Paraphrase on Anacreon: Ode to the Swallow

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

‘Paraphrase on Anacreon: Ode to the Swallow,’ is a translation of a Greek lyric poem in which the speaker explains that love constantly (and annoyingly) inhabits their heart.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Nationality: English

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a well-known Victorian poet.

She married fellow writer, Robert Browning.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Love possesses the heart

Speaker: Anacreon or Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Emotions Evoked: Frustration, Hopelessness, Stress

Poetic Form: Block Form

Time Period: 19th Century

‘Paraphrase on Anacreon: Ode to the Swallow' is a masterful translation of Anacreon's Greek lyric poem about the constance of love and infatuation

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Paraphrase on Anacreon: Ode to the Swallow,’ also known as ‘Ode to the Swallow,’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is a translation of a 5th-6th century BCE poem by Anacreon, titled ‘The Swallow.’

In both Anacreon’s poem and Browning’s poems, the swallow is a symbol of love that never leaves the poet’s chest, always infecting them with amorous feelings.

Paraphrase on Anacreon: Ode to the Swallow
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Thou indeed, little Swallow, A sweet yearly comer.Art building a hollowNew nest every summer.And straight dost departWhere no gazing can follow.Past Memphis, down Nile!Ay! but love all the whileBuilds his nest in my heart,Through the cold winter-weeks:And as one Love takes flight.Comes another, O Swallow,In an egg warm and white,And another is callow.And the large gaping beaksChirp all day and all night:And the Loves who are olderHelp the young and the poor Loves,And the young Loves grown bolderIncrease by the score Loves—Why, what can be done?If a noise comes from one.Can I bear all this rout of a hundred and more Loves?


In ‘Ode to the Swallow’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the speaker compares her proclivity for love to a swallow that never migrates. 

The speaker of the poem begins by introducing the main symbol and metaphor: the sparrow. This sparrow returns yearly after migrating south into the Egyptian city of Memphis and the Nile river. 

However, the speaker states that she has a sparrow that lives in her heart all year round, never migrating. This sparrow represents the speaker’s love. 

Though this love sparrow may fly away, it always leaves fertile eggs behind, and sometimes it leaves its mate in her heart. Thus, the speaker can gain no escape from love. Love is always inside her heart. 

Form and Structure

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Ode to the Swallow’ uses a rather interesting metrical structure and rhyme scheme

As a translator, Barrett Browning was and is extraordinary. The metrical structure she uses in this poem is an English approximation of the Anacreontic meter, which consists of an eight-syllable line with four short syllables and four long syllables. The ‘Paraphrase on Anacreon: Ode to the Swallow’ adapts this meter by translating each long syllable into a stressed one and each short syllable into an unstressed one. Additionally, each line consists of approximately seven syllables, which makes it easier to use this ancient meter in English. 

The rhyme scheme of ABABCADDEFGAGAHGIJIJKKJ is also rather peculiar, but it is characteristic of English Anacreontic lyric poetry

Themes and Tone

The only real theme in this poem is love. The poem may discuss the migration of the swallow, but this bird reference is only relevant in the context of the speaker’s heart, which is almost infected with the love (or the swallow). 

This metaphor for love extends well within the confines of the poem. The sparrow’s nest is active and changing, always occupying the speaker’s heart. Yet, with each love that leaves the speaker’s heart, another one takes its place, as if new generations hatch from the speaker’s successive lovers. 

While the speaker’s heart is constantly full of love, undertones of sadness and worry take over the speaker’s emotional state. The speaker seems unsatisfied, as they can never find a rest or escape from love. 

Browning’s Translation of Anacreon

‘Ode to the Swallow’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is almost an exact translation of Anacreon’s ‘The Sparrow,’ a poem from around the 5th or 6th centuries BCE. 

Anacreon was a Greek lyric poet who developed a longstanding place as one of the best Greek lyricists, even during his lifetime. His poems were often about themes such as love, drinking to excess, and rejection. 

While Barrett Browning’s poems weren’t quite as revelrous as Anacreon’s, her love poetry was very successful during her life during the Victorian era. For that reason, she likely felt that her translation of ‘The Sparrow’ would see some commercial success. 

Browning was a very well-read poet, and she often translated classical works from authors such as Pindar and Homer and Greek Dramatists such as Aristophanes and Aeschylus. Her Greek translations earned her acclaim in many scholarly communities, and many of them are still commonly used in classrooms today.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-6

Thou indeed, little Swallow,
A sweet yearly comer.
Art building a hollow
New nest every summer.
And straight dost depart
Where no gazing can follow.

In lines one through six of ‘Ode to the Swallow,’ the speaker addresses a swallow, introducing the main metaphor of the poem. 

This swallow is a “sweet yearly comer” who arrives in the speaker’s native land every summer. When this bird returns, it makes its nest. However, with this done, the swallow immediately retreats south. 

