Invective Against Swans
The soul, O ganders, flies beyond the parks
And far beyond the discords of the wind.
A bronze rain from the sun descending marks
The death of summer, which that time endures
Like one who scrawls a listless testament
Of golden quirks and Paphian caricatures,
Bequeathing your white feathers to the moon
And giving your bland motions to the air.
Behold, already on the long parades
The crows anoint the statues with their dirt.
And the soul, O ganders, being lonely, flies
Beyond your chilly chariots, to the skies.
(from, Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, pp.3-4)
I love this poem, although it took me several readings to love it, and to know why I love it.
In this poem, Stevens taps the melancholy mood. The title, so typically of Stevens, gently scoffs at this mood. This poem is hardly an ‘invective’ against swans, although the word ‘invective’ has a wonderful sound magic, as so many words combining ‘v’ and hard ‘c’, ‘k’ or ‘x’, as in ‘vexing’ or ‘veronica’ do. It is less a diatribe and more an elegy or dirge to the departure of the swans at the end of summer, signaling the beginning of a season, more dull and plain, even at times ugly (‘the crows anoint the statues with their dirt’) because it is so naked and unadorned, namely winter. Living in northern climes, the advent of winter can augur a difficult period of seasonal affective disorder, aka depression.
Helen Vendler has nothing to say about this poem, and Ronald Sukenick writes only “the dying summer makes out its testament, while the soul, yearning for something more permanent than ephemeral nature imagery, flies beyond the decaying season to the sky.” (WSMTO, p. 219)
The swan motif occurs in Wadsworth, Wordsworth, Burns, Longfellow, Milton and Dante, to name just a few other poets, who generally invest it with a great deal of grace and pathos. Real swans are rather clumsy creatures, at least on land, and Stevens chooses an inelegant form of their address, when he calls them ‘ganders.’ Nevertheless, the appellation ‘ganders’ highlights the masculinity of these particular swans, aligning them with male sexuality.
‘Like one who scrawls a listless testament of golden quirks and Paphian caricatures.’ A more archaic use of ‘quirk’ is ‘joke or trick’, and Paphian, according to Dictionary.com, means “of or pertaining to Paphos, an ancient city of Cyprus, having a celebrated temple of Venus; hence, pertaining to Venus, or her rites.” Hence this last summer rain, golden though it may be from the rays of the setting sun, merely mocks the venusian pleasures of love, so easy to enjoy during the summer season. Again the reference, though obscure, to sexuality, is, in this case feminine.
‘Bequeathing your white feathers to the moon,’ the cold chilly moon henceforth will serve to ‘hold’ the remembrance of the fonder days of summer. The ‘bronze rain from the sun descending marks the death of summer’ – again, the juxtaposition of sun and moon, gold and white, warmth and chill, masculine and feminine. Stevens is full of pairs of meaningful opposites, that make his poems contain a sort of wholeness.
The passing of the cold, chilly swans reminds the poet of the oncoming winter, the ascetic season that strips itself of pleasure, both sexual and sensual, laying bare the ‘dirt,’ and associated with the darkness, crudeness (opposite of venusian elegance) and ‘harshness’ ('dirt'), if you will, of ‘crows.’
The swans fly beyond both order (‘the parks’) and disorder (‘the discords of the wind.’) In the face of this abandonment by summer, the soul is driven to seek the Absolute, beyond all opposites, associated since time immemorial with the emptiness and inattainability of the sky.
For me there are hints at Stevens’ innate spirituality, present in words such as ‘soul,’ ‘testament’ ‘sun’ and ‘moon’, ‘anoint’, and ‘giving’ (a kind of ‘offering’). This moment of the setting sun, of sunset rain, and the flight of swans, holds a ritual element to it, a solemnity, a rite of passage, a sacramental quality, that I very much enjoy in much of Stevens’ poetry. It’s important to note that just because the religion of his era (and ours) seemed to be placed at odds with sexuality (an important element in Stevens) - and even at odds with consciousness (such as Stevens’ consciousness of our ‘belief in a fiction’) - which may have alienated him from religion, doesn’t mean he wasn’t steeped in its ideas, as clearly he was. Being religious is not the same thing, necessarily, as being spiritual. One can be deeply spiritual without being in the least religious, and I do sense a spiritual quest in Stevens, as reflected in his poetry. There are tones, motifs, and connotations in his poetry that relate to the religion of his time and place, and of classic and 'pagan' religion as well, and I certainly don’t think he was unaware of it. To discover more about this aspect of him is part of the goal of this study. I love hearing notes, as in this poem, that are reminiscent of Vedanta.