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 waterMirrors a still sky;Upon the brimming water among the stonesAre nine-and-fifty swans.The nineteenth autumn has come upon meSince I first made my count;I saw, before I had well finished,All suddenly mountAnd scatter wheeling in great broken ringsUpon 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 coldCompanionable 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 poolDelight men’s eyes when I awake some dayTo find they have flown away?