Swan Song

Meanings of “Swan Song”

The phrase “swan song” refers to a final performance or composition given before retirement, or death, or closure, etc.

Origin of “Swan Song”

The phrase “swan song” was initially used in ancient Rome about the legendary singing of a swan before death but Pliny, the Elder, opposed the expression in Natural History, in 77 AD saying that it is just a myth. However, it continued to circulate in the literary circle and entered the English language through Chaucer.

Chaucer used this expression in his poem “Parliament of Fowles” where he states that a jealous swan sings before his death. Similarly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge used this phrase in his poem “On a Volunteer Singer” where he stated:
“Swans sing before they die;’ twere no bad thing
Did certain persons die before they sing.”

Examples from Literature

Example #1

Swan Song by Michael Ashby, Sidmouth

The Swan silently crossed the river
No reflection, no ripple in her wake
Lit by a moving sunbeam,
She crossed the water, just, for my sake
I sat down aboard her back
As her head turned to me
And she looked into my eyes, asking,
Are you really, really, ready
I nodded, as tears rained, from my face
To join countless others in their river
The Swan started swimming & slowly singing,
The most beautiful music
I had ever heard in my life
And then the Swan suddenly changed
From black into a dazzling white
And I stopped crying and started smiling
As together we crossed over
Into the most brilliant of light.

The poet, in this poem, speaks about his experience when he had a chance to cross the river with a dull, lifeless swan. At the start, both start their journey with a sad note. The Swan is without any charm or reflection, while the speaker is also dull and lifeless. However, as they start their journey, the negative vibes turn into positive ones when Swan begins singing a beautiful song. Delighted by the sweet melody, the speaker forgets his pain and starts flowing with the water and music flow. This dramatic shift in the tone and mood represents the denotative meanings of the phrase.

Example #2

Swan Song by Algernon Charles Swinburne

We are not sure of sorrow,
And joy was never sure;
To-day will die tomorrow;
Time stoops to no man-s lure;
And love grown faint and fretful,
With lips but half regretful
Sighs, and with eyes forgetful
Weeps that no loves endure.

From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever,
That gone men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

The Poet, in this short piece, speaks about the transience of life. In the first stanza, the speaker talks about the uncertainties and fragility of life saying no matter how long we live, we have to taste death one day. When death arrives, every joyous object loses its attraction; the enchanting sights get fainted, leaving only the regret behind. However, in the second stanza, the speaker says that since death will surely put a stop on our life; therefore, we should count every blessing in life and be thankful to God. The phrase has been used as a metaphor in the title to show itself implicitly in the body of the poem.

Example #3

Swan Song by Gerald Stern

A bunch of old snakeheads down by the pond
carrying on the swan tradition — hissing
inside their white bodies, raising and lowering their heads
like ostriches, regretting only the sad ritual
that forced them to waddle back into the water
after their life under the rocks, wishing they could lie again
in the sun

and dream of spreading their terrifying wings;
wishing, this time, they could sail through the sky like
their tails rigid, their white manes fluttering,
their mouths open, their sharp teeth flashing,
drops of mercy pouring from their eyes,
bolts of wisdom from their foreheads.

The poemshows the spectacular performance of a bunch of snakeheads gathered by the pond to carry the old swan tradition. First, they regret how this sad ritual has forced them to forget the glories of life and threw them into the dark place, where they miss the sunlight. Later, the poet wishes them glory and hopes for their carefree journey. The poet has interpreted the phrase, using it a metaphor for the last transformation of the snakes into swans flying in the vast expanse of the sky, comparing them with horses.

Example #4

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon

The story revolves around the battle between good and evil that ultimately decides the fate of humanity. The writer features an ancient evil character with a scarlet eye, a malicious power that feeds on its followers’ evil desires. The scarlet-eyed man intends to find and kill the unique child named, Swan, who is kept in protection. On the contrary, the people who are safeguarding the special child are ready to sacrifice their lives to spread goodness on the earth. Their fight becomes the swan song as both sides decide to win at every cost. The story shows the metaphorical rendering of the phrase.

Example in Sentences

Example #1: “The recent movie turned out to be the late actor’s swan song. It was sad and mournful.” 

Example #2: “After completing this building, Mr. Hackle is going to leave his post. This project seems to be his swan song.” 

Example #3: “After facing a lot of criticism, she finally decided to organize the final meeting for the group members, which, she said, would be her swan song.”

Example #4: “This week the finance minister presented his swan song – his last budget report.”

Example #5: “Although she has made a lot of paintings, yet the portrayal of great Greek figures turned out to be her swan song.”