At this point in the poem, it seems like the speaker is setting us up for a poem about the nesting habits of swallows. The speaker seems to enjoy watching the “sweet” swallow as it arrives in summer despite the fact that it quickly retreats. This tidbit of information will become important later. 

Lines 7-14

Past Memphis, down Nile!
Ay! but love all the while
Builds his nest in my heart,
Through the cold winter-weeks:
And as one Love takes flight.
Comes another, O Swallow,
In an egg warm and white,
And another is callow.

When the swallow retreats in the winter, it goes south to Egypt, where the weather is warmer. 

However, despite the sparrow’s winter migrations, there is another sort of bird that doesn’t leave during the winter: Love. 

Love, capitalized in this poem, appears in the original greek of Anacreon’s poem as Ἔρως (Eros), the god of amatory infatuation. This word is critical to the poem’s meaning since, unlike Aphrodite, the love that Eros offers is usually more of an uncontrollable obsession or lust. Additionally, Eros, like a bird, has wings. 

So, in this poem, we are not discussing a partnership, marriage, or courtly love. We are talking about passionate desire — a desire that never truly leaves the speaker’s heart. 

Even when one of the speaker’s passions dissipates and abandons them, the original lust leaves behind a fertile egg, which hatches into a new obsession. 

The “warm, white” egg that eventually forces the speaker to fall in love yet again is “callow,” or youthful and inexperienced. Thus, we can surmise that every time the speaker’s love for someone dissipates, they fall head-over-heels in love (or lust) with a new person. 

Lines 15-20

And the large gaping beaks
Chirp all day and all night:
And the Loves who are older
Help the young and the poor Loves,
And the young Loves grown bolder
Increase by the score Loves—

In lines fifteen through twenty of ‘Ode to the Swallow,’ the speaker reveals their feelings about their constantly renewing lust and love for various people. 

The youngest and most inexperienced of the speaker’s loves are annoying and loud, begging to be fed. These baby birds are like a brand new crush that eats at one’s mind and quickly becomes an all-consuming obsession. 

However, the older, more experienced passions of the poet help the newer loves to mature. In this way, as the poet collects lovers and exes, they become more capable of nourishing their latest obsessions. 

Still, because old loves and new ones continually grow in the speaker’s heart, they eventually mate there, multiplying the number of loves. As such, the speaker truly does seem to be a bit of a player, always in love with multiple people. 

Lines 21-24

Why, what can be done?
If a noise comes from one.
Can I bear all this rout of a hundred and more Loves?

In lines twenty-one through twenty-four of ‘Ode to the Swallow,’ the speaker questions their ability to cope with being in love with so many people. The chirping of each love, which is a metaphor for the obsessive thoughts that come along with amatory infatuation, seems to be overwhelming to the speaker. 

However, as the many loves in their heart keep multiplying, the speaker seems desperate to get them all to shut up or leave. There are simply too many!


What is the message of the poem ‘Ode to the Swallow?’

The message of the poem ‘Ode to the Swallow’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is that love is difficult to control. The speaker is overwhelmed by the many lovers, exes, and crushes that have lived in their hearts at one point or another. These loves make nests in the speaker’s heart, multiplying and growing as they age.

Who is the speaker in ‘Ode to the Swallow?’

The speaker in ‘Ode to the Swallow’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is either Browning or Anacreon. This poem is a translation of Anacreon’s lyric poem, ‘To the Sparrow,’ in which the poet Anacreon was the speaker. However, since this is a 1st-person personal poem, Browning may have identified herself with the speaker.

What are the poetic devices in ‘Ode to the Swallow’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

The main poetic devices in ‘Ode to the Swallow’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning are metaphor, imagery, and symbolism. The poem’s theme, love, is compared to a swallow using metaphor. Love, to the speaker, is like a bird that nests in their heart. This love is untameable, fertile, loud, and hungry.

What is the tone of ‘Ode to the Swallow’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning?

The tone of ‘Ode to the Swallow’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is desperate, indignant, and sorrowful. While the speaker appreciates the migratory swallow, they despair that love never leaves their heart. Even when old loves fly away, new baby loves hatch, filling the speaker’s heart with needy, loud, foolish lovebirds.

Similar Poetry

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Paraphrase on Anacreon: Ode to the Swallow’ revives the older tradition of Anaceon’s lyric poetry, reminding the listener that love is a timeless and universal theme that never goes out of fashion.

Some more poetry that expresses the speaker’s disdain for the obsessive, loitering nature of love include:

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Aimee LaFon Poetry Expert
Aimee LaFon has a BAS with honors in English and Classics, focusing her studies on the translation of Latin poetry, manuscript traditions, and the analysis of medieval and neoclassical poetry. She is a full-time writer and poet passionate about making knowledge accessible to everyone.

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