Swans: A Collection

The swan, arriving unseen, stayed so until late in the morning when the fog shifted and began to roll down the hillside, leaving the crown of the hill standing in an uncertain light. Children, coming out to play on the common, saw what their fathers bicycling to the work could not have seen. They crowded the edge of the pond and one boy threw a stick at the  swan, trying to make it fly. That was the first and last unkindness the bird ever suffered in the village. The children discovered that more response came when food was thrown, and soon the pond and the trodden grass around was littered with crusts of bread and bacon-rinds, orange-peel and apple-cores. Even in its charity the village was backward and untidy, yet the swan, coming in out of the fog and remaining as it did, stirred its imagination and pride. On the market bus and in the pub and post office it was the subject of conjecture and theory. Whence had it flown, they wondered, and in what direction? Was it maimed and could fly no further? Flattered as they were, the villagers could not believe that the muddy pond had ever been its true objective, heart’s desire. They talked about the swan and worried over it. The Vicar referred to it in his sermon on the Mysterious Ways of the Lord.

From ‘Swan-Moving’ by Elizabeth Taylor 

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Woodcut by Carl Thiemann 

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For the next few days, which happened to be very fine, Beth revelled out of doors. Everything was a wonder and a joy to her in this fertile land, the trees especially, after the bleak, wild wastes to which she had been accustomed in the one stormy corner of Ireland she knew. Leaves and blossoms were just bursting out, and one day, wandering alone in the grounds, she happened unawares upon an orchard in full bloom, and fairly gasped, utterly overcome by the first shock of its beauty. For a while she stood and gazed in silent awe at the white froth of flowers on the pear-trees, the tinted almond blossom, and the pink-tipped apple. She had never dreamed of such heavenly loveliness. But enthusiasm succeeded to awe at last, and, in a wild burst of delight, she suddenly threw her arms around a gnarled tree-trunk and clasped it close.

There was a large piece of artificial water in the grounds, in which were three green islands covered with trees and shrubs. Beth was standing on the bank one morning in a contemplative mood, admiring the water, and yearning for a boat to get to the islands, when round one of them, unexpectedly, a white wonder of a swan came gliding towards her in the sunshine.

“Oh, oh! Mildred! Mildred! Oh, the beautiful, beautiful thing!” she cried. Mildred came running up.

“Why, Beth, you idiot,” she exclaimed in derision, “it’s only a swan. I really thought it was something.”

“Is that a swan?” Beth said slowly; then, after a moment, she added, in sorrowful reproach: “O Mildred! you had seen it and you never told me.”

Alas, poor Mildred! she had not seen it, and never would see it, in Beth’s sense of the word.

From ‘The Beth Book’ by Sarah Grand

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Lalique – Pendant Deux Cygnes Bleus

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The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ by William Butler Yeats

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‘Swans’ by Frank Brangwyn

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She looked across the saltings to where the sea was and as she lifted her face, rosy with the steady smoothing of the cold wind, the sun darted a bright gold beam across the marshes……she heard a strangely thrilling noise….nearer and nearer it came, until suddenly there swept over her head a flock of wild swans, rushing on white gold wings into the sunset.  Laughing with excitement, she ran down the track the follow their flight but the sunset, and tears, dazzled her and she could not see.

They were so beautiful….wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could always feel like she had felt when they thundered over her head, not wanting anyone, happy to be quite alone and looking at something as beautiful as those swans?

But the sun had gone behind the clouds again and the wind was getting up, it was nearly half past three and the last bus left at four.

From ‘Nightingale Wood’ by Stella Gibbons

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Molly urged me, ‘Talk to Binkie.’ ‘Go for a walk with Binkie.’ She felt that it was important to expose us children to  such people so that some of their starriness might rub off on us. I remember one walk at Woodroofe with him. I have no memory of our conversation, which I expect was stilted on both sides. I was struck by his lovely flamboyant clothes, elegantly cut in soft fabrics which seemed extraordinary to a wartime Irish child dressed in scratchy tweed dungarees. Binkie exuded a waft of discreet, delicious perfume. We stepped across mud and peered through the reeds at a swan nesting on the lake. She hissed, flattening out her neck, lengthening it towards us like a white snake. Suddenly the male glided into view. There was a splash as he changed from his graceful float to an ungainly foothold in the mud. Immediately we knew he was rushing us, his wings extended to deal us blows. Binkie took my hand and began to run. His Basque beret blew off, We did not retrieve it. We could hear the wind-like energy of the swan behind us. I fell, and Binkie stopped to put me on my feet, and we sped on. I can still remember the sensation of running much faster than I was really capable of. The defensive husband gave up the chase eventually. Molly was slightly less keen after this incident to send us out on country walks with town people, no matter how sophisticated or famous they might be.

From ‘Molly Keane: a Life’ by Sally Phipps

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‘The Swans’ by Mary Potter

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Portents accompany the death of monarchs. A white horse trots slowly along the avenue, a woman in streaming wet garments is seen to enter the throne room, vanishes, and leaves wet footmarks; red mice are caught in palace mousetraps. For several weeks five black swans had circled incessantly above the castle of Elfhame. It was ninety decades since their last appearance; then there were four of them, waiting for Queen Tiphaine’s predecessor. Now they were five, and waited for Tiphaine. Mute as a shell cast up on the beach, she lay in her chamber watching the antics of her pet monkey.

From ‘Five Black Swans’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner 

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Decorative Panels by Mary Golay

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The swans are by the shore, drifting bright as paper cut-outs against waves blurred by dusk. They spend the night murmuring oboe harmonies to each other, a woodwind of reassurance. Ordinary swans, the Queen’s swans on the river where we feed the ducks at home, have faces apparently afflicted by some medieval disease, and sleep standing on one leg, heads under their wings like child-free passengers on long-haul flights who can summon night with a nylon blindfold.

These sea swans seem to stay awake all night, sailing through the fading light like ships bound for far countries, and they have faces as smooth and neutral as the corps de ballet, faces that can’t communicate any level of grief or pain. Perhaps this is an asset in species that mate for life. I glance back at the house. Its façade, dark as the cliff-face at the other end of the island, turns away from the after-light shining over the sea, from where America is coming up for a new day as we turn away from the sun. One of the swans stretches towards the sky and cries out, wings threshing the water in sudden agitation like that of someone who has just remembered that a friend is dead. I saw a goose dying, once, a Canada goose that had flown all the way from the Arctic to end its life on the hard shoulder of the M40, and although one wing was still beating as if to music while the other lay across the rumble-strip, its face was impassive. I stood on the footbridge, watching, joggling the pram in which the baby would sleep only for as long as we kept moving, until some lorry driver, merciful or inattentive, left a flurry of feathers and red jam on the road. Our swans are safe from that, here. For a season. Like us, they will go south in the autumn, but for now there are no cars, no roads. No bridges, either. The stars are coming out in the darkening sky over the hill. I shiver; not cold, exactly, but time to go in.

From ‘Night Waking’by Sarah Moss

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8 thoughts on “Swans: A Collection

  1. Swoon! What a gorgeous post Jane. Isn’t that silver swan amazing. And I love the Lalique pendant. In fact I love all the elements here – so beautifully curated, thank you!


  2. Just gorgeous; I could read every book from which you’ve taken these extracts, Jane. But I was most excited by the final one – I’m about to begin reading NIght Waking and now I have even more to look forward to when I start.


  3. I always enjoy your compilations, and this one is so well considered and balanced, with perfectly matching prose and pictures.


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