Swans by Lawrence Durrell
Fraudulent perhaps in that they gave
No sense of muscle but a swollen langour
Though moved by webs; yet idly, idly
As soap-bubbles drift from a clay-pipe
They mowed the lake in tapestry,
Passing in regal exhaustion by us
King, queen and cygnets, one by one.
Did one dare to remember other swans
In anecdotes of Gauguin or of Rabelais?
Some became bolsters for the Greeks
Some rubber Lohengrins provided comedy
The flapping of the wings excited Leda
The procession is over and what is now
Alarming is more the mirror split
From end to end by the harsh clap
Of the wooden beaks, than the empty space
Which follows them about
Stained by their whiteness when they pass
We sit like drunkards and inhale the swans
Lawrence Durrell (brother of naturalist and author Gerald Durrell) was a poet as well as a novelist. He is best remembered today for his The Alexandria Quartet novels.
Australian poet Peter Porter has described Durrell’s poetry as “Always beautiful as sound and syntax. Its innovation lies in its refusal to be more high-minded than the things it records, together with its handling of the whole lexicon of language.” According to Porter, Durrell is “one of the best poets of the last hundred years”.
The poem begins with his noting the movement of the swans, which is of course incredibly graceful. To him it seems almost “fraudulent” because one sees no muscles at work in the process. I love his unusual image – “they mowed the lake in tapestry”.
The word ‘tapestry’ makes the poet then think of swans as depicted in art and Gauguin comes to mind. But he also remembers that swans have been food over the centuries. They might look regal, but people have eaten them all the same. Rabelais, a French author who lived from c.1483 to 1553, was especially noted for his work Gargantua et Pantagruel, a series of novels about two giants with huge appetites. Their feathers were also used to stuff pillows, or bolsters – another ignoble fate. Or perhaps rubber swans were props in stage comedy?
Durrell then moves on to myth, with his reference to Leda who is raped by Zeus who has taken on the form of a swan. But by this time the swans have floated past him – their beautiful procession is over. But he notes the “empty space” which “follows them about”, and the noise of the beaks.
Then he simply decides to sit back and revel in the beauty – “inhale the swans” is his unusual and rather fabulous way of expressing this in the last line of the poem.