Letters from Lancaster 13

Swans on the River

I don’t know where they came from. I saw the last one arrive, descending with an easy parachute grace, its great wings cupping the air as its splayed feet touched the water, entered, so it landed with barely a splash, folded its wings, settled with the others, afloat. There are twelve, dazzling as light, delineated as if cut from tin, their long necks flexible as snakes. Feeding, always feeding, their hose necks deep in the flow, bodies still as white stones, legs and feet working invisibly to keep them still, white islands pointing upstream that the river cuts around like bridge piers. Always feeding, as if they are storing up for some grand endeavour. And always the sense that, along with their vivid presence here, they have a bigger life, somewhere else.

I saw a swan take off from this river sixty, seventy years ago. I’m not sure I’ve seen one take off since, but so clear is the memory that it might have happened a moment ago.

It was the root, that taking off, the metaphor at the heart of a song of my youth, a song of liberation and loss: the ‘fair and perfect’ swan, ‘a living curve of whiteness, and so effortlessly free – but held down by the legs that you can’t see. So she hisses out in anger when she feels herself endangered, when you come too close for comfort and she feels herself less free.’ The swan about to fly, ‘as she leans into the water, her wings are beating faster, her feet are pounding madly and she’s straining to be free … and awkwardness the only thing you see – but the beauty of a creature that’s not swimming now nor flying yet, but reaching for the vision she can be.’ The swan in the sky, ‘the air all around her, the earth far beneath, her wings in perfect motion and her head stretched to the sun – and you’re thinking to yourself, what has she done …?’ And never knowing if she did, that girl, reach her vision.

And it was the root, the pivot point, that taking off, analogue for a story of the journey to the mid-point of life, where there is the possibility of passing from the given life to the discovered life, told as the tale of a swan that put all its energy, focus and actions into learning to fly, in a world in which swans did not fly. Pounding across the water, ‘his feet were suddenly released from the gluey grip of the water and the wind swept under his wings and he was in the air. A door opened and he passed from a small dark room into a golden world of limitless possibility – before hitting the water with such a crash that the old swan had to drag him out. “You started to dream, didn’t you?” he smiled. “Your attention must never waiver. Flying is not a pleasure to be enjoyed but a condition that can, at first, only be maintained by absolute concentration. It is freedom: not freedom from, but freedom to do. It happens when you become responsible for yourself.”’

Years without rivers, without swans. And then, old, on Delos, the island around which the Cyclades turn, I heard the myth of the birth there of Apollo, god of the bow and the lyre, who kills from afar and heals, who sends disease and leads the chorus of the muses, who is the god of a beauty ‘that is the beginning of a terror that we are just able to endure, and we adore because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.’ At the moment of his birth, the wandering island put down golden roots, the streams ran gold, and swans flew seven times round the island singing his praises. The same swans pulled his chariot through the sky to exile in Britain, where he was worshipped ‘in a circular temple’.

Metaphor, analogue, myth. Where they come from, where they go to, the bigger life of swans that I will remember when I watch them, their life, here. And hope that I will see one take off.

Note: the quotation, about beauty being the beginning of terror, is from Rilke’s First Duino Elegy.