Q From Hilary Hicklin: I wonder if you can tell me the origin of the word swan song? I noticed it was used in a reference to Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party Conference recently, and it made me wonder what swans have to do with farewell speeches! Perhaps you could enlighten me.
A No problem. An ancient legend — it goes back to classical Greece — holds that swans are silent throughout their lives but sing once, beautifully, just before they die. Figuratively, the swan song is the final performance or activity of a person’s life or career. It isn’t quite accurate in the case of Tony Blair, since he has told us he’s about to step down as prime minister, but hasn’t left yet and irritatingly hasn’t got around to telling anybody exactly when he does plan to go. But it was his final speech to the Labour Party Conference and the speech was by all accounts a cracker, so in that sense it’s fair.
The legend is all nonsense, of course. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed it, however, and it’s mentioned in the works of Euripides, Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, and Cicero. Plato said that Socrates had explained it as a song of gladness because the swan, sacred to the god Apollo, was shortly to join the god it served.
In AD77 Pliny said it was untrue (“olorum morte narratur flebilis cantus, falso, ut arbitror, aliquot experimentis”, “observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false”). He had no effect on the popularity of the fable; the idea was eventually taken into English in the medieval period, being alluded to by Chaucer and Shakespeare. It’s in the latter’s The Merchant of Venice: “Let music sound while he doth make his choice; / Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, / Fading in music.”
But the term itself was created as recently as 1831, in a book by Thomas Carlyle: “The Phoenix soars aloft ... or, as now, she sinks, and with spheral [sphere-like] swan-song immolates herself in flame.” He took it from the German Schwanenlied or Schwanengesang with the same sense, which derives of course from the same legend. As the final collection of songs by Franz Schubert was published in the year he died (1828), it is known as his Schwanengesang. That was probably what put the idea for the English word in Carlyle’s mind.
Three years later, in 1834, Coleridge made a joke of it in his poem entitled On a Volunteer Singer:
Swans sing before they die; ’twere no bad thing
Did certain persons die before they sing.