. Apparently the phrase can be traced back to Ancient Greece, it hung around for centuries, and came to be much cited in Western poetry and art. It brought out the funny side of Samuel Taylor Coleridge who used the legend to make a (not a bad) joke: “Swans sing before they die – ‘twere no bad thing / Should certain persons die before they sing.”
We have some beautiful singing swans in theses parts, though. Take the Whooper Swan, a winter visitor to Ireland and Scotland from Northern Russia, Iceland and Scandinavia, they arrive usually from October onwards sounding out the noise of their name as they fly low overhead towards their over-wintering home. Whoopers make their swan song as they take leave and as they arrive, it sounds a bit like a soft bugle playing. My friend S. loves to hear the Whoopers fly over her house on the north coast of Ireland, as (to my mind anyway) they fly to Inch Island in Donegal – a place where I have gone to watch them.
That’s why I feel strongly that my swan song, or anyone’s for that matter, does not need to be a last burst of energy before one expires. No longer is a swan song the preserve of the dramatic late renditions, such as Piaf singing “non, je ne regrette rien” on stage in 1963 shortly before she died, or Margot Fonteyn pushing her body to dance in a ballet at the age of 60. My new take on the swan song is that we can have many in a lifetime, marking endings and leading to new openings and changes. Don’t leave it to the very end for your swan song. Make many as you go through life – whether they be flamboyant and in front of a crowd, or quiet, for an audience of one. Either way, know when it is time to sing, spread you wings, and fly on.