The Swan by John Gould Fletcher

‘The Swan’ by John Gould Fletcher is a three stanza poem which is made up of one set of six lines, or a sextet, and one set of seven lines, or septet, and one set of eight lines, or octave.  Just as each stanza of this piece contains a different number of lines, each conforms to a separate rhyme scheme. A reader should note a number of lines in this work which do rhyme or are repeated.

A few examples include, line three of stanza one and line three of stanza two, which both end with the word, “water.” Another example is the rhyme which is found in the last stanza at the end of lines four and eight, “dim” and “him.” As well as the rhymes, “stride,””divide,” and “beside” also found in the last stanza. You can read the full poem here. 


Summary of The Swan 

‘The Swan’ by John Gould Fletcher describes the movements of a swan within a body of water and a desire to escape the realities of life. 

In the first section of the poem the speaker begins by describing a creature, the swan, which is only named in the sixth line of the poem. The swan is living amongst a “bronze,” autumn landscape which contains numerous beech trees dipping their branches into a body of water. 

The swan is describes as having a red-tipped head and wings and being able to glide through the water like a sailing ship. It is creating “furrows” in the water as it moves, impacting all the surrounding life. 

In the final stanzas the speaker states that the swan is headed off into the distance where there are a number of “great towers,” presumably a city. The speaker admits that if he could he would join the bird in its journey and relish the pleasure of watching the hills in the distance make way for them. 


Analysis of The Swan

Stanza One 

The speaker begins this piece by locating the main subject of the poem, the swan, within his surrounding landscape. Although the swan is not referenced directly until the last line of the first stanza, one should be able to infer what is being described because of the title. 

In the first lines the speaker is describing a natural environment around a body of water. One of the first words used is “Bronze.” This helps set the tone of the landscape and imbues it with a feeling of warmth. It is likely that the surrounding plants, trees and smaller shrubs, are changing with the season. One of these trees is the “beech.” It is a genus of common deciduous trees which can be located in Europe, Asia, and North America. 

The beech tree is large and full. It is described as “dip[ping]” its branches into the water and creating “trail[s]” as the water moves. These lines and the images they create easily convey a sense of peace. This landscape appears to be without strife.

In the second half of the stanza the speaker begins to refer to the subject of the poem, the swan. He is placing the swan within the landscape that contains the beech trees. The speaker says that it has a “red-tipped head and wings.” These bright splashes of color bring one back to the reference to “Bronze,” in a previous line. Red is another warm color, emphasizing the pleasant nature of the scene. 

The final lines of the sestet describe the sawn as being like a ship. It moves so calmly and smoothly that it might as well have a sail. It is a “beaked ship” which is moving “under sail.” It is in the last line that one is given the name of this creature, “swan.” The bird is alone in the landscape, allowing the speaker, poet, and reader, to focus on this one animal. 


Stanza Two

In the second stanza the speaker continues his description of the swan and its activities. It does not remain in one place, but as a ship “under sail” is travels through its surroundings. It first moves “Under the autumn trees.” This is likely a reference back to the beech trees and the “wall of bronze” which are mentioned in the first stanza. It also confirms that this scene is taking place in the fall. 

As the swan moves, the objects and life around it react. The trees “quiver and “Dance” as the swan moves under them. This is written rather as a reaction to the presence of this graceful animal, than the force of its physical movement. It might make one think that the trees are feeling reverential towards the bird, they want to give it as much space as possible. 

The trees, which have moved in reaction to the swan, are further described as touching the “wraith-like water.” The water moves without apparent force, as if a ghostly power is at work.  When the swan sailed through this portion of the lake, he created“ripples beneath the sedge.” (“Sedge” refers to a time of plant that grow along the shore of bodies of water.) 

The “furrow” his body made in the water is disrupting the flow of the tides and leaving an impression of his passing long after he has moved on.


Stanza Three 

In the final stanza, and only octave of the poem, the poet concludes his description of the swan, and has his speaker refer to himself in the first person. This is the only time in the poem that this occurs. Up until the sixth line of the third stanza the only creature with agency was the swan. Now there is another character to contend with. 

Before the introduction of the speaker into this poem, the poet concludes the description of the grace of the swan, and how it passes through water. 

It has moved from the autumn lake into the “windless dusk.” The sun is beginning to set, on both the poem and the narrative. The swan is headed for the place where the “great towers stand” in amongst the “mist.” They are there to “guard a lonely strand,” or shoreline of a body of water, usually a river. There is a hint of civilization in the distance. 

For the first time it appears as if the swan might have some eventual destination in mind, or at least a purpose to his travels. He moves slowly and easily, so it is not of the greatest importance that he get to his destination quickly. 

In the last three lines the speaker refers to himself in the first person. He states that if he could he would go along with the swan into the distance. He feels as if this creature has an inherent directionality about its extinct which he would like to take on. Even if the swan is not headed somewhere in particular, its life seems to have meaning. 

The speaker sees himself and the swan sailing off into the distance, and watching as the hills before them separate and to allow their passage. 

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