Guest poem submitted by Michelle Whitehead:
(Poem #1492) No Swan So Fine
"No water so still as the dead fountains of Versailles." No swan, with swart blind look askance and gondoliering legs, so fine as the chintz china one with fawn- brown eyes and toothed gold collar on to show whose bird it was. Lodged in the Louis Fifteenth candelabrum-tree of cockscomb- tinted buttons, dahlias, sea urchins, and everlastings, it perches on the branching foam of polished sculptured flowers - at ease and tall. The king is dead.
The poem sent in by Mac Robb reminded me of my favourite swan-song poem. I checked the archives, and it's not there. I wonder if I will be the only one to suggest it!!! "No Swan So Fine" opens with a quote from an article by Percy Phillip on the restoration of Versailles. As is typical of Moore's work, she adapts her found quotes to suit her theme - here, that of nature versus artifice. The quote suggests that no water can be as still as a dry, man-made fountain. It also suggests an image of a palace of sparkling bright light, now still and silent. The poem then goes on to describe a living swan, at once haughty and ridiculous - so fine when skimming across the water, but losing its elegance when seen from underneath. Despite this it has a vitality and life force not present in the china swan to which it is compared. I believe the word 'chintz' which describes the china swan was originally a Hindi/Sanskrit word meaning multi-coloured, or bright. By late Victorian times it was associated with inexpensive 'tawdry' furnishing fabrics. The 'toothed gold collar' reminds me of that worn by the hind in Wyatt's "Whoso List to Hunt" which read 'Touch me not, for Caesar's I am.' In contrast to the living swan's independence, the china swan is an owned object with no existence of its own - and yet it is presented as superior. Its frozen painted perfection eclipses the memory of the natural bird. No wonder the real swan looks askance! The beginning of the second stanza begins with a description of a candelabrum owned by the late Lord Balfour, copied by Moore from a 1930s Christie's sale announcement. She describes the overblown ornamentation of the object, ending with the china swan perched 'at ease and tall', in its polished environment. The china swan is beautiful, and has outlasted generations of real swans, as well as the brilliance of the Versailles' court where it was made - and yet it is as still as the fountains, lacking the vitality of the living swan. Its fragile perfection is contrasted with the living swan's robust self-sufficiency. In both cases, the implicit focus is on the response of the human observer, rather than the actual swans. The living swan is sublimely indifferent to being watched, where the china swan 'lives' only in being admired. The china swan, the work of art, has replaced the real swan - 'the king' - and an era that is gone. It remains to provide a sense of timelessness - perched on the everlastings, it has an existence beyond the limitations of days and years. It retains the beauty of the living swan, and is a reminder of the brilliance of the historical court. The living swan, however, although it cannot approach the artistic perfection of the china copy, has vital qualities which no artifice can duplicate. It is part of moving time that passes and becomes history. It, too, conveys a sense of timelessness - just as every generation of swans contains unique, unrepeatable individuals, so each human era is unique - the past gives way to the present and the present to the future. Versailles may be gone, but it is still inspiring new art forms. This poem was written for the 20th anniversary edition of Poetry Magazine. It was rumoured at the time that the magazine would close that year, suggesting that this may be a swan song for the magazine - celebrating the brilliance of its era - but also suggesting that the old must give way to the new. Michelle Whitehead (previously Chapman - I was married in March). Some sites with bibliographies, biographies & essays on Marianne Moore: http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap7/moore.html http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/moore/moore.htm [broken link] http://mam.english.sbc.edu/ http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?45442B7C000C0F02 [Minstrels Links] Poem #21, Sailing to Byzantium -- William Butler Yeats Poem #957, Whoso list to hunt -- Thomas Wyatt