Swans… can they really break a man’s arm.

I grew up near the River Cam, and it was an important place for me during my childhood, biking beside it and over it, walking by it, swimming in it, boating on it, fishing in it… and spending so much time on the river I knew many of the creatures that lived in and on it. There were insects like water boatmen and dragonflies, creatures like water-rats, and otters… although I have ever been luck enough to see one (drunk a few pints of Otter though!) Obviously there were a lot of fish, or there were in those days, pike, perch, grayling, tench, eels, and there were a lot of water birds. Mostly the ducks and grebes and coots and moorhens swam away from us as we canoed, punted, swam, walked, fished, but swans… now swans are a different matter. We always kept well clear of swans.

Swans look so magnificent, and I’ve written about them before a couple of times, and there is something so attractive about them, and with so many symbolic associations, that I come back to them again and again. It doesn’t matter where you see them, pellucid lakes, dingy rivers, cluttered canals, busy ports and even by the sea, they have a dignity, arrogance almost, and a sort of nobility that  makes their surroundings unimportant. I was going to make a joke about shabby chick, but I can’t think of a way to make it funny, so instead I’ll share a little Yeats, William Butler, and the Wild Swans at Coole (are swans anything other than wild? And can they really break a man’s arm?)


The trees are in their autumn beauty,
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?

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