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What Is a "Swan Song"?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 17, 2024
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There beauty, grace, and mysteriousness of swans have intrigued the human world for many millennium. Some of the rumors concerning the inner lives of swans are true. For example, they do mate for life, which makes them seem more elevated and nobler than humans, who often entertain multiple partners at once. Others rumors are not so true; swans are reputedly silent, keeping mute until their dying hour when they throw back their sinuous necks and sing a song of heartbreaking beauty. The idiom swan song is based upon this mythology and means the final meaningful stand, presentation, or performance an individual makes before leaving a job, a marriage, or another important and long-term situation.

Singing one’s swan song might be intentional, such as an opera singer’s final, magnificent project that is the culmination of a lifetime of performances. This kind of song is intended to leave an impression that doesn’t fade with time but, like the fabled swan’s own song, grows more luminous with each telling. A swan song isn’t limited to artsy types, although the term is certainly often used in regards to someone who is retiring in the theater, dance, or art world.

Businesspeople, teachers, virtually anyone is entitled to a such a song that marks the passage of time, marking the profound importance that the situation that is being left once played along with bittersweet regret as well as deep joy. The retiring college professor whose final lecture is standing-room only, the minister or rabbi who succeeds in constructing a magnificent new house of worship just before stepping down, and the politician who drives an important but unsupported community project to the finish line with little help just as the term ends are all singing swan songs worth listening to. Indeed, anyone with a life that has been worth living will likely sing this final song at some point.

A swan song isn’t always intentionally choreographed. Sometimes, the song is only recognized retrospectively. Someone who has been caught cheating on the job or is publicly embarrassed, the object of ridicule, or the subject of gossip might have a last professional or public effort gain the ironic status of a swan song, especially if that effort was less than spectacular.

Nonetheless, the metaphor has infiltrated the world of literature. While poets such as Shakespeare and Coleridge sang the swan’s dying song, it was hyperbole, and they knew it. Natural scientists have known for a very long time that swans are indeed not mute, just not big talkers. Each species has a vocal range that people tend to ignore, liking as they do the myth that the creatures are silent for a lifetime by choice. Of course, anyone who has ever crossed paths with a swan knows that, for all its grace and elegance, it has no problem with chasing an intruder in a very threatening manner, coiling its neck, and hissing loudly through its beaky nose.

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