On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Seven swans a-swimming
In the Eulogy published as part of the first folio, Ben Jonson called Shakespeare “the Swan of Avon”.
Well, he actually said:
Sweet swan of Avon! what a fight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appeare,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,
That so did take Eliza, and our James !
It was an epithet which caught on. Swans were sacred to Apollo, drawing his chariot and many poets were known as the “Swan of” their home town. Homer was known as the Swan of Meander, and Virgil was the Swan of Mantua. I’m afraid few more modern poets live up to such a level of acclaim – the only other one I could find was Anna Seward, the Swan of Lichfield…
There was a myth that, having been mute through their lives, swans sing one final, beautiful song before they die – their swansong. As Shakespeare put it:
Let music sound while he doth make his choice;
Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.
What a suitable subject for the passing of the year!