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One of the Guardian Unlimited Books' top 10 literary blogs: "A home-grown treasure ... smart, serious analysis"

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Wednesday 26 April 2006

On "No Swan So Fine"

My Poem of the Week this week is the often anthologized No Swan So Fine, first published in 1932, by Marianne Moore (1887-1972). The poem suggests that a china swan, symbolising art, has outlasted and outlived Louis XV of France ("The king is dead.") Now, I was going to attempt a quick reading of the poem (as I did last week with John Burnside's Septuagesima), but I don't think I'll get a chance. Anyway, this below, by Pamela White Hadas, does a very tidy job:


No Swan So Fine asserts that there is no live swan, "no swan, / with swart blind look askance / and gondoliering legs, so fine" as the china one among its finely sculptured and polished flowers in the Louis XV candelabrum. The last half-line of the poem reads, simply and abruptly, "The king is dead." A way of life that went along with the king's life is also dead. The swan is alive only insofar as art is, but dead in its extravagant finality of form. Insofar as kings represent unprogressive ceremony and permanent superfluity, the swan and the king share a fate. The poem is a compression of an important ambivalence toward animals petrified as art. This swan appeals to Marianne Moore with its delicacy, elegance, and perfection; it appeals more than a live swan with "gondoliering legs." Yet, attractive as it is to her, she must admit that it is dead; it represents, more than a way of life, a royal fatality. The attraction is vital and fatal.

Posted by Mark Thwaite
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Serendipoetry

Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’... that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west...
What greater glory could a man desire?

-- Siegfried Sassoon
Collected Poems (Faber and Faber)

